We should change the terms of debate on the future of the House of Lords
Don’t forget the unelected. Not those shortly to be unsuccessful in the election, but the great unsolved problem of British politics: House of Lords reform. A problem notable for the lack of excitement surrounding the proposed solutions. We should change the terms of debate and consider using technology to involve the public in Parliament’s second chamber in a radical new way.
Members of the House of Lords currently occupy their seats by virtue of birth or political appointment (plus a few more through religious status). The standard response to this long-standing, anti-democratic, situation is to call for an elected second chamber. This is a less than inspiring prospect. Its democratic limitations aside, the existing arrangements allow a substantial proportion of Lords members to participate without political affiliation (so called crossbenchers), enabling Parliament to benefit from the skills and experience of those who would never run for public office or join a political party. It also seems unlikely that the solution to public disenchantment with politics is yet more professional politicians. An image of a second division second chamber in training for the Commons is an underwhelming one.
Is there then a democratic solution to Lords reform that could allow some of the benefits of the current system to continue and engage the public? In principle yes, by moving the chamber online. A decentralised online second chamber could allow expert scrutiny of legislation (the Lord’s primary function) while engaging the public in a completely new way. Scrutiny of legislation requires specialised knowledge, and an online platform could allow anyone with relevant expertise to participate in the process. Opening up participation would increase public engagement with politics. The chamber’s dematerialisation would address complaints of a south-east England focused parliament. If internet access is a democratic restriction, it’s still easier than being born into aristocracy, and cheaper than a large donation to a political party.
This undoubtedly raises all sorts of serious, and unresolved, practical and political issues: Who should have the right to participate? How do you authenticate their identity? In what way are those involved held accountable? How to ensure a high-standard of debate? How should amending of legislation and voting be coordinated and structured? How, if at all, should participation be rewarded? How do you maintain the security of the online platform? Should the relationship with the Commons change if the Lords became, paradoxically, the true people’s chamber?
Some of the challenges of how to meaningfully coordinate contributions from large numbers of people (not all of whom agree with one another) are already being addressed in other areas online such as Wikipedia and Stack Overflow. In a political context, decentralised democracy trials are currently taking place in a number of other countries. We’re working on this at Nesta with the D-CENT project. The UK’s Digital Democracy Commission has already proposed that a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the Commons be created. The Palace of Westminster may anyway be forced to close for several years in future to address a large repairs backlog.
Decentralised democracy is admittedly not a quick solution to the Lords. It would not be sensible to replace the second chamber wholesale with an, as yet, undeveloped and untested approach. Nevertheless, we should use the opportunity House of Lords reform raises to think about how new technology could revitalise one of our oldest institutions and deliver better outcomes. Democracy is the freedom to make mistakes, but it would be nice if there were fewer of them.
 From the Royal Commission on the reform of the House of Lords (2000), p99 ‘One of the characteristics of the present House of Lords which was widely applauded during our consultation exercise was that it contains a substantial proportion of people who are not professional politicians, who have experience in a number of different walks of life and who can bring a considerable range of expertise to bear on issues of public concern.’
 Anyone who doubts this should try reading an Act of Parliament.
 Would the new chamber vote on legislation or just make suggestions for amendment? It is arguable that Bills would attract the attentions of vested interests seeking to change it for their own purposes rather than for the public good, and this is an issue that any online chamber would have to address.
 With the exception of a few roles, members of the House of Lords do not receive a salary, but receive an allowance for days they attend.
 Digital Democracy Commission (2015), p75.