In Defence of Expertise

Lord Norton

 Lord Tyler’s post touches upon a question variously raised in class discussions on the Lords: why do members need to have expertise in a particular field when you can call experts to give evidence?  There are several fairly straightforward reasons.  They apply with particular force to committee work but are relevant also to debate in the chamber.

The value of having members who have some knowledge or expertise in a particular subject is that they know what questions to ask, know the value of the answers and know how to assimilate the evidence for the purpose of reaching conclusions.   They can engage in a proper dialogue with those who are called to provide evidence.  Otherwise, the danger is that the experts will be on top rather than on tap and that there will be capture by a particular interest represented by one or two experts. 

Apart from drawing on research, I speak as someone who not only serves on committees but has also appeared as a witness before committees in both Houses (and in other parliamentary assemblies).  It is fairly obvious when members of a committee are the creatures of their specialist advisers, reading out prepared questions, unable to follow-up with informed supplementaries, and either haven’t read or haven’t understood the written submissions.   Having a number of members with expertise in different aspects of the committee’s work makes for informed inquiries and avoids capture. 

Witnesses may be a little daunted by the membership of a committee but it ensures that they take the committee seriously and an informed committee may be a somewhat more friendly environment than one where members may feel they have to prove themselves.

Being an expert on one topic, of course, does not make you an expert on other topics.  You can thus serve as an intellegent layperson for the purpose of discussing most issues.  There is value in having those who take a detached view, though one has to be able to distinguish between common sense, prejudice and an inability or unwillingness to engage with research.  For my own part, I often find debates in the Lords highly educative: I sometimes go into the chamber expecting to be there for only a few minutes and end up staying for two or three hours because of the quality of the debate.  I have certainly been swayed in my voting behaviour by listening to informed argument. 

I would argue that the need for the Lords to be a House of experience and expertise is greater now than ever before for two reasons.  One is that there has been a growth not only in the volume but also the complexity of legislation.  Some regulatory measures are extraordinarily complex and one needs members with a good knowledge of the subject matter for the purpose of detailed scrutiny.   The second reason is the growth of the career politician in the Commons (as so ably chronicled by Peter Riddell in his book Honest Opportunism).   They enter Parliament earlier than their predecessors and make a career in the House.  That, coupled with the growing demands of constituency work, make them full-time politicians.   As members of the elected chamber, they engage in the grand debate and the battle between the parties.  They don’t necessarily have the time or the political will to engage in sometimes detailed, highly technical scrutiny.  That is where the Lords comes in.   It complements the work of the elected House in a way that I think is effective.  We could do even better but what we do we do well.  I would like us to build on strength.

8 comments for “In Defence of Expertise

  1. Barbelo
    13/05/2008 at 5:19 pm

    Is there not room for a bit of both – experts and legislators, possibly combis. Does it have to be one thing or another?

  2. baronessmurphy
    14/05/2008 at 11:58 am

    Could I add to Lord Norton’s post here by confessing my ambivalence about this expertise issue. I am slogging away the moment in Grand Committee on the Health and Social Care regulation Bill and definitely fall into the category of ‘expert’ in this one…I have been and still am on various health and social care regulatory bodies and been subject to regulation too. Since I’m also a social historian of health regulation bodies like the Poor Law Commission I find the current debates right up my street. There are at least 6 people on the committee with similar expertise and the detailed level of the debate is astonishingly good. But we also bring our prejudices, our own history, our parochial concerns. It also puts the Minister at quite a disadvantage because he/she has to rely on their official brief and whatever the Bill team can come up with quickly from the back row.

    I have wondered whether instead of conducting committee stages of the bills in this way whether we would be better to have far greater input from current experts acting as advisors to an elected upper house rather than appoint experts directly. Expert advisors can be the make or break of the quality of the reports to come out of Select Committees and pre-legislative scrutiny committees. Probably bill committees and report stages could be done in this way too. Of course form must follow function and we must first decide exactly what functions we want the upper house to perform but if it is scrutiny and amendment, then I think an elected house could do the job just as well but only with seriously competent expert advisors.

  3. lordnorton
    14/05/2008 at 8:08 pm

    I stick with my argument for the reasons given. The greater the breadth of expertise on a committee, the less chance there is of capture. This is also enhanced by the need to proceed by way of general agreement. When I chaired the Constitution Committee, I never needed to take a vote: we always reached agreement. I also took a hands-on approach to drafting reports to ensure they reflected the opinion of the committee.

    I take the view it is better to have members who know what they are talking about than to have members who think they know what they are talking about. I am not sure what value there would be to have a Science and Technology Committee comprising members with little knowledge of the subject. And if we want current experts as advisers to elected members, we already have that: I am not sure what replicating it in the second chamber would bring to the table.

    One of the points that came across in evidence last week, when Sub-Committee E of the EU Committee was in Brussels taking evidence from different EU officials, was the impact that Lords EU Committee reports had in Brussels because of their quality. The point was variously made that few other legislative chambers could match what the Lords did.

  4. baronessmurphy
    15/05/2008 at 8:58 am

    OK, I’m almost convinced.

    One of the interesting parts of the new Health and Social Care Bill is the new structure proposed for the General Medical Council(GMC). For years its medical members have been elected by doctors from various specialty constiuencies, and those that stood for election were not necessarily of the first rank. The Government has decided to change the structure so that medical members will be appointed on merit rather than elected in order to improve the quality of the GMC’s work. It’s interesting that when it comes to the reform of the Lords, the Government aren’t adhering to the same principles.

  5. ladytizzy
    15/05/2008 at 4:17 pm

    Hmmm, I remember being told the definition of an expert: an ex is a has-been and a spurt is a drip under pressure.

    What exactly is the difference between an expert and someone with a depth of knowledge is a specific area? Do you go by years of experience, qualifications, or someone who has hands-on knowledge?

    Then there is the question of application. I tend to be nervous of people who can recite chapter and verse but not have seen how their knowledge translates on the ground.

    Sorry to interrupt.


  6. lordnorton
    15/05/2008 at 5:45 pm

    An expert is someone who is formally qualified in the area and likely to have devoted their professional life to the subject, a specialist is someone who focuses on a particular area (such as someone who joins a subject-specific committee, such as a select committee, and develops a body of knowledge about the subject), and someone with experience has served in a particular post or posts. The categories, especially the last two, are not mutually exclusive.

    People falling in these categories may or may not be wise, that is have fairly sound judgement, not least in terms of knowing what is or what is not appropriate. My view is that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. It may not make you wise, but it may make you humble. Sort of.

  7. baronessmurphy
    16/05/2008 at 3:04 pm

    Tiz, You’ve put your finger on the spot. One of my anxieties is about whether our expertise is kept up to date or not and is still relevant when one has been out of the direct ‘front line’ of services for a while. I have been working in and around the NHS and various health and social care regulatory bodies for the past 30 years or so and keep up to date by studying the relevant literature, going to meetings, participating in the work of various bodies and committees, having regular meetings with people from organisations in the field and generally keeping up with my contacts. But it is now some time since I worked directly with patients and I do wonder quite often if I am keeping up to date enough. New thinking, new moods change clinicians and patients; the culture of care changes. I am very conscious of this when issues come up in the Lords that people assume I will know something about. Sometimes I hear colleague peers say things that suggest to me they aren’t quite up to date enough, it’s a warning…

  8. 17/05/2008 at 11:27 am

    The question of adding value through the input of expertise has not been lost on the South East Regional Assembly stakeholders. It does however provide a major stumbling block for the Local Authority members who are concerned as to the dilution of the democratic process should the “Unelected” be given a vote. There appears to be some synergy here in the operation of the House of Lords.

Comments are closed.