How do you pick an expert? The flawed argument against Lords reform

You need an expert. What do you do? There are plenty of different ways of going about finding one, I’m sure.

But I bet you don’t dig out the books from 20 years ago, look who was an expert back then, place the names in the hat and then pick out a name or two at random.

That, however, is how the House of Lords works – and that’s why I am unconvinced by those who argue that democracy has no place in one half of Parliament because ‘we need experts’.

Certainly there are some experts in the Lords. Just as there are some in the Commons. But the argument that elections for the Lords would be bad because ‘we need experts’, aside from having to glide over people such as Rory Stewart in the Commons, founders on the basic question, “if we need experts, why is the Lords set-up the right way to go about it?”

It’s an approach to finding experts that is riddled with flaws. You may be an expert at the time of appointment, but that is no guarantee you will still be one as your field moves on over the next 10, 20, 30 or more years. If you want to pick an expert, you judge people by their current knowledge – and have you noticed any peer who is against elections suggesting instead regular expertise exams to check peers are still up to the mark? I don’t think so.

Nor is taking an expert and giving them a post for life any way of ensuring you have the right balance of experts. Take the internet: a major factor in our society, economy and public sector and one that frequently comes up in government business. Yet the Lords has barely any experts in this field. As a collection of experts it’s a notably bad one.

There are plenty of ways to get experts involved – ways that let you pick experts whose knowledge is current and whose field of expertise is relevant to current needs. Giving someone a seat for life in Parliament isn’t needed.

So that’s one of the reasons why I think it is so important for the Liberal Democrats to push on with introducing elections for the House of Lords. It shouldn’t be the party’s only big issue, but nor should it be dropped – especially given the absurdity of a political system that rewards Parliamentarians voted out of office with a permanent seat in Parliament instead

Amongst the opponents, including yes some Liberal Democrat peers (and hence the grassroots Liberal Democrats for Lords Reform group), there is a canny understanding of the power of divide and conquer, trying to persuade some reformers to back off because what is proposed isn’t quite 100% their own preferred package.

But look at the lesson of those who took such a view in the 1960s and opposed Lords reform proposals then; the next 50 years showed how wrong that decision was. With all three parties nominally in favour of Lords reform and a package being put before Parliament this proposed package of reforms is our best chance in a century finally to spread democracy to the other half of Parliament.


An earlier version of this piece first appeared on the Social Liberal Forum blog.

2 responses to “How do you pick an expert? The flawed argument against Lords reform”

  1. Yes the status quo is poor. Can we not have experts appointed for ten year terms (or shorter if you wish) so that we can constantly update the talent? Maybe I'm not wedded to democratic elections for the house of lords because experts are very rarely Conservative and vice versa, and democracy will always throw a lot of Tories into the chamber.

  2. As with nearly every 'argument' in favour of reform, this article starts with a reasonable point about the poor nature of the current system of selecting Lords and then makes an entirely unsupported leap to calling for elections.

    Elections are about as good a mechanism as could be devised of handicapping independent experts and favouring the ignorant Party rubber-stampers who currently give the Lords a bad name. What independent can hope to outdo the Parties' existing networks of support and funding? And what Party would choose to support an independent-minded expert when for the same price they could get a trained seal in the same seat?

    One of the major problems with the current system is that the appointments are controlled by the Prime Minister of the day, and are therefore handed out to the Party faithful in an attempt to tip the balance in favour of the Government. An exceedingly simple method of improvement would therefore be to complete the stalled reforms of the beginning of this century, by making the appointments committee truly independent.

    If it is the persistence of Lords once appointed that causes concern, why not simply impose term limits and allow Lords to be re-appointed only if they are still considered a valid expert? This would allow turn-over of the outdated and the discreditable, without going to the extreme of chucking out perfectly good expertise that the current proposals would enforce.

    As the article says, there are plenty of ways to get experts involved. Why should we jump straight for the one which gives us only experts in public presentation and demagoguery?

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