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.