by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 29
January 2020
Idea
11:52

The House of Lords should become the Future Chamber

As things stand, the House of Lords is even more reactive than the Commons.

It’s great that we’ve had such a vigorous debate on whether we should let the Chinese rebuild the internet. Well done to the media for making time in their busy schedule of discussing minor royalty and fifty pence pieces.

Unfortunately, it’s all come a bit too late. The Government has merely confirmed a decision that was already made. We should have had the argument about 5G and Huawei a long time ago. And, yes, today’s dilemmas could and should have been anticipated.

Just as 4G superseded 3G, it was inevitable that one day 5G would replace 4G. We had years to look around and see who was taking the lead on the new technology; years to ask whether our emerging dependency on China was something we might want to do something about; years to ask whether flogging off our leading tech companies to foreigners might limit our options in years to come.

But where is the high profile, high status forum for future-facing debate? Not Parliament, that’s for sure — whose focus is on the minutiae of current legislation and select committee reports into things that have already gone wrong.

Of course, our brightest, most dynamic MPs do have some long-term concerns, mostly about their own careers. This isn’t unreasonable, but the problem is that thinking disruptive thoughts on established government policy isn’t the best way to win promotion. In appointing each junior minister, what Downing Street wants is a cog for the machine, not a spanner in the works.

Perhaps we should give the job of thinking ahead to the House of Lords. As things stand, the other place is even more reactive than the Commons. Legislatively, its current job is to clean-up after our elected representatives, not lead the way.

But what if we turned the ‘revising chamber’ into an ‘envisioning chamber’? Instead of checking the Commons’ homework, its main job would be to challenge the government on its preparations for the future — including the far future (i.e. any time beyond the next general election).

It would have the power to summon and question not just ministers, but senior civil servants too — because the direction of long-term policy development is often set by officials not politicians. Either way, the decisions and non-decisions that shape the future should not go unexamined.