Lords reform: prepare for an expert exodus

Peers think they’re too old for election, RF survey reveals
By Laura Hood
Research Fortnight
02-05-2012

“I’m a political animal with a small ‘p’, not a large ‘P’.” These words from an eminent scientist capture the essence of a Research Fortnight survey of peers who have research and academic expertise. We asked 37 such members of the House of Lords if they would stand in an election in order to keep their place in the chamber. Just six said they would.

We spoke to peers with a background in academia, including the sciences, engineering, arts and humanities. We also spoke with those who have been particularly active in science policy issues. Of the six who said they would stand for election, three were crossbenchers, and three came from political parties. Of those we surveyed, 17 were crossbench peers and 20 belonged to a political party.

Age was the primary reason given by the 31 who said they would not stand for election to the Lords, but many added that they do not have the interest, time or finances to get involved in political campaigning.

Their responses confirm concern that partly or wholly electing the Lords would mean that fewer people with expert knowledge would contribute to policy debates. Those surveyed point out that not only their knowledge but also their different approach to debate has informed discussions on some important bills of recent times, including the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill and, more recently, the Health and Social Care bill, which was subject to more than 1,000 amendments during its passage through the Lords. According to Ilora Finlay, a crossbench peer and professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University, this bill went straight through the Commons but the Lords found “black holes” when they got their hands on it.

The UK government has published a draft House of Lords Reform bill, in which it claims that the second chamber lacks “democratic authority”. Despite having appointed a wave of peers itself this year, the government proposes reducing the number of places in the house from around 800 to 300, of which 240 would be elected and 60 appointed. There would also be 12 bishops sitting as ex-officio members. But the bill also reveals that the government’s longer-term ambition is to move towards a fully elected house.

In its response to the bill, published last week, a joint committee of members of parliament from both houses concluded that a house of 300 members would be too small to operate properly as a revising chamber. The committee therefore calls for 450 places but accepts that this should be divided into 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed.

Under both models, the House of Lords would have between 60 and 90 appointed seats. This would leave experts from science competing for places with those from other areas of public life. At the moment, there are 186 crossbench peers, who sit in the Lords mainly because of their expertise. However, as our survey shows, the parties have also appointed many experts over the years and several very high profile scientists are politically affiliated.

Despite near unanimity about their own fates, the peers questioned in our survey were divided on how a reformed house should look or even if there should be any reform at all. Of the 37 surveyed, 15 said the House of Lords should remain unelected, another 15 said it should be partly elected and just five backed 100 per cent election. Another two were not clear on their stance.

Many of those surveyed not only said they would prefer an appointed or partly elected house but went on to warn that a fully elected chamber would reduce the availability of expertise in policy discussions. “I think it’s unfair to expect the general public to select who is a good scientist or a good diplomat,” says one of the house’s practicing scientists. “If one argues that the role of the House of Lords is to provide the checks and balances and the hinterland of information and experience that perhaps the politicians haven’t been able to have because they are politicians, then asking people to elect them on those criteria would be very hard, I think. I can’t imagine many brain surgeons knocking on doors electioneering.”

Others were concerned that an elected Lords would be full of people following a party line, and those who failed to get into the House of Commons. “They will be members of political parties,” says one Conservative peer. “They will probably be the second or third 11 because the first 11 will get into the Commons and the second 11 may go to the devolved assemblies or Europe, so that leaves, quite frankly, people to come here as a result of disappointment in achieving what they originally set out to achieve. Not a good way to recruit.”

“The problem in general with politics at the moment is that increasingly, people going into elected politics in democracies have done fewer, if any, jobs in the outside world. The advantage of a house like the House of Lords is that it is full of people who have expertise in a wide range of areas,” says Robert Winston, a Labour peer and embryologist.

Opponents of the status quo argue that the Lords is a house of “ex-experts”; eminent people once at the forefront of their fields, but no longer up to date with developments. In its written evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform bill, campaign group Unlock Democracy claimed that just 46 per cent of crossbenchers, representing 11 per cent of the house, can truly be considered experts in their fields, as many have been inactive for long periods.

Liberal Democrat peer Phil Willis, himself not a scientist by background but a politician who has made his name as an enthusiast for science and the policy behind it, supports this view in part. “I think sometimes we overegg the expertise that’s in the House of Lords,” he says. “A lot of expertise tends to be somewhat distant. And what we actually need is practicing scientists, practicing technologists, practicing engineers who are there to offer their expertise rather than people who 20 years ago did something.”

Elaine Murphy, a crossbench peer and psychiatry specialist, puts it more strongly: “If I’m absolutely honest, I don’t think it’s important.” She adds: “It’s clear to me that if there were no professional researchers, or scientists or medics in the house, that expertise would have to be provided from outside the chamber in committees that scrutinise bills. I think that’s often a more effective way of doing it because then you get really superb up-to-date experts, red-hot in their fields, bringing their current expertise to bear on bills.”

She is backed up in part, surprisingly, by ecologist and crossbencher Robert May, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government. May agrees that it is important to have experts in the Lords, but believes that a background in science is not necessarily important. What is vital, says May, is to provide places to genuine experts: “people who are not reliant on the advice of civil servants or political advisers”.

On the other hand, other peers that we surveyed believe that scientists bring not just subject-specific knowledge to policy discussions, but experience of taking an analytical approach and an understanding of the importance of evidence. Research, says the Labour peer and political theorist Bhiku Parekh, “cultivates a certain kind of mind, a certain way of thinking and that’s a very important contribution to public debate.”

Those opposed to election argue that the House of Lords, despite its reputation, is infinitely more diverse in its membership than the House of Commons. What’s more, they cite the lack of diversity in the professional experience of MPs, who are increasingly seen as ‘career politicians’.

“When I was in the Commons for 18 years I found a lack of medical and scientific knowledge quite distressing at times,” says Lewis Moonie, Labour peer and former pharmacology researcher. “Legislators should not be prone to having the wool pulled over their eyes by pseudo science and the only good way of doing that is to have a very good store of advice available.” However, Moonie also admits that there is not a “huge store” of science expertise in the Lords.

Speaking at a meeting organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering last week, Willis said: “We are obsessed with form and totally ignoring function.” If the house were to be elected, its role as a revising chamber would perhaps have to be changed. This question in particular remains unanswered by the government and looks almost certain to prove a significant sticking point in the reform debate that is to follow over the coming months.

Additional reporting by James Brooks, John Fogarty, Miriam Frankel, Elizabeth Gibney and Ehsan Masood.

Correction: In the original version of this article Lewis Moonie’s quotes were incorrectly attributed to Ajay Kakkar. We apologise for this mistake.

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