Friday, June 03, 2011

This idea of needing expertise in the Lords is a myth

One of the most common objections made to an elected House of Lords (here and here for example) is that it will exclude those with specialist knowledge or experience (including former government ministers and the like) who may not wish to stand for election but whose insight is invaluable to the workings of parliament.

It's an argument that is not often directly challenged. Yet I have never been convinced by this myth of independent expertise. Success in one walk of life is rarely a guarantee of effectiveness in another. One doesn't need to think too hard to cite examples of people who have been brought into government from outside politics and proved a failure: Frank Cousins in Harold Wilson's first administration; Lord Young of Graffham under Margaret Thatcher, the majority of the so-called 'talents' under Gordon Brown.

One problem is that these outside experts may find the political world an alien culture that they struggle to adapt to. Another is that they are no more than apologists for whatever professional discipline they were engaged in before entering public life. Within our own party's recent history both Evan Harris and Phil Willis were much talked up because of their previous lives as a GP and headteacher respectively. But, though they are both good eggs, when the former was health spokesperson and the latter education spokesperson, I had the uncomfortable feeling that Lib Dem policy on health was being dicatated by the BMA and on education by the NUT.

Such views are reinforced by my experience in local government - both within my own authority and my observations of other councils. Sometimes it can be great to have a professional accountant leading on finance, a teacher on education etc. They know the tricks of the trade and have the insight and understanding to hold officers to account more effectively than a lay person could do. But equally they can see themselves as an extra officer, always backing the professionals rather than providing the necessary challenge and scrutiny that goes with the role of representing the public.

Of course, when we think of expert opinion in the House of Lords, it's only ever a small fraction of top scientists, brain surgeons or whatever who actually get there, presumably the ones whose gifts for self-promotion have been enough to draw themselves to the attention of the powers that be. And someone's possession of experience or expertise doesn't make their views right or even respected. So, for example, while I am a great admirer of Shirely Williams, there are those on the political right who will never forgive her role in the destruction of grammar schools. For them, presumably, her experience as secretary of state for education makes her views less rather than more valid.

Which brings me to another criticism made of an elected Lords - that those who have done their bit fighting elections and have achieved eminent government posts won't take to the hustings again to get elected to a chamber with less power. Yet, I am sure that if Shirley Williams let her name go forward in an internal Lib Dem selection in the East of England region she would be chosen as a candidate by party members. And in a regional STV election where a known name will carry weight she would have a pretty good chance of being elected even if she didn't personally deliver many Focus leaflets.

All in all the dangers of a loss of expertise arising from an elected second chamber are greatly exaggerated.

1 comment:

Bishop Hill said...

Yes! Having travelled a long road I have come to the conclusion that an elected Lords is the way forward. Many of the appointees appear to me to be not far short of corrupt.

Your observations about Harris and Willis are also spot on.

I think some thought needs to be given to avoiding another chamber of party hacks though.