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Lords reform: research may lose its voice

As the government unveils its plans for reform of the House of Lords, Kumar Bhattacharyya, director of the WMG knowledge-transfer department at the University of Warwick and a Labour peer, warns those in the research community who wish for strong parliamentary advocates for science and technology to be wary.

When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed their joint programme for government, one short paragraph declared that they would “establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.”

Twelve months on, weve not yet heard from that committee, but the strong rumours that the Government was about to publish a draft bill on Lords reform were confirmed with Tuesdays unveiling of the governments proposals. Since the Labour manifesto also proposed an elected upper house, there now appears to be a greater chance of elections to the second chamber than at any point in my academic or political career.

This has significant implications for the UK research community. After all, following the expulsion of the hereditary peers, the Lords is now an extremely research-friendly institution. In part, this is because all political parties find that the easiest way to ensure academics and scientists get into Parliament and government is through ennoblement. From my own party, we have peers such as Jonathan Kestenbaum, Robert Winston and Julian Hunt. Each of the main parties includes similar research-friendly peers.

Sadly, people of real talent and commitment to science in the Commons, such as Peter Luff, Julian Huppert or Adrian Bailey, are a tiny minority. Parties put academics and researchers in the Lords because, if you have spent a lifetime building your expertise on the human genome, or on cancer trials, or on materials engineering, you probably haven’t spent much time on the campaign trail or making connections to political leaders, pastimes important for parliamentary selection.

In addition, serious researchers are unlikely to welcome the time commitment expected of today’s ‘professional’ member of the House of Commons. Spending your weekends doing constituency casework and your weeks in Westminster voting means no time for research! So the House of Lords allows parties to broaden their expertise in Parliament without threatening the democratic supremacy of elected politicians.

The second chamber also contains over 200 cross-benchers who owe no party allegiance. Cross-bench scientists such as Robert May, Alec Broers, John Krebs and Martin Rees are globally respected in their field, and make an outstanding contribution to the work of the House of Lords, often through the highly respected House of Lords Science and Technology committee.

The Lords therefore retains an eminent research community, able to use the ‘Bully Pulpit’ of the red benches to speak up for the value of research, and able to warn ministers, privately and publicly, when things are going awry.

The benefits of any change depend, as ever, on the type of change. There are many brilliant researchers in the Lords, but few have held senior ministerial office or been in a position to drive through significant change.

So an elected Lords might put pressure on parties to broaden their range of elected politicians to include more researchers, and it might give those elected more political authority. Then again, it might not. The Welsh, Scottish and Greater London assemblies offer little evidence of a noticeably greater research presence than the House of Commons.

It is surely more plausible that, instead of scientists, we get a reformed House of Lords that simply contains those that didn’t make it into the Commons, depriving the research community of its main independent route to Parliament and government.

It is suggested that the appointed section of the House of Lords may be a fifth of the total. That is likely to mean around sixty “appointees” who will be expected to represent all of civil society from religions, the military, charities, business and unions. This clearly suggests an extremely limited number of Lords will be research experts. So there is a real danger that a more democratically accountable House of Lords produces a narrower, less inclusive, membership.

The danger is not immediate, nor is it dire. We have not seen the final proposals, and no doubt the government will be keen to retain existing expertise.

However, the chance that the voice of research will be lessened at Westminster is growing. It is worthwhile ensuring that however constitutional reform is pursued, it does not come at the expense of science, innovation and technology.

When Lords reform is proposed, research must find its voice, or lose it.

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