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.