Random Selection for the Lords

Reform of the Lords
Submission to Royal Commission

The need for a second chamber implies that a single representative chamber, using the best available electoral system and supported by a transparent and robust committee system cannot deliver adequate democracy. Logically, I cannot see how an additional elected or appointed chamber can rectify this deficiency. The structure of the Scottish Parliament suggests that for a small country at least that this argument has been accepted.

The way forward lies in that word ‘representative’. Any system which relies on anything other than random selection must inevitably skew representation one way or another. Any political system tends to serve the interests of politicians over others at the margin.

A randomly-selected second chamber should allow people – as far as possible – to carry on their usual lives and should maximise participation by the use of limited single terms. The most effective way of achieving this might be to use Information and Communication Technology to create a Virtual Chamber which members could access from their own homes.

We have long accepted the use of randomly selected juries in the Courts, to make decisions that drastically affect the future of individuals. So-called ‘Citizen’s Juries’ have shown that people from all walks of life can come together and make high-quality consensual decisions when given access to the relevant information. Members of a Virtual House of Lords should receive support and training similar to that given to ‘Citizens’ Juries’. This training would in itself have considerable value, even after members have finished their terms.

One concern expressed with the idea of a randomly selected chamber is that it could be argued that it had greater legitimacy than the House of Commons. The response to this is surely that the Commons is ultimately accountable to the whole population through the mechanism of elections. When it is carrying out actions which have been supported at elections, then the supremacy of the Commons should be unchallenged. The second chamber’s role would be to guide the Commons in areas uncovered by manifestos, and in situations where changing circumstances or new information rendered election commitments less relevant. I would suggest that at least initially the role of the new second chamber would be mainly advisory, leaving the elected chamber with the clear right to pass legislation, but as a more truly ‘representative’ body its opinions would carry considerable moral weight and persuasive power.

If he hasn’t already submitted it to you I suggest you read Martin Wainwright’s (of the Guardian) paper on Random Selection. It was on the Web – I’m not sure if it still is.

Dr Diarmid Weir
26th April 1999

One reply on “Random Selection for the Lords”


The chief aim of my proposals is to make a transition to a different form of second chamber, on the threefold principle that:

a) Such a transition needs to be a reasonably painless, evolutionary process.

b) Such a transition needs to produce a more effective, ‘slim-line’ revising chamber.

c) Such a transition needs to produce a chamber which contains a more interesting and varied mix of members.

Taking these three principles together, we need to take steps which will, so to speak, throw out the bath-water, but not the baby … and, to stretch the analogy a little, create space for some fresh water, too:

Step One:
Retain current arrangements for Hereditaries and Bishops. Automatically grant a life-peerage to all members of the supreme court ; who become entitled to sit in the Lords (as ‘Law Lords’) upon their retirement from the court.

Step Two:
A Bill placing a limit on the total number of peers there can be (whether sitting in the Lords or not), at any one time. I suggest 1750 people.

Step Three:
The Life Peers to select 25% of their numbers to sit in the Lords (the remaining ‘pool’ of Life Peers could, like the pool of Hereditaries, be voted back into the chamber, upon the death of a sitting Life Peer).

Step Four:
100 New Category Peers, selected entirely at random, maybe by a form of national lottery, phased in 20 per year. Replaced one at a time, on the death of one of their number.

Democracy is good, but so also is a link with our history as a nation (which the already much-depleted ‘Lords Spiritual’ help to provide). Our main focus should be on the house continuing to do what it does best, and strengthening and improving upon those things. There is no public clamour now for the complete removal of the Hereditaries. It is the number of Life Peers which is becoming unwieldy. Meanwhile, the introduction of Random ‘Jury’ Peers would be a simple and direct way of engaging the general public in parliamentary business.

It would be good to get a bit more ‘randomism’ in public life. What a delightful thing it would be, and what a boost to public interest in politics, if, say, the local bin-man was suddenly ennobled, under my system. Certainly, the presence of these ‘Jury Peers’ would go a long way to making the ‘feel’ of the second chamber much less elitist.

For clarity, a Lords ‘Lottery Winner’ would have so many days (I’m open to suggestions on how many) to accept, in writing, the offer of a seat. Obviously, those who were going to find it too disruptive to their lives would most likely not bother to respond, which would be taken as declining the offer ~ with the offer passed on to the next on the list.

New entrants of this sort could well be over-awed to begin with, but I think they would soon get into the swing of things … and before long, they would find themselves mentoring the next batch of entrants.

The possibility of dangerous/criminal/extreme types getting in there should be covered by clear proceedural rules in the house, and the law of the land, as and when any problems arise. I wouldn’t want there to be any pre-vetting as such, because the virtue of the random intake is it’s potential to bring forward some real free thinkers. This free thinking is enshrined by life-long occupation of the seat.

The opt-out that I mentioned earlier assumes that those who take their seats will want to participate. However, it does not ask anyone in advance about whether they would want to get involved, due to the old adage of ‘those who seek power shouldn’t be given it’. Thus random allocation comes as more of a pleasant surprise.

A sufficient (though not extravagant) salary would also need to be agreed upon, so that poorer people are not immediately put off … but this again is a detail to be discussed. My hope is that the ‘Jury Peers’ would come into their own, over time, as guardians of the constitution, of basic liberties, and of common standards of decency … They would begin as absolute beginners, and end their lives as national treasures.

Some idle musings now on what the approximate ‘shape’ (using slightly out-dated wikipedia figures!) of The Lords would be, following my slimming down of the number of Life Peers ~

Conservative: 83 (35 Life, 48 Hereditary)
Cross: 71 (38 L, 33 H)
Labour: 54 (52 L, 2 H)
Lib Dems: 22 (17 L, 5 H)
UKIP: 2 (1 L, 1 H)

Significantly, the current (2010) Coalition Government gets a much better ‘showing’ here ~ but by a process of reduction, rather than addition.

Total: 232 (117 for majority vote, currently Cons plus Lib Dems = 105; which means support also needed from 12 cross-benchers).

Party Percentages:
Conservative: 35.8%
Cross: 30.6%
Labour: 23.3%
Lib Dems: 9.5%
UKIP: 0.9%

[Comparison To Commons:]
[Conservative: 46.9%]
[Labour: 39.7%]
[Lib Dems: 8.8%]
[Others: 4.6 %]

First Intake Of Random (‘Jury’) Peers: 20
Bishops: 25
Law Lords: 22

Total added on: 69

Total Life Peers: 143
Total Hereditary Peers: 91 (1 replacement pending)

Total House: 301

% Life Peers: 47.5 %
% Hereditary: 30.2 %
% First Intake Jury: 6.6 %
% Bishops: 8.3 %
% Law: 7.3 %

In Sweden, a ‘Council on Legislation’ considers:

1. the manner in which the draft law relates to the fundamental laws (i.e. Sweden’s written and entrenched Constitution) and the legal system in general;

2. the manner in which the different provisions of the draft law relate to one another;

3. the manner in which the draft law relates to the requirements of the rule of law;

4. whether the draft law is so framed that the resulting act of law may be expected to satisfy the stated purposes of the proposed law;

5. what problems are likely to arise in applying the act of law.

I think all of those considerations could be usefully discussed by the Law Lords (and other peers with a legal background).
I think it unlikely that the Law Lords would want to do much voting in the divisions ~ this could be something for a Lords committee to keep an eye on.
I would also like to see a gradual movement towards one written constitution; which could incorporate those five key points.

Upon the completion of a written constitution, I would want any future alterations to that constitution to require the consent of both houses (maybe at a higher threshold than 50% plus 1).

On a final side point, it might be healthy to introduce a check-and-balance to the hereditary monarchy, by requiring the next in line to the throne to secure the approval of both houses, before becoming Head Of State. In the (highly unlikely) event of this approval not being granted, the next person along in line to the throne would go forward in the same way.

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