Expertise in the House of Lords

House of Lords reform is now in the news, with the recent introduction of a Bill followed by a vote in favour of a second reading but the withdrawal of the timetable motion which would smooth the passage of the bill through parliament*. In this post I’d like to address a recent report published by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) on the impact of the proposed reforms on expertise in the House of Lords. CaSE is an advocacy organisation which is run with the support of a wide range of universities, learned societies, charities and technology companies.

The CaSE report on the House of Lords is well worth a read, it has a nice summary of what is meant by expertise, the proposed reforms, international comparisons, opinion from a survey of a small group of Lords and some specific examples of the influence of the Lords in the area of science and technology: specifically the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (2008), Health and Social Care Bill 2011 (adding research as a core goal), and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report on Nuclear Research and Development capabilities (2011).

The report ends with some proposals which, are as follows:

  • a 30% appointed House of Lords, rather than 20%;
  • a fully independent Appointments Commission;
  • more employees with STEM degrees in the civil service supporting the House of Lords;
  • increased not decreased resources for the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee;
  • compulsory training in STEM for MPs and Lords.

As an aside, it is possible that professional politicians are indifferent to the statement in the report that the Lords have provided the present government with fifty defeats in 2 years, in support of the idea that they are an important revising chamber, but to me it seems like a poor way to win friends and influence people in government.

Returning to the measures proposed: two of these measures I support, one requires some clarification and two I don’t support. I support a fully independent Appointments Commission, this is the logic of a largely elected upper house with an Appointments Commission whose role is to populate the non-elected element. I believe the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee requires at least flat resources.

I provide my objections to increasing the proposed level of appointments from 20% to 30% in following bullet form:

  • The House of Lords is a largely political house which carries out a political function: it provides a check on legislation originally drafted in the House of Commons. In my view this means that it should be elected to give democratic legitimacy to the role it plays. The current proposal for Lords reform contain an allowance for 20% of the upper chamber to be appointed, including Bishops from the Church of England, I see this as a necessary concession in order to gain wider acceptance which goes against democratic principles. The figure of 20% broadly matches the number of crossbench Peers in the current house, expanding this concession is  undesirable;
  • my second objection is against special pleading: this proposal is asking for special treatment for a particular group in society (scientists and engineers), if it applies to them why not to other groups? Should other religious groups have guaranteed representation? What about the lucrative football industry?
  • the contents of the report do not provide supporting evidence for the level of appointments they propose; indeed James Wilsdon’s section on expertise highlights how expertise is available to the Lords via the civil service and the committee system and quotes Lord Rees in saying that “we are all depressingly ‘lay’ outside our expertise”;
  • Once you’ve gone to the trouble of appointing scientists to the House of Lords are they actually going to turn up to vote? Lord Rees, Lord Krebs and Baroness Finlay are explicitly mentioned by the report, they have attendances to vote of, respectively 12% since 2005, 9% since 2007 and 39% since 2001.

If we, as scientists and engineers, want more representation in the reformed, elected House of Lords we should be standing for election, not pleading for special treatment.

The proposal for more scientists and engineers in the civil service requires some more investigation: are scientists and engineers applying to the civil service? If not I can imagine why: long ago as a shiny, new graduate I considered applying to the civil service but my strong impression was that the types of jobs available would not match my skills. Except in specialist areas there are no labs in the civil service, and the alternative on offer seemed to involve rather more essay-style writing for which I, trained as a scientist, was woefully under-prepared.

Compulsory courses in STEM for new Lords and MPs are superficially attractive, a voluntary course was offered following the 2010 General Election, with an uptake of 12; given this low take up it seems to me that such a course is not falling on fertile ground, I know my approach to such compulsion in work-related courses: rather surly looks and a considerable antipathy to what the company has forced me to learn.

The Tories have long opposed bringing an elected element to the House of Lords despite the Coalition Agreement we can expect them to provide luke-warm support for the proposed reforms. Labour have long had the reform of the House of Lords as a policy, they made significant changes in 1999 principally to remove the hereditary (frequently Tory) Peers but, once they had addressed the disadvantage they felt, they appear to have lost interest in further reform. We can expect Labour to make every appearance of supporting reform of the Lords whilst doing everything in their power procedurally in the Commons to block the proposed changes and indeed use those procedures to disrupt other government legislation. Except for a few recidivist Liberal Democrat peers we should expect to see uniform support for the House of Lords reform from Liberal Democrats in parliament.

The way this Bill will die is by none of the supporters of Lords Reform accepting anything but their own Lords Reform proposal.


CaSE House of Lords and Expertise report, June 2012

*Since I wrote this the reforms have been dropped: (link)