Despite having served over forty years as a member of the House of Commons I am discovering on appointment to the House of Lords how much I have to learn about how the Upper House works.
In a typical week at Westminster there is rarely any pressing need for MPs to familiarise themselves with proceedings in the Lords Chamber or attend meetings and receptions held by all party interest groups which embrace both Houses. At a more specialist level there are regular contacts between ministers, whips and business managers. There are also some specialist joint committees. However, for the most part MPs are too concerned with the daily demands of their Commons workload to be over-bothered by what is happening ‘up the corridor’.
Over time I had learned where some particular offices and facilities in the Lords were located, but its geography as a whole was a mystery to me. I had never been to the higher floors and getting from one part of the building to another by the shortest route was at first a struggle, even with the map provided.
Another handicap – not altogether unexpected – affecting my arrival in the Lords was the absence of office, desk and telephone. For the last half of my career in the Commons my status and seniority had ensured me rather good accommodation. On my return to Westminster therefore it was disappointing to have to perch where I could for several weeks before some office space could be allocated. In the meantime the early delivery of I.T. equipment could be no more than a limited asset. However, it now has a home.
The fulcrum of Lords activity is, of course, the chamber. At first glance it might look similar to the Commons after taking account of red leather benches, not green. However, the reality is different. The first and most important lesson to be understood by a peer who arrives in the Lords from the Lower House is that the Upper House is self-regulating. Whereas in the Commons all remarks are addressed to the Chair, contributions in the Lords are directed to the House as a whole. Although the Lords has a presiding officer in the form of the Lord Speaker seated on the Woolsack, that person does not have the powers of intervention, control and discipline invested in the Commons Speaker. This factor perhaps more than anything dictates the different style in which business is conducted. Having had a long spell in the Commons, I have had to guard myself from beginning a speech or question with the words “Mr. Speaker” when the correct address is “My Lords”.
For set-piece debates a list of speakers is published. Peers indicate in advance their wish to speak and the order in which they are called is chosen by the whips. This appears to work entirely smoothly. The same cannot be said of Question Time. Whilst the time allowed should be shared between the party groups (with preferential treatment for the bishops) it is not always clear which group or which person in a group should get the next supplementary. The Chamber can sometimes resemble an auction house and in extreme cases it is the Government Chief Whip, not the Lord Speaker, who adjudicates. Knowing one’s place in these circumstances is part of the learning curve.
For someone who has been a backbench member of the Commons for many years the most dramatic difference on becoming a peer is having no constant inflow of mail. No more do you have constituents to whose needs you must attend. For MPs long gone are the years when an annual visit to the constituency sufficed. Nor did people habitually think of contacting their MP to seek help or pass on their views. The position has radically altered. No matter is considered too minor for MPs to fix and they are frequently seen (incorrectly) as sources of legal and financial advice. Despite sending them to Westminster as their representative, voters also like to see them out and about in all corners of the constituency.
Politics quite simply has become a fulltime profession increasingly difficult to combine with any other activity. Many men and women who would enrich public life through membership of the Commons choose otherwise. It is seen as a profession with too many risks. Merit is absolutely no guarantee of success.
To counteract these perceived disadvantages changes have been made. A substantial staff allowance enables the administrative workload to be eased. The hours of sitting have become more family-friendly. Business is strictly timetabled. However, increased regard for what may be urgent or topical has eaten into time intended for the consideration of legislation.
The rest of this editorial will be published in full at a later time.