Dr Martin Wright
The function of the upper house
1. Before considering the composition of the
upper house, we need to be clear about its function. This paper
assumes that the primary function is to be a reviewing chamber:
the House of Commons expresses the will of the people, and the
upper house goes over its legislation to make sure that it is
workable, compatible with human rights, and so on. It may also
have other functions such as initiating legislation, pre-legislative
scrutiny, asking parliamentary questions and educating the public
through well informed debate.
2. A reviewing chamber needs to be, as the Royal
Commission under Lord Wakeham said in 2000, distinctively different
from the House of Commons, and able to bring a wider range of
expertise and experience to bear on the consideration of public
policy questions. It should not be a politician-free zone, but
also not a creature of the political parties or a home for yet
another group of professional politicians.
Problems with geographical constituencies
3. Wakeham proposed that its members should be
appointed by a commission, but that is widely considered to lack
democratic legitimacy and to be exposed to the risk of political
patronage. The current debate therefore assumes that the upper
house should be wholly or mainly elected. However, this could
have serious disadvantages.
(a) If elected on a similar basis to the House
of Commons, it would be likely to duplicate it, and thus not serve
its purpose of providing checks and balances.
(b) If elected on a different basis, such as
proportional representation, there could be conflict over which
House had more democratic legitimacy when they disagreed.
(c) In any case, if based in geographical constituencies,
the candidates would be chosen in much the same way as for the
House of Commons, by local or national political parties or by
a party list system, which puts the selection in the hands of
politicians and allows voters little choice. There would be no
guarantee, or even likelihood, that these candidates would bring
any wider expertise, beyond the skill, shared with MPs, in persuading
people to vote for them.
4. This is by implication admitted by those who
advocate a hybrid system, with 20 or even 50 per cent appointed,
to make up the expertise deficit among elected members. That seems
to be the worst of both worlds: the expert members would not be
elected, and there would be too few of them to reflect the breadth
of knowledge and experience required; the elected ones would not
have the breadth of expertise that the House needs.
5. For all these reasons, a system producing
an upper house largely on party political lines would be a serious
A way forward: elected and expert
(a) Electoral colleges
6. There is considerable interest, as Wakeham
found (paragraphs 11.17-11.25), in finding a way for various specified
vocational or other interest groups to be represented in the chamber.
One proposal is for the Chartered Institutes and leading voluntary
organizations to put forward persons of distinction from their
profession or specialist field. Wakeham saw practical obstacles
to this. It could be difficult to reach agreement on which sectors
of society should be represented. It might not be appropriate
to appoint particular office holders, who are often elected on
an annual basis, and such posts may be in the gift of a small
and unrepresentative group within the organization. If the organizations
in question were required to observe specific standards of democracy
in the appointment of their office holders, this could be seen
as unacceptable intrusion into the internal affairs of those organizations.
Perhaps the most significant objection is that those who do not
belong to a recognised professional or vocational group would
(b) Constituencies of expertise.
7. It is proposed that these difficulties could
be overcome if the interest groups did not select the members
of the upper house directly, but would propose candidates from
among whom the members would then be elected by the general electorate.
The interest groups would thus work in a similar way to constituency
committees which choose candidates for Commons seats (and would
be no less democratic, since constituency committees are largely
8. The details could be arranged in different
ways, but if for example the Senate (as it may be called) had
300 seats, these could be grouped in, say, 30 constituencies averaging
about 10 seats. Relevant organizations in each field which could
demonstrate 'pre-eminence, stability and permanence' would be
invited to get together and make proposals for defining the constituencies,
to a body similar to the Boundaries Commission; the groupings
could be adjusted from time to time. They would represent the
main fields of activity which governments have to handle: agriculture,
commerce and industry, education, health, women's issues, the
arts, sport and so on, but these groupings would also include
important subjects on which expertise is needed such as statistics,
climatology, geography, architecture, ethics. Politics would be
included, as Wakeham recommended, and religion; some seats would
also be allocated to regions of the country.
9. In each constituency, the relevant organizations
meeting agreed criteria would select one or more candidates. To
prevent powerful groups within professions from monopolizing the
process, it would also be possible for independent candidates
to stand; as a safeguard against frivolous candidates, there would
be a requirement for a substantial number of sponsors, which would
be more effective than a cash deposit.
10. As an election approached, 30 booklets containing
all the candidates' professional CVs and other interests would
be compiled and made available in post offices, libraries and
on-line. Candidates would be asked to present their qualifications
in a prescribed format, to make it easier for voters to compare
them; the focus would be on their achievements rather than on
promises. Voters could then select the constituencies of most
interest to them and compare the candidates. On polling day they
would decide in which constituency to vote, vote for their preferred
candidate at a polling station, and be marked on the voters' register
in the usual way. Postal voting would of course also be an option.
11. (a) The necessity for voters to take
active steps to find out about candidates might result in a low
turnout; but if this meant that the upper house was elected by
people who had given some thought and taken some trouble, it could
be no bad thing.
(b). It has been suggested that each topic would
be dependent on only one expert; but experts have interests in
fields related to their own, in addition to their leisure activities,
voluntary work and so on (which they could list in the election
booklets). On many topics a house elected on a geographical basis
might not have even one.
(c) It could be difficult to agree on a candidate
for a particular seat; in that case, more than one candidate could
be put forward, for the voters to decide. If they could not even
agree on that, the seat would be left vacant.
(d) Wakeham suggested that it is demeaning to
think of human beings as merely the sum of their 'interests.'
This could be overcome by allowing each person, say, three votes,
to reflect their work, leisure and family, and community interests.
e) There could be controversy about the allocation
of the constituencies themselves. Requiring organizations to come
together to make proposals to the Boundaries Commission would
put pressure on them to agree among themselves. In most cases
a win/win solution could be negotiated through mediation; there
would be a procedure for dealing with any which could not be thus
12. (a) Candidates would be selected by
those who knew the best people in their field, and then voted
for by universal suffrage.
(b) Politicians would be represented, but the
nomination of candidates would not be in their hands, except in
the constituency for political affairs, so that the House would
not be dominated by party political rivalry.
(c) There would be a constituency for faith groups,
where the Church of England would have a say, among others, in
the selection of candidates, but not a disproportionate number
of seats, and not necessarily a bishop.
(d) Organizations supporting the interests of
minorities, people with disabilities and so on could group together
to propose constituencies to represent them.
(e) This system would bring into the upper house
people with expert knowledge and experience such as is possessed
by few politicians; such people would be unlikely to offer themselves
to the rough-and-tumble of the hustings, or to get elected if
(f) All subjects relevant to government would
be comprehensively covered in the upper house by design, rather
than a random number of them by chance.