Replace the House of Lords with a people's jury

There are three ideas that predominate when it comes to Lords reform:

  • Fix how they're selected so that they're not "cronies" and party grandees. This is thought of as a way to fix their lack of independence and therefore legitimacy. It may also aid in giving the house more legitimate claim to expertise, which (seemingly uniquely in Britain) is perceived as a necessary part of the legislative process.
  • Replace the house with an elected one. This usually entails suggesting that we have elections at a different time, or by a different system, or even with a different time period (eg, midway through Parliaments, or once every ten years, or similar). This adds democratic legitimacy, but it doesn't provision for expertise. It does give time for members of the house to acquire credibility with the public, and the democratic legitimacy of election would be enough to be a viable check on the Commons.
  • Scrap the Lords entirely, and have a unicameral political system. This assumes that checks and balances can come from elsewhere, or just aren't necessary.

None of the above are my preference - they all have their various merits and demerits as demonstrated around the world. They miss a virtue that I think should be more highly valued, though: participation.

Instead of these systems, I'd like to suggest a system whereby a jury is picked by the 'usual' method used in the judicial system, and this is done on a per bill basis.

This means there would be no continuity of membership between bills. There would also be no predefined idea of 'expertise' - something which we often find lacking in the Lords and which is difficult to select for without being partisan. There would be no election, nor any prolonged place in public life for jurors.

Instead, what we'd acquire is independence and a form of representation that cannot be gained in elections; people from all walks of life would be chosen. They would vote on and scrutinise legislation in the manner of any other legislature, and would then be dismissed after they had reached their conclusion on the bill (which would, for practical purposes, be within a time limit, I'd suggest.)

The two principal difficulties I'd foresee with this idea is that there would be disruption to the lives of jurors (employment, family, etc) which would have to be catered for. I'd suggest this be paid activity with benefits such as accomodation, childcare and so on taken care of, with a "right to return" for those having to leave their jobs and opt outs in a limited number of cases.

The other difficulty is expertise; as I've said above I believe this is hard to select for without being partisan, so the approach I'd favour is a plurality of experts, as well as opponents and proponents of measures within the bill being invited to make their cases to the jury. The jury should then consider these submissions.

The size of the jury would be of interest too: pollsters seem to think a representative sample is at least a thousand people. I'm unsure as to whether this would be a minimum for the system I'm proposing, but I'm sure that an agreeable answer could be found.

This is a proposal for anyone who believes that independence is the most important aspect of the upper chamber; having a high turnover of jurors scrutinising legislation makes it much harder to enlist legislators as lobbyists, as is currently commonplace.

I believe it would also bring about a spirit of participation to the process that is currently absent: any citizen can at some point be called upon to legislate and scrutinise legislation. This is a chance many people would be delighted to take. It's not without it's problems, but might go some way towards keeping governments in touch with the governed, bringing back and maintaining trust in politics, and ensuring that we get the best and fairest laws that we can have.

John Hackett Apr 11, 2015

I wonder if there's any more to say on this - it seems mutually exclusive with other proposals, unless we have more than one upper chamber. That wouldn't necessarily be bad, although does add more to the system.

Malcolm Ramsay Apr 13, 2015

As John Hackett says this does seem to be mutually exclusive with a few other proposals for Lords reform but none of them are seeing much discussion either. As far as I can see, the only ones which made it past the cut are:

This particular proposal seems a bit arbitrary to me and the comments in the previous phase raised significant difficulties which I don't think were answered (which is perhaps why you seem a bit lukewarm on it, John?). I think there could be a place for jury ratification of specific legislation, as steveg33 has suggested, but I can't see it (nor the randomly selected proposal) as a satisfactory replacement for the Lords.

Personally I favour ScepticOptimist's proposal in 'A smaller parliament' and I strongly oppose James Doran's proposal to simply abolish the Upper House. To my mind, that would leave the Commons stronger than it already is and I'm not confident that most of the electoral reforms being proposed would make it significantly more responsive to the public will. 

But I think the credibility of the proposed constitution will be severely compromised if it doesn't make some coherent proposal for Lords reform so some more discussion on the different options would be good.


Jake Wellman Apr 13, 2015

Jhackett, any proposal with a positive number of votes will proceed on to the Constitutional Convention for final consideration. Therefore, it is best to form these ideas into complete suggestions that can be considered by a group of users for inclusion in the end product. Do you have a idea of what this text may include?


-JWellman, moderator

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Mark Cooke Apr 14, 2015

Everything about this sounds completely unworkable, I'm afraid.

I like the idea of citizen juries on issues like MPs expenses, but I just can't see it being workable for the whole range of legislation.  If you want to pursue this, I'd suggest looking at how it could be integrated with idea of random selection.

John Hackett Apr 17, 2015

It's a little late in the day now, but here's an approximation of the text.

"A Citizen's Jury from each of the regions of the United Kingdom shall be convened for each bill to pass through parliament. A college of these juries shall decide on whether the bill is to become statute, or to be returned to Parliament for another reading.

"Electoral colleges made up of jurors shall be assmebled in the most convenient local area, with designated localities to be chosen by an independent commission. The commission in question will also be charged with ensuring facilities are adequate and available for the duration of the jurors. This will include accomodation and conference facilities, and access to local recreation facilities.

"Each electoral college will have a single vote, being cast for or against the bill in question. Colleges may also issue advisory statements about specific passages of the bill.

"A bill may only pass if a majority of electoral colleges has voted in favour of it.

"The jury shall be recompensed for their time, and bound to deliver a verdict or to abstain from judgement within three months.


1) It is important to remember that this system will still have a consistent interplay with the Lower House - eg, there's nothing to stop the elected representatives sending a bill back for reconsideration. This would be done by a different jury, so the process would be relatively difficult.

2) This is, it turns out, a surprisingly difficult idea to spell out in detail.

Balancing the idea of representativeness (of the kind a statistician might demand) and the ability to comfortably accomodate all participants in a single room is the core of this difficulty. Doing so without causing undue disruption to anyone's life or compromising the legitimacy of the house is even more difficult.

I still remain committed to the principle of a Citizen's Jury as an upper house if we are to have one, but the implementation of it is difficult to say the least. Partly this is because it is without precedent anywhere in the world, to my knowledge. With few examples to follow, I've found myself very distracted by the possible variations in the details, which have rightly been observed to be little devils. I could write half a dozen versions of this, if I gave myself the time - such is the variation available.

Still, as has been observed by Nicholas, I've become lukewarm to the idea even though I've suggested it. The work involved in designing a functioning, sensible version of this would, I suspect, be protracted and potentially highly technical. Things it might include are a study in what a minimal reliable sample size would be for attaining representativeness, and studying the extent to which this varies by region. That's the stuff of political scientists and psephologists, and isn't something a humble citizen could realistically hope to do without expending years of work on the subject, I suspect. I think evaluating a proposal is likely to be considerably easier than writing one.

One form of the idea I'm inclined towards is suggesting that the Citizen's Jury should take on an effectively consultative role, to advise other citizens on whether or not to challenge the idea by referendum (see on referenda). It may, however, be a little late to do this, but if we weren't pressed for time I'd suggest this might be a more fruitful avenue and would address the difficulty of balancing logistical issues with jury size and representativeness by not imbuing the jury with too much power.

In summary:

* I've reduced the size of the jury to 51, but brought in a collegiate style system. This incorporates an element of the idea of using the regions as a senate, as each 'college' is set in a specific region. This is a pretty radical re-imagining of the idea, as I don't think getting a thousand people in one place is workable.

This reduces commute for the jury, and expense for the system itself by lowering the number of people involved. It still ends up with over 500 jurists, and would require assent from at least half of them for bills to pass, but the process becomes logistically simpler for participants and organisers alike.

* I've added a time limit.

* I've also added a threshhold for each electoral college of >50% of the participants, eg, 26/51

* I think I've also thrown in the towel on this idea, because an agreeable implementation of this particular idea is an extremely challenging thing to come to without leaving it innately compromised, I think. It's not clear to me that there's a good way forward here - the principle remains sound, though.

It's worth more thought, and I'll be thinking about this for long after this convention is concluded, but I don't believe it can realistically be included. It's a difficult question, really, as I don't see the value in another Parliament, especially if we're accepting of the idea of the citizen's initiative. That strikes me as a "anyone who wants to participate is part of the upper house" system, which beats secondary parliaments as well as juries.