A policy document by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) says any move to a fully or mostly elected upper house will almost certainly result in a reduction in the capacity of the upper house to hold up proposed legislation to scientific scrutiny.
The report, House of Lords Reform and Expertise, highlights how the Lords’ existing scientific expertise has led to improvements in recent previous bills in areas such as medicine and energy. It points out that many of the Lords with science backgrounds, such as physicist Martin Rees and zoologist John Krebs, were appointed as independent crossbenchers by the House of Lords’ Appointments Commission.
The government’s draft House of Lords reform bill, published in May 2011, proposes to reduce the Lords’ membership from 800 to 300, of which 20 per cent would be independently appointed. A report by a joint committee of both houses endorsed the proportion in April, but said the total number of peers should be 450.
CaSE assistant director Beck Smith said: “Whether wholly or partially elected, we need an upper house constituted by people able to challenge and inform. What we don’t need is a carbon copy of the House of Commons, where many members haven’t had careers outside politics, and almost none have specialist knowledge or backgrounds in research.”
She argued that 30 per cent of peers should be appointed by a fully independent appointments commission. The commission would proactively seek to appoint new members in areas where expertise was perceived to be lacking. This would ensure that the upper house “represents a wider breadth of expertise, includes independent voices, and decreases the influence of whips”.
The CaSE report adds that all new members of both houses should be required to attend an introductory session on science and technology issues, conducted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
Such a session was organised for the 233 new MPs after the 2010 general election, but only 12 turned up: less than 2 per cent of all MPs.
The report says parliamentarians should also be encouraged to employ staff with backgrounds in science rather than politics. Currently less than 1 per cent of the approximately 5,000 senior civil servants have a science background, and just 2.8 per cent class themselves as engineers.