I am not very good at remembering anniversaries. Each year, I think I ought to have a little celebration on 1 August – the date on which I became a peer – but then 1 August comes and goes and some days later I remember I should have done something about it. However, I have realised that this autumn marks the 30th anniversary of becoming Professor of Government at Hull University. (I was very young at the time you understand – indeed, the youngest professor of politics in the country.) Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of me being appointed to the Politics Department at Hull and the year following will mark the 20th anniversary of my elevation to the peerage. I think I had better get organising receptions. This could prove expensive.
I have previously drawn attention to the various names by which I have been addressed in correspondence, some more inventive than others. One morning recently, I received letters addressed to His Excellency Lord Norton of Louth (fine by me!), L Norton of Louth, and – one that really outdoes all the more outlandish ones so far – ‘! of Norton’.
Not sure what to make of that – or indeed how to pronounce it.
The House of Lords is not immune from media criticism. Some of it is justified. Much of it is not, but the House constitutes an easy target for the cynicism that tends to pervade coverage of politics. It also suffers from ignorance of what it does. This may at times be wilful ignorance or simply the result of increased pressure on resources, with media devoting more resources to human interest stories than politics.
The House has a problem when it is attacked in the media, not least in terms of generating a quick and authoritative response. Some of the difficulties, and what we do in the face of criticism, were discussed in the House last night in a Question for Short Debate (QSD) initiated by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. The number of speakers was such that we had two-minutes each. My speech was succinct – I kept well within the limit – and I think the point it makes is clear:
Lord Norton of Louth (Con): My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hodgson on raising this timely debate and endorse what he and other colleagues have said. In the time available, I want to raise a fundamental question, one already touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. It is fundamental to this House, this Parliament and indeed Parliaments generally.
If a crisis erupts affecting a company, there is a chairman or CEO who can speak for the company. Companies can, and good companies do, plan ahead in terms of crisis management. But what happens if a crisis hits the House of Lords? Who speaks for the House of Lords? Who speaks for Parliament? There is no one figure in a position to do so. That is why each House is always on the back foot if it is hit by a crisis. We cannot respond immediately and authoritatively, because there is no equivalent of a chairman or a company CEO. We need to beef up our excellent media team to be ready to respond but press officers can only inform. They can report and give information but they cannot be the face of Parliament or speak authoritatively for Parliament. That is the fundamental conundrum which we, as Members, need to address. We cannot hive off the responsibility; the sooner we address it, the better.
At the beginning of each year, I table a parliamentary question asking how many items of correspondence were received in the Palace of Westminster in the previous year (and, of these, what proportion was received in the House of Lords). There is a clear pattern of decline in the number of letters written to parliamentarians. I have just received the answer covering 2015.
The figures for 2005 onwards are (with the percentage going to the Lords in parenthesis):
2005 4,733,000 (estimate) (20%)
2006 4,789,935 (no % given for the Lords)
2007 4,199,853 (20%)
2008 4,135,144 (15%)
2009 3,540,080 (25%)
2010 3,082,187 (25%)
2011 2,691,576 (25%)
2012 2,544,019 (25%)
2013 2,490,256 (25%)
2014 2,234,763 (25%)
2015 2,200,504 (25%)
The decline does not mean that MPs and peers receive less correspondence than before. It just means that it does not come in paper form. Paper communication, which is time consuming and expensive for people to send, has been supplanted by e-mail, which is more efficient and cheaper than snail mail. MPs especially are now inundated with e-mails from individuals and campaign organisations (and fellow parliamentarians – internal e-mail occupies a good part of the in-box). We do not have data on the number of e-mails that come in, but the number appears to exceed substantially what previously arrived in paper form.
For MPs, over and above the issue of resources for dealing with the sheer volume of electronic communication, there is the problem of verifying that e-mails are actually from constituents and deciding whether e-mails should have priority over letters. There is also the opportunity cost of having to deal with all this correspondence. This is becoming a serious issue. It is not clear how to resolve it. The extent of it is masked by the decline in the volume of letters flowing into the Palace.
Last Wednesday, the House debated the Strathclyde Review – the report produced by Lord Strathclyde in the light of the failure of the House to approve the Tax Credits Regulations last October. Lord Strathclyde outlined three options for restricting or removing the powers of the House in respect of secondary legislation.
Because of the number of speakers, there was an advisory speaking time of six minutes, so our speeches were relatively short. You can read my speech here. I have also done a longer piece for the UCL Constitution Unit blog: you can read it here. The Review, as I argued, is fundamentally flawed. It proceeds from a false premise, namely that the House failed to comply with a constitutional convention. The claim that the House does not reject a statutory instrument or rarely does so does not constitute a convention – it cannot, since the claim refers to a practice, but not an invariable practice – and even if it did it was not breached, as the House did not reject the regulations, but voted for an amendment to delay them until certain conditions were met.
Even if one accepts that there is a case for addressing the powers of the House in respect of secondary legislation, the focus is too narrow. The House of Lords is the only House with a systematic and effective mechanism for scrutinising secondary legislation. Its Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee fulfil valuable roles. The Commons has no equivalent committees. It has neither the mechanisms nor the political will to engage in detailed scrutiny of statutory instruments. If one limits the powers of the House of Lords in respect of secondary legislation, one is not protecting the primacy of the House of Commons, but rather strengthening the position of the Government.
The year has got off to a good start. Two articles of mine are published this month as well as a book chapter. This morning, I received the January issue of Parliamentary Affairs, which carries my article on ‘The Fixed-term Parliaments Act and Votes of Confidence’. I had already received a copy of the January issue of Public Law, which includes my analysis of what happens if a Prime Minister dies. It is a subject in which academics have not shown much interest, but which has exercised the minds of successive Cabinet Secretaries.
This month also sees the print publication (it is already available electronically) of an edited volume on parliamentarians’ professional development, in which I have a chapter on the training of MPs in the United Kingdom. It used to be the case that MPs received no training, or indeed any guidance, but were expected to turn up on the first day of Parliament and take it from there. Some Members turned up never having set foot before in the Palace of Westminster. Though Members were often socialised into party activity, they had no knowledge of how the House of Commons operated. The situation has improved significantly over the past thirty years, with training and guidance sessions laid on by the parties and House authorities, but there is still some way to go.