09 July, 2024

A few actual experts doesn’t change the depressing reality of the Lords

The new government will likely benefit from the contributions of new ministers like Patrick Vallance, James Timpson and Richard Hermer, but using the Lords to achieve this only highlights the gaping flaws in this system

Return of the experts’ and ‘Government of all the talents’ were among the positive reactions to the news that new UK PM Keir Starmer had appointed non-politicians to new ministerial roles: former chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, senior lawyer Richard Hermer and businessman James Timpson. 

Although there is no technical or legal requirement for any UK ministers to actually be members of either house of parliament, it is a well-established convention that they are so they can be held accountable. As none of this trio are members of the newly elected House of Commons, this hurdle was cleared, not for the first time, by instantly making them peers so they can sit in the other half of parliament, the House of Lords.

This was also the path back to government for former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith, whose previous ministerial tenure came crashing down in the MPs’ extensive expenses scandal in 2009. No longer an MP, she is returning to one of her old jobs as an education minister as a newly created life peer.

All of these people have relevant experience for their new roles and their expertise and genuine enthusiasm is likely a net positive to the UK government, for now at least. But having to turn to the Lords to bring them in is a sign of great weakness of our institutions and, if history is any guide, not something we should welcome, however one feels towards these particular individuals. 

To use the old adage, a stopped clock is right twice a day, but it’s still broken the rest of the time. Just because this time highly qualified people have been brought into the Lords, it doesn’t in any way detract from the fact that the Lords is completely broken and needs to go. 

The last time someone was enobled to become a minister was only last year when former PM David Cameron was brought back into the UK government as foreign secretary. The fact that he hadn’t been an MP since 2016 was no impediment - he was instantly enobled and joined the cabinet as member of the House of Lords. 

The government he joined were of course roundly and thoroughly ejected by the electorate last week. But unlike the 175 Tory MPs who lost their seats in that election, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton kept his permanent seat in the UK parliament. Not a bad return for a mere eight months in the cabinet and at the age of 57 he can look forward to many many years ahead with a secure parliamentary seat.

And he’s hardly an outlier in the club of short term service in return for lifetime legislator that the continued existence of the House of Lords enables. When Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007, like Keir Starmer, he too appointed a number of ministers from outside politics to create a ‘government of all the talents’. And like Starmer he needed to use the House of Lords lever to make it happen.

Digby Jones, a former director-general of business lobby group CBI, became Lord Jones of Birmingham to serve as Minister of State for Trade. After just 10 months in the job he announced he’d had enough, later telling a parliamentary committee that he found being a minister "One of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences" anyone could have. But of course as Lord Jones he continued playing an active role in Parliament for the next 12 years until he voluntarily retired in 2020. 

The other three high profile appointments lasted longer. Former UN deputy secretary general Mark Malloch-Brown spent two years as a minister in the Foreign Office while Admiral Alan West and surgeon Ara Darzi remained in their posts until Brown lost the election in 2010. But since then all remained in our legislature as Baron Malloch-Brown of St Leonard's Forest in the County of West Sussex, Baron West of Spithead and Baron Darzi of Denham respectively. And they will continue to do so for as long as they wish to (unless the new government are successful in introducing their declared aim of mandatory retirement from the Lords at age 80).

Bringing in experts from outside the traditional party political routes to serve as ministers is in itself a positive idea that can and should strengthen the decision-making process of government.

But if the only way that can be achieved is by handing out potentially decades-long legislative roles then the system is completely broken. If you catch sight of a stopped clock at one of the moments it’s correct, it’s still broken and no good the rest of the time.

Good governance needs to be able to draw on the best expertise available. But only when relevant. As we say in Sortition Foundation about experts and the House of Lords, they should be on tap, not on top.

Read more: Sortition Foundation's Head of Public Affairs Richard O'Brien writes in The Metro: "Labour could make this huge change to democracy – if they keep their word"

We use cookies on our websites. You are free to manage this via your browser setting at any time.