Draft House of Lords Reform Bill - Draft House of Lords Reform Bill Joint Committee Contents

Dr Martin Wright

The function of the upper house

1.  Before considering the composition of the upper house, we need to be clear about its function. This paper assumes that the primary function is to be a reviewing chamber: the House of Commons expresses the will of the people, and the upper house goes over its legislation to make sure that it is workable, compatible with human rights, and so on. It may also have other functions such as initiating legislation, pre-legislative scrutiny, asking parliamentary questions and educating the public through well informed debate.

2.  A reviewing chamber needs to be, as the Royal Commission under Lord Wakeham said in 2000, distinctively different from the House of Commons, and able to bring a wider range of expertise and experience to bear on the consideration of public policy questions. It should not be a politician-free zone, but also not a creature of the political parties or a home for yet another group of professional politicians.

Problems with geographical constituencies

3.  Wakeham proposed that its members should be appointed by a commission, but that is widely considered to lack democratic legitimacy and to be exposed to the risk of political patronage. The current debate therefore assumes that the upper house should be wholly or mainly elected. However, this could have serious disadvantages.

(a)  If elected on a similar basis to the House of Commons, it would be likely to duplicate it, and thus not serve its purpose of providing checks and balances.

(b)  If elected on a different basis, such as proportional representation, there could be conflict over which House had more democratic legitimacy when they disagreed.

(c)   In any case, if based in geographical constituencies, the candidates would be chosen in much the same way as for the House of Commons, by local or national political parties or by a party list system, which puts the selection in the hands of politicians and allows voters little choice. There would be no guarantee, or even likelihood, that these candidates would bring any wider expertise, beyond the skill, shared with MPs, in persuading people to vote for them.

4.  This is by implication admitted by those who advocate a hybrid system, with 20 or even 50 per cent appointed, to make up the expertise deficit among elected members. That seems to be the worst of both worlds: the expert members would not be elected, and there would be too few of them to reflect the breadth of knowledge and experience required; the elected ones would not have the breadth of expertise that the House needs.

5.  For all these reasons, a system producing an upper house largely on party political lines would be a serious mistake.

A way forward: elected and expert

(a)   Electoral colleges

6.  There is considerable interest, as Wakeham found (paragraphs 11.17-11.25), in finding a way for various specified vocational or other interest groups to be represented in the chamber. One proposal is for the Chartered Institutes and leading voluntary organizations to put forward persons of distinction from their profession or specialist field. Wakeham saw practical obstacles to this. It could be difficult to reach agreement on which sectors of society should be represented. It might not be appropriate to appoint particular office holders, who are often elected on an annual basis, and such posts may be in the gift of a small and unrepresentative group within the organization. If the organizations in question were required to observe specific standards of democracy in the appointment of their office holders, this could be seen as unacceptable intrusion into the internal affairs of those organizations. Perhaps the most significant objection is that those who do not belong to a recognised professional or vocational group would be disenfranchised.

(b)  Constituencies of expertise.

7.  It is proposed that these difficulties could be overcome if the interest groups did not select the members of the upper house directly, but would propose candidates from among whom the members would then be elected by the general electorate. The interest groups would thus work in a similar way to constituency committees which choose candidates for Commons seats (and would be no less democratic, since constituency committees are largely self-appointed).

8.  The details could be arranged in different ways, but if for example the Senate (as it may be called) had 300 seats, these could be grouped in, say, 30 constituencies averaging about 10 seats. Relevant organizations in each field which could demonstrate 'pre-eminence, stability and permanence' would be invited to get together and make proposals for defining the constituencies, to a body similar to the Boundaries Commission; the groupings could be adjusted from time to time. They would represent the main fields of activity which governments have to handle: agriculture, commerce and industry, education, health, women's issues, the arts, sport and so on, but these groupings would also include important subjects on which expertise is needed such as statistics, climatology, geography, architecture, ethics. Politics would be included, as Wakeham recommended, and religion; some seats would also be allocated to regions of the country.

9.  In each constituency, the relevant organizations meeting agreed criteria would select one or more candidates. To prevent powerful groups within professions from monopolizing the process, it would also be possible for independent candidates to stand; as a safeguard against frivolous candidates, there would be a requirement for a substantial number of sponsors, which would be more effective than a cash deposit.

10.  As an election approached, 30 booklets containing all the candidates' professional CVs and other interests would be compiled and made available in post offices, libraries and on-line. Candidates would be asked to present their qualifications in a prescribed format, to make it easier for voters to compare them; the focus would be on their achievements rather than on promises. Voters could then select the constituencies of most interest to them and compare the candidates. On polling day they would decide in which constituency to vote, vote for their preferred candidate at a polling station, and be marked on the voters' register in the usual way. Postal voting would of course also be an option.

Possible objections

11.  (a)  The necessity for voters to take active steps to find out about candidates might result in a low turnout; but if this meant that the upper house was elected by people who had given some thought and taken some trouble, it could be no bad thing.

(b).  It has been suggested that each topic would be dependent on only one expert; but experts have interests in fields related to their own, in addition to their leisure activities, voluntary work and so on (which they could list in the election booklets). On many topics a house elected on a geographical basis might not have even one.

(c)   It could be difficult to agree on a candidate for a particular seat; in that case, more than one candidate could be put forward, for the voters to decide. If they could not even agree on that, the seat would be left vacant.

(d)  Wakeham suggested that it is demeaning to think of human beings as merely the sum of their 'interests.' This could be overcome by allowing each person, say, three votes, to reflect their work, leisure and family, and community interests.

e)  There could be controversy about the allocation of the constituencies themselves. Requiring organizations to come together to make proposals to the Boundaries Commission would put pressure on them to agree among themselves. In most cases a win/win solution could be negotiated through mediation; there would be a procedure for dealing with any which could not be thus resolved.


12.   (a)  Candidates would be selected by those who knew the best people in their field, and then voted for by universal suffrage.

(b)   Politicians would be represented, but the nomination of candidates would not be in their hands, except in the constituency for political affairs, so that the House would not be dominated by party political rivalry.

(c)  There would be a constituency for faith groups, where the Church of England would have a say, among others, in the selection of candidates, but not a disproportionate number of seats, and not necessarily a bishop.

(d)  Organizations supporting the interests of minorities, people with disabilities and so on could group together to propose constituencies to represent them.

(e)  This system would bring into the upper house people with expert knowledge and experience such as is possessed by few politicians; such people would be unlikely to offer themselves to the rough-and-tumble of the hustings, or to get elected if they did.

(f)  All subjects relevant to government would be comprehensively covered in the upper house by design, rather than a random number of them by chance.

October 2011

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Prepared 23 April 2012