Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Martin Wright


The Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Wakeham, proposed that the upper house should be distinctively different from the House of Commons. It should have a wider range of expertise and personal distinction outside politics with particular skills and knowledge. It should include political experience but not just that of professional politicians; it should foster the exercise of independent judgement, not sterile partisan confrontation. It should also, the Royal Commission proposed, be broadly representative of British society, on the basis of the nations and regions, gender, ethnic, cultural, religious and other aspects.

As to its function, there should be no significant changes: it should be one of the main checks and balances in government, identifying points of concern and requiring the government to reconsider or justify its policy intentions.

The present House of Lords includes a large party-political element; it does also include a range of skills and knowledge, but this is incomplete and achieved largely by chance. How can it achieve this comprehensively, and by design? The Wakeham Commission recommended an independent Appointments Commission, to appoint members “broadly representative of British society on a range of stated dimensions”, with at least 20% not affiliated to a major political party; this would be supplemented by regional members elected by proportional representation.

In Parliamentary debates Jack Straw, who as Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice was responsible for constitutional affairs, has said that his preference would be for a house 50% elected, 50% appointed, or failing that 80/20. This was evidently because, while accepting the need for democratic legitimacy, he recognised that a balance of expertise cannot be guaranteed by elections based on party affiliations and geographical boundaries. Gaps would be filled through appointments. The House of Lords has carried this to its logical conclusion by opting for a wholly appointed House. A majority of the House of Commons has however voted in favour of a 100% elected house; this would mean elections primarily on a party-political basis, and the representation of expertise and of particular aspects of society such as gender, ethnicity and disability would be left to chance. The problem of legitimacy has also been raised: If both houses were elected on a similar basis, there could be disputes about which would have the stronger claim to represent the will of the people.

One proposal put to the Wakeham Commission was to avoid this dilemma by replacing geographical constituencies with representation of vocational or expertise groups, which we will refer to as “constituencies of expertise” (CoEs). Wakeham was sympathetic to the aims behind such proposals, but saw objections to the suggested ways of achieving them. We believe that a system can be designed that overcomes these difficulties.

Proposals included the ex officio appointment of specified post holders in a range of organizations such as learned societies; but Wakeham saw that it would be hard to find agreement about the choice of organizations, and such posts are often only held for one year. Alternatively there might be electoral colleges; but enforcing rigorous election procedures on independent organizations was felt to be difficult and intrusive. Both these methods would disenfranchise those who did not belong to any of the chosen organizations.

The problem lies in the fact that the appointment or election of senators (to use a convenient term) would be delegated to unelected groups. The pivotal point is not the election of senators, but the selection process. In present-day constituencies, selection of candidates is by constituency committees, plus self-selection of candidates who can find enough sponsors and a deposit. Voters then elect an MP, usually from the candidates presented to them by the parties. We therefore propose replacing geographical constituencies with a comparable system of constituencies of expertise in which persons with knowledge of the field would nominate candidates, who would then be voted for as in a geographical election. There would also be scope for independent candidates, but we suggest that the filter to discourage frivolous candidates should not be a cash deposit (which manifestly does not work, and is a burden for small, serious parties) but a required number of sponsors.

It should be remembered that the senate will (as now) be primarily a revising chamber. Its members will therefore not represent actors, brewers, consumers, dentists and so on, but will ensure that legislation from the other House facilitates or regulates their activities as effectively as possible in the public interest. If necessary it should, as Wakeham put it, have the power to make the Commons think again; this would be necessary, for example, if legislation from the Commons proved on examination to be impractical or unethical.

Constituencies of Expertise

The constituencies would be determined by an organization comparable to the Boundaries Commission. Their boundaries would be drawn in such a way that everyone, from artists to zoologists, could relate to at least one constituency. The total number of constituencies would be a matter of judgement, and could be adjusted in the light of experience; it would also depend on the number of seats in the upper house (or senate). Some figures will be suggested here, but only as a basis for discussion. Suppose it is decided to have 400 members in the senate. For each voter to have to choose in which of 400 constituencies to vote would be somewhat bewildering; it is therefore suggested that they should be grouped into about 40 multi-member constituencies, each with about 10 members. They would cover not only the traditional activities of government: trade and industry, foreign policy, housing and so on, but expertise not usually reflected in government departments such as mathematics, physics, and (as Wakeham suggests) philosophical, moral and spiritual perspectives.

Voters could choose in which constituency to exercise their vote (just as they can choose which football team to support, not necessarily on geographical grounds).

Wakeham’s requirements for political, and regional and national, representation, could be met in two ways. One is that each of these would be a CoE, alongside the others. The other is that beside the CoEs; there could be geographical constituencies, probably based on those for the European Parliament. These would provide for an element of political, and party-political, representation in the senate, but it would not predominate.

If it is accepted that this would be desirable in principle, how would it work in practice?

Selection of Candidates

Each CoE would have a commission (comparable to the Nominating Bodies in Ireland) formed of individuals of “personal distinction” (another phrase from Wakeham) for the selection of candidates, which would be responsible for proposing suitable names from all sub-fields within the constituency: thus in the engineering constituency there could be candidates from structural engineering, mechanical engineering, and so on.

How would these commissions be formed? It is suggested that this country’s wealth of voluntary and non-governmental organizations would provide an ideal basis. Each convener would advertise, inviting any properly constituted body which had been in existence for (say) five years to send a delegate to a meeting at which the commission, representing all the sub-fields in that CoE, would be elected. Small organizations with related interests could join forces for this purpose, for example relatives of patients with rare diseases.

The outcome would be, for each CoE, a booklet listing the sub-fields and their candidates, each with a statement of (say) 150 words outlining their expertise, positions held, and outside interests. Any independent candidates would also be included. The number of candidates could obviously exceed the number of seats allocated to each CoE; the choice would be made by the voters.

Voting Procedure

In the run-up to an election, voters could obtain copies of the candidates’ lists in the CoEs of most interest to them, or consult them in public libraries and post offices. In the preferred sub-field of their CoE, they would choose between the candidates on the basis of their expertise and qualifications, and possibly their outside interests, recreations and so on. At the polling booth they would ask for the voting slip for their chosen CoE, and put a cross against their preferred candidate; their name would also be marked on the electoral register in the usual way to prevent multiple voting.


What objections could be raised to this? Wakeham was concerned that disadvantaged people who do not belong to a recognised vocational or occupational group would be disenfranchised. This scheme is not based on occupations, however: anyone might be interested in the arts, or sport, or other fields, or they could choose to vote in their geographical CoE.

Another concern was that although a candidate in one field might be very well qualified to speak about that, he or she would have no more expertise on other matters than the next person. One answer is that this applies just as much to Members of Parliament, and is not considered to disqualify them; a related point is that an expert in one field generally has experience of related ones, and in any case has outside interests: a physicist may be interested in health, sport, music or anything else.

It is likely that many more people would choose to vote in some CoEs than in others; those concerned with health, for example, might attract more voters than those concerned with social disadvantage. Some well-heeled CoEs might be able to secure more publicity, although expenditure could be regulated. This would not, however, be serious, because as mentioned above the senators will not be there to represent voters. Similarly, the fact that the system would require some effort on the part of voters, and might therefore result in a low turn-out, would not be a problem for the same reason: the object is to elect those with the greatest expertise, and this would be assisted if voters were predominantly people with some knowledge of the field.

There might also be concern that legislation from the House of Commons on a specialist subject, such as nutrition or horse-racing, might be held up by a small number of senators with expert knowledge. In some ways, however, this would be an improvement on the present position, in which party whips pressure members to vote on party lines with no knowledge of the subject at all. The basis for legislation will in any case often not be technical but economic or ethical, so that other kinds of expertise would be relevant. It might be appropriate to set a quorum, without which the senate could not delay legislation; those who had concerns about a Bill or Statutory Instrument would then have to persuade colleagues to inform themselves about the subject and take part in the debate and the vote. Often it will be desirable to involve experts from different fields, for example language education and exports, health and sport, crime and social welfare, foreign policy and ethics.

Drawing the Boundaries

It is not necessary at this stage to lay down the exact CoEs, but an outline is suggested below, as a basis for discussion. To emphasise the fact that the senate will examine legislation on its merits, and not according to political preconceptions, the fields would be listed on a subject basis rather than start from traditional government departments. Thus they might for example include the following; there are obviously many gaps which can be filled in due course. Many topics such as Research, Ethics, Budgeting, could be placed under more than one heading. This is inevitable; the important thing is that all subjects should have a heading under which they can be included.

Constituencies of Expertise: Preliminary Draft

THE NATION, constitution, national heritage

Continents and countries, Europe, Commonwealth, rest of world
Defence, peacekeeping, trade and aid

SOCIETY, government (local, national), administration
Voluntary action
Social structure, families
Equality of opportunity: ethnicity, gender, disability



LAW: human rights; civil law, dispute resolution; criminal law, law enforcement

SOCIAL WELFARE, SOCIAL PROBLEMS: social security, pensions, consumer protection
Animal welfare


THE ECONOMY: economics and investment, budgeting and taxation

Employers, management, co-operatives
Trade unions, working conditions

Physical and mental health, treatment, National Health Service
Health improvement, prevention of illness

THE SCIENCES: Astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, etc.





28 March 2013

Prepared 16th October 2013