House of Lords governance

By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 8 December 2021
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker for tabling this debate and declare my interest as a partner of the Shaftesbury Partnership, which is exploring some of the tools for governance that I will mention in my speech.

As is right with this House, given its rich and long history as an essential part of our unwritten constitution, it is normal to expect it to flex as times and needs change, while rightly maintaining our traditions. This is no different when it comes to how it is itself governed. I fear, however, that there is a tendency to start not by asking ourselves why we are here and what is the appropriate way to achieve that through governance, but by imposing management structures, dress, furniture and approaches more common in, say, the business world as part of modernisation; or by putting in place training, codes of conduct and rules, as others have mentioned, to counter the caricature of our being a House that is outdated, costly and not always honourable.

As a result, we sometimes forget that we exist primarily to revise legislation or, to put it more plainly, to help make better laws. Our internal governance in both the Chamber and committees, as well as all the support and management of this building and the operations that enable us to do what we do, ought always to flow from that mission: to make better laws. By this yard-stick, on one level, we are doing a pretty good job. At least a third of the amendments we suggest to the other place are accepted and, at the last count, our costs, if you think of us in terms of being around 300 to 400 full-time equivalent lawmakers, are equivalent to those of many other Parliaments around the world. Given that many of us are part-time, it is not off the scale. I do not think that our comparison to the Chinese Parliament is fair as it meets only a few weeks a year.

To top it all off, we are actually quite innovative, despite appearances—not least if you go way back to the idea of being an advisory Chamber to the sovereign or, today, to the Executive and to the other place, but also in the way we discuss and amend laws. As I first observed when I arrived a decade ago, we are a kind of legislative Wikipedia, where we as Peers operate a bit like editors and moderators when we are working at our best. Of course, our adoption of remote voting has in fact allowed us to leapfrog the other place by enabling wider participation, whether during lockdown or after, and to enable information to flow better to help us all make better decisions. This is something to celebrate, not be ashamed of, as long as it helps us make better laws.

Where do we need to improve? Other Peers have mentioned matters relating to the administration of the place and how it could be more transparent and consultative so I will not focus on them, except to ask how they help us make better laws rather than just being reactions to the latest set of media attacks.

There is an area we need to improve: how much our laws are actually used in the courts and deployed for the benefit of the public. Recent analysis indicates that a good number of laws passed by this House and the other place, especially those forced through using statutory instruments, delegated powers, and other Executive measures, were not used at all, or not much, on the ground or in the courts. If you take that as an output as part of an outcome—the better governance of the realm—then input all the debates, speeches and work that we carry out, and the money spent supporting what we do across both our own and the other House, you could argue that there is room to improve.

I have not done the calculation but I suggest that this would come down to several million pounds per law actually used. You might do this calculation every 10 years on a rolling average to take account of laws that get dropped by the Government or courts if they are not useful. Everything we do could flow from this one metric, which you could then optimise based on the quality of laws, the cost of the administration and our allowances leading to the laws and how many get actually used. Ultimately, it is about how much we involve the public, experts, lawyers and judges—whose disappearance from this place I truly lament—to increase the chances of laws working and being used.

We need to build on the success that is born out of innovation. What can be done to improve the chances of us making better laws more efficiently? Strangely, it is not the hours of speeches in the Chamber that improve our hit rate, as it were, nor, I would argue, how we were appointed or elected or in how many codes of conduct we have and how representative we are. Wikipedia does not elect its moderators and is essentially self-governed, like us. Its moderators are not measured by speaking time in chambers, but they seem to create a pretty good encyclopaedia for relatively little cost.

We need to build on the success born out of the innovations in governance that enabled us to be one of the first Parliaments—the mother of Parliaments, in fact—and the first in the land to vote remotely. We ought to partner with the likes of Jimmy Wales to create our own legislative Wiki, which could enable Peers, and one day the public, to interact with draft laws, help shape priorities, suggest changes, predict what might work or not, and know what is being discussed at any one time and why. We ought to harness philanthropic resources and have virtual versions of our Chamber and committees—a Lords metaverse—so that people can learn more about what we do, virtually enact debates and law-making, and understand how we make our laws.

We ought to involve judges and experts in the public to help red-team our laws, supporting committees but kicking the tyres and sense-checking whether what we propose will work on the ground. Every law ought to be road-tested with the public, six months or a year after it has been passed, using technology such as swarm-based feedback, to check whether it is working and being used for the intended purpose. We should harness a rating system, a bit like Tripadvisor or Amazon, to rank laws to encourage a better hit rate.

Finally, I shall close by exploring what this focus on our mission to make good laws might imply in terms of our size. Many noble Lords know my view, which is that we should have a tenure-based system, not a cut-off by age but on the principle that, each time the Prime Minister appoints a Peer, he ought to be able to select from the 10 longest-serving Peers and invite one or two to retire. Over time, this could get us down to an optimal size. The question is how small we need to be in order still to make good laws. Again, if we follow the concept of our being a Wikipedia for law, the question would be how many domains of law we need to make laws on and how many experts we need to moderate those domains. Where there are domains such as STEM, where we are lacking expertise, that might help those nominating new Peers chose people to help fill the gap.

It is time we innovated again to govern well, while honouring what is working well.

Source: Hansard