With promises from all three of the major political parties, and the subsequent Coalition Government, House of Lords reform is firmly on the agenda. This is an important and rare opportunity so it’s been disappointing to see the debate quickly descend into a political bun fight.
In our new report published today we ask if we risk ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ in moving to a partially or wholly elected House of Lords. The Draft Bill on House of Lords reform proposes that the House should be reduced in size to 300 (it currently stands at over 800), have 80 per cent of its members elected and the remaining 20 per cent independently appointed. The Joint Committee on House of Lords reform then considered the bill and one of its suggestions, a referendum, has become a focal point of the debate.
It seems as though we’ve missed a step – don’t we need to think about the function of the House of Lords first and then work out how we constitute it? If we agree that an important role of the House of Lords is to scrutinise and challenge government then we need to make sure that its members are able to do so – you only have to look at the contributions of peers like Martin Rees, Onora O’Neill and John Krebs to see why.
Although many of these ‘expert’ peers wouldn’t stand for election we don’t simply want to argue for the status quo. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that ‘a veneer of expertise can surely no longer serve as an alive for a chamber which legislates on behalf of the people – but is not held to account by the people’ – but to pitch expertise against democratic legitimacy is misleading.
We should be ensuring that expertise can be easily accessed and deployed regardless of whether the chamber is reformed or not. Those who argue for a fully elected House of Lords suggest that expertise could come from an enhanced committee system – and they might be right – but at present the Science and Technology Committee faces a reduction in its resources.
In our report we outline a number of recommendations on how the House of Lords could make better use of the UK’s science and engineering expertise. These include increasing the appointed proportion of the House of Lords which to 30 per cent and replacing the Appointments Commission’s members nominated by political parties with non-party political members.
We’d like to see more staff with backgrounds in science and engineering working in the House of Lords and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology provide an induction programme for new members of both Houses.
What do you think? Please do use the comments to start the discussion.