Geek questions for the Queen’s Speech 2: House of Lords reform

I wrote yesterday about the hope that a Libel Reform Bill will be presented in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. There’s also another issue that’s likely to come up that’ll be of interest to geeks, and that’s reform of the House of Lords.

If the Government does bring forward proposals to create a mostly-elected second chamber, that would likely have significant effects for the parliamentary representation of science.

The current composition of the House of Lords includes many eminent scientists, including Lord Krebs, Lord May of Oxford, Lord Rees of Ludlow and Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, who have contributed significantly to parliamentary scrutiny of legislation about scientific areas. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 2008 was a prime example: almost all the key amendments, and the most lucid debate, took place in the Lords.

A mostly-elected second chamber would largely eliminate this expertise. As a survey by Research Fortnight found last week, very few current crossbench peers would stand for election.

As James Wilsdon and Beck Smith argued in an accompanying commentary, we need to think about the function as well as the form of the upper house as it is reformed. And if, as I think it is, scientific scrutiny is important, that ought to be taken into account. I await with interest a forthcoming report on this issue from the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

If, as seems probable, the Government presses ahead with electing around 80 per cent of peers, it’s important that those remaining appointed peers retain plenty of scientific expertise. And one way that might be achieved would be to create a kind of “rolling” membership of the second chamber.

Certain scientific institutions — the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, for example — could each be given, say, three seats in the Lords. These could be filled by three different people with appropriate expertise to contribute to scrutiny of particular Bills.

It isn’t an ideal solution by any means, but it might do a little to preserve the scientific expertise that is currently one of the House of Lords’s greatest strengths.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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9 Responses to Geek questions for the Queen’s Speech 2: House of Lords reform

  1. ds says:

    The current propositions for the House of Lords worry me a great deal. The main reason is that I’m concerned they will mostly serve as a mere analogue for the Commons. Only those either independently wealthy or tied to a political party would stand for election, which means we would have a “senatorial” chamber full of party place people and failed MPs moving upstairs. Given current concerns about parliamentary democracy in this country I fail to see how creating a copy of that chamber with the same underlying system will solve anything.

    The second, geekier, reason is related to it: I did a little bit of rough research recently. There are sixty people who are allowed to sit either in the Cabinet, or its shadow. Of these, 29 went to Oxbridge, and 15 of those did exactly the same degree: PPE at Oxford. Of the sixty, NOT ONE has a degree in a STEM subject. Vince Cable apparently started a Nat Sciences degree at Cambridge, but switched to economics. Nick Clegg has a Cantab degree in Archaeology and Anthropology (which I think of as a social science). Teresa May has a degree in Geography (though whether this is predominantly Human or Physical is unclear). The stewardship of our science and technology research is being handled by Cable and David Willetts (another PPE degree). My great concern is that we get a second chamber that largely echoes the demography of the lower: professional political hacks, lawyers and historians, with little from outside – including those without graduate level qualification

    I don’t necessarily want the government to be awash with scientists: I want some balance. What we have now is a dangerous intellectual monoculture, and a single way of engaging with critical thinking that almost completely excludes science. It’s also bad for us. How does a government so bereft of science knowledge or process evaluate key issues about science, technology and wider society that come across their desk. Just one example of this is Cameron’s promise to “consider” internet filtering proposals, when most of the technical advice is that it will be an costly, inefficient and largely ineffective mess. Who is applying criticality to proposals like that? It seems odd to leave it totally in the hands of the Civil Service, doesn’t it?

  2. ds says:

    Actually, something I forgot. I don’t want the Lords to be elected. I want a fully appointed House of Lords, but for the appointments to be removed from the political arena. I would much prefer that appointments were handled by a constituted independent committee, say made up of members of the Privy Council who would accept nominations, on much the same basis that one can nominate people for honours. This would allow the learned institutions and the church, for example to be able to submit nominations in a equal and transparent manner (because nominations and appointments would of course be public).

  3. Fingermoving says:

    To mitigate the effects of the Law of Unintended Consequences which afflicts almost all legislation the House of Lords needs expertise over a wide range of topics to be an effective revising chamber. This is surely its main function.
    The only way to get this expertise in a way that is democratic is to use “indirect election”. A substantial number of stakeholder groups would be allowed to elect from their own constituencies one or more members of the House of Lords with a defined tenure. Such groups would include the various professions, the trade union movement, the Universities and the School sector, the learned Acadmies, the CBI, the charitable sector, reputable NGOs and many more.
    Indirect election was considered by the Wakeham Commission who rejected it because they thought it would be too difficult to identify the electing groups. They preferred – as does DS above – the totally undemocratic mechanism of having an appointments committee nominated (effectively) by the Government. It is likely that their real reason for preferring this solution is that it would ensure that all those appointed would be “safe pairs of hands” who would not embarrass the Government. This is probably the last thing any effective expert body needs.
    The, probably unavoidable, self-cloning tendency of appointment committees is another powerful reason for preferring an electoral process.

  4. ds says:

    I’m not sure. I can understand their reticence to embrace indirect election, though I can see some attractions in it. Who would decide which groups would be selected or could noiminate? How many candidates would they be allocated? The crush would be almost unmanageable I think, That’s why, even though I like the idea of an appointments committee, public nomination and public, transparent publication for selection process and results would be absolutely essential. I’m not emotionally bound to anything, really. Anything gust be better than some of the messes that are likely to actually happen.

    • Fingermoving says:

      Deciding on the bodies who can elect is no harder than nominating peers and has to be done probably just once (with the possibility of amendments later). Bodies that meet certain criteria could be asked to apply and the applications scrutinized by a suitable wide-ranging appointing body. I. do not think it would be particularly difficult. Any way who claimed that democracy should be easy and come without effort

      • ds says:

        Fair enough, but there’s still that small problem of the “wide-ranging appointing body” your mention, which doesn’t get us much further than my take. We may differ but your point is perfectly reasonable and has lots to commend it. I think what we do agree on is that the possible proposals being bandied around are going to be be a bit of a disaster really, giving us little more than another chamber of party hacks and dullards who will dutifully do as their whips tell them and act like so much lobby meat.

        Not exactly edifying.

      • Fingermoving says:

        i would not dissent from that.

  5. RM says:

    If you believe democracy works (and based on current politicians the jury is not only out, but too apathetic to return), then surely the answer is to let the electorate decide which bodies get to put forward peers. If you had to register your vote against one body, which would get one peer per 150,000 voters, at least we would get some form of government that actually represented the UK, with maybe three teachers, a couple of nurses a construction worker one banker and no politicians, it could actually increase interest in politics. Mind you no politician would ever vote for such a make up since being truly representative, there would be no way it would give way when it disagreed with the House of Commons. Thus the only solution is actually to create a political party that isn’t left or right or green or oil, but just committed to empirical realism – only espousing policies that are backed by hard evidence of achieving their intended result.
    A bit of a tall order to achieve in under 3 years, I admit, but the membership criterion is simple:- No admission to anyone working for a political party or ever voted into national, regional or local government.

  6. Tim Bates says:

    Politicians no doubt hate having to go to the people every four years to renew their lease on power. So surprisingly, they propose a 15 year term and election from a proportional list…

    Any existing MPs or party member who thinks they can convince their colleagues to rank them in the top 100 of their party no doubt feels this it is a good idea to give them a guaranteed seat for the next 15 years… But what is good for our nation?

    What we want is a system that gives us optimal rule. Change, therefore needs to be shown to give us better decisions: More opportunity to grow and achieve our goals.

    If we don’t want what the Lords was designed for (a privileged role for wealthy families) – then the whole purpose of the second chamber should be re-evaluated.

    Personally, I might have some opinions (below), but the the people we should be hearing from are not politicians, but experts in political science, history, and psychology (ancient Greek innovations to minimise tribal voting; The origins of the US bicameral system; Australian experiences with an elected Senate, New Zealand experience with no Lords…).

    The goal should be better rule, not simply change, or a fake opposition to privilege.

    Personally, I would suggest disallowing membership of the Lords to people who have held the office of MP (too easy to translate party influence in to a permanent personal influence).

    The idea mentioned above of having electors lend their support to bodies, which then provide Lords sounds plausible to me, but might also encourage “special interest” Lords: a series of single-issue quango-lobbyists, instead of wise minds.

    As to who *could* sit: I’d probably like to hear Jonathan Ive’s opinion, or the scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep more than most people’s. So perhaps making this part of the package for a knighthood would be a good idea.

    But we need to know what the commons fails to provide.

    If what we want is compromise, then require more than a simple majority for bills.

    If we want government itself kept closer to the influence of voters, then have a single body with 5 year terms, but staggered elections every 2 1/2 years, so more MPs are close to election-time.

    If we want a body that exercises oversight, then why not put bills on the web and allow any citizen to make a wikipedia style edit and call for supporters: You get 500,000 votes, the bill goes back for debate on the new changes. No Lords, just 20,000,000 electors all able to collaborate and attempt to mobilise support for their view.

    PS: watching the Space-X Dragon look down on our still-blue ball puts this into perspective: There’s so much for us to reach for!

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