The Lords deserve better…

_42544443_lords_bbc203The Electoral Reform Society has published a short document entitled House of Lords: Fact vs Fiction, which claims to shatter myths about the House of Lords.  It does no such thing.  ‘Far from being a chamber of experts’, it declares, ‘the Lords is more often a chamber of ex-politicians’.  The problem with this statement is that it derives from equating expertise solely with cross-bench peers.  Expertise is not confined to the cross-benches, but can be found in all parts of the House.  Nor is it a chamber of ex-politicians.  By the document’s own figures, almost two-thirds of peers are not drawn from backgrounds in representational politics or working for the parties (‘ex-politicians’).  Cross-benchers who aren’t affiliated with a political party, we are told, ‘only account for 23% of peers’.  Only?  Only?  How many other chambers have almost a quarter of their membership not affiliated with a political party?  There are factual inaccuracies.  Hereditary peerages do not in all cases ‘pass to the first born son’, as doubtless the Countess of Mar (and the now retired Lady Saltoun) could explain.  There is no recognition of the leadership roles assumed by women peers.  We are told that various claims are made about the House (as on representativeness), but without any source being provided for these claims.

The finding most seized upon by the media, though, is that in the last session £100,000 was claimed in attendance allowances by peers who did not take part in any divisions.   This has been reported uncritically, including by broadsheets such as The Daily Telegraph, with no attempt to explain or engage with the finding.  It is taken as inherently problematic.  Why is this taken in isolation of peers’ contributions to debates, to question time, and to committees?  It may be relevant if a peer makes no contribution at all, but isolating voting behaviour tells us very little.   The House will be sitting for two weeks in September.  There will be question times and debates throughout.  It is possible that there may not be a single vote.

There is a grudging acknowledgement that ‘the Upper Chamber, at its best, performs a crucial role in scrutinising and revising government legislation and providing a check on prime ministerial power’.  It actually does more than this.  It is important that the distinctive contribution made by the House, having a beneficial effect that is difficult to quantify in economic terms (what price preventing enactments that could have disastrous consequences?) but which cannot be achieved by the alternatives variously put forward, is recognised.  There is a case for reform to address issues of size and political balance, but one needs to put the benefits alongside the problems.  There is a powerful case to be made for the House of Lords and it is important that it is heard.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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7 Responses to The Lords deserve better…

  1. JH says:

    I suppose spin is expected from a pressure group, but I found the lack of depth and detailed figures in the report (with sources merely listed at the end) rather disappointing. The headline figure struck me as highly questionable – a seemingly big figure but spread across x people over x years and it could equate to only a few day’s attendance and so a lack of voting may not be surprising. I guess if they had a more supportable point, they would have made it. The desire of some to denigrate part-time or occasional contributions and promote full-time roles is blinkered at best.

  2. labeldesalis says:

    Who or what use or good is The Electoral Reform Society anyway?!

  3. tizres says:

    Presumably, the cartoons within demonstrates their preferred level of audience.

  4. labeldesalis says:

    golly, I’ve just looked at it, It is appalling. Combined with Labour & Corbyn it shows some of the country is nearing evil.

  5. maude elwes says:

    The Lords may feel they deserve better, however, it has come as a remarkable wake up call to me that the general public, including myself, had no idea our GE votes are not part of a secret ballot. Call me an idiot as I did have an incling of course, as our polling cards have reference numbers, but, I was still unaware that our ballot papers were kept and registered to us and then searched by our security departments long after the ballot is over. It seems thisis in order to see if we vote communist. What a joke.

    It was the Labour Party telling us recently that they were searching through our personal information on Facebook, etc., that rang the bell. It was the checking of our voting record they mentioned that caused me to realise we do not come close to having a private, and more importantly, secret vote.

    I had put this up on the LOTB asking why and how this could be, under Rennard the fox, but, it was once again swallowed up, not even found fit for moderation.

    So my beef is, the Lords may think they deserve better, however I think it far more important the public are treated and deserve better than this hotbed of misinformation and outright lies we are fed by those in parliament. And the absolute unbelievable incredulity that the Labour Party, or any other party, could go though our voting history on a whim in order to selct those whose votes they want to discard. This must be illegal. To threaten and bully the voters by telling them they will be exposed as traitors or what have you, should they choose as their leader or MP, someone who doesn’t suit those in office, is abuse of the worst kind. And those doing it presently should be fined heavily or even found criminal and given a sentence for doing so.

    http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,,-1051,00.html

  6. maude elwes says:

    I am adding this copy of the Guardian expose as it appears we are unable to find it via the url.

    Notes and Queries

    THIS SCEPTRED ISLE

    What happens to the voting slips used in British elections after they have been counted?

    UNDER the Representation of the People Act 1983 the Returning Officer, usually a senior official of the local council, has to ensure that all ballot papers, counterfoils and the polling clerks’ marked copies of the electoral register are safely deposited with the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (a senior officer of the Lord Chancellor’s Department). This is so that if any corrupt or illegal election practices are reported the appropriate documents are available for inspection. All such documents are supposed to be officially sealed so that there is no chance of interference by any party and, according to the 1983 act, the seal can only be broken by the order of the High Court or Parliament itself. In practice ballot papers are simply bundled-up into paper sacks and transported to a warehouse in Hayes, Middlesex, for the statutory period of one year and one day. Following the 1987 general election, I reported on the disposal of the 7,000 sacks of this ‘low-grade confidential waste’ for a national newspaper. The papers were transported by truck from the Hayes warehouse to be incinerated in the North London Waste Authority plant at Enfield. During that process we witnessed dozens of sacks splitting and many hundreds of spent ballot papers spilling for all to see. This adds weight to the conspiracy theory that security around the election documents is very lax, and that the vote-tracing procedure has been used to identify people voting for fringe candidates. Votes can be traced by matching the numbered ballot paper to its similarly numbered counterfoil; the numbered counterfoil also bears the voter’s registration number from the electoral register which is hand-written by the Polling Clerk when the ballot paper is issued. As all the ballot papers for each candidate – including fringe candidates such as Sinn Fein, communists, fascists, nationalists, etc. – are bundled together, anyone having access to those documents can speedily trace the name and address of every voter for such candidates if they wish. In 1981 Gordon Winter – a former agent of BOSS, the South African Secret Service – writing in his book, Inside Boss, claimed that the South African government knew the identity of everyone who voted for the Communist Party of Great Britain – thanks to British intelligence using this simple vote-tracing procedure. In any event, the notion that we have a secret vote is very misleading. One positive outcome of the 1987 general election, however, was that the incineration of 91 tons of ballot papers contributed to the 21 megawatts per hour output of the North London Waste Authority plant, which supplies electricity to Tottenham.

    David Northmore, Author of The Freedom Of Information Handbook, London W1.

    I DO NOT know what happens to the voting slips for Conservative candidates, after they have been counted, but in the mid-1960s those for communists were tallied against their counterfoils in the ballot books (just like cheque books) and those who had had the temerity to vote for a communist were identified from the electoral roll. Their names were forwarded to Special Branch and to MI5, almost certainly as a matter of routine. The source for this information was a good one. He was a postgraduate student doing his doctoral research on local government in a Midlands steel town where he was attached to the town clerk’s department. One day he opened a cupboard, looking for some documents, and found instead a large number of ballot slips, all of which were marked in favour of a communist candidate in the local elections. The town clerk returned and found the student with the slips and told him (knowing the student’s safely right-wing views) that it was one of his regular chores to forward the names of communist voters to the Special Branch. As the town had a strong communist tradition it was a recurrent task for the town clerk and the slips had been put to one side until he had time to deal with them. The then student (my informant) saw nothing wrong with this procedure – which made his account the more believable.

    Michael Wilson, Thame, Oxon.

    I WAS interested to read Michael Wilson’s letter about ballot papers cast for communist candidates. What he describes was not the practice everywhere in the country. In the 1950s and 1960s I was the town clerk of two Lancashire authorities where we not only had communist candidates but also communist members on the councils for short periods. While the ballot papers cast for the communist candidates were dealt with in the same way as those for other parties, it is true that police acting on behalf of the Special Branch did take an interest in these candidates. They always came to the town hall and took the names of the proposer, seconder and assentors of the communist candidates. However this information, unlike the ballot paper, is not secret and was published in an election notice.

    J. W. Blomeley, Streatley-on-Thames, Berks.

    LIBERTY (the National Council for Civil Liberties) has long been worried about the risk to the secrecy of the ballot described by your correspondents and has proposed that election law be reformed to make vote-tracing impossible, by removing the requirement that voters’ electoral register numbers are written on the counterfoils of the ballots issued to them. Liberty would welcome information about improper vote-tracing, such as described last week in Michael Wilson’s letter. He and anybody else who has information about this are invited to contact (directly or through an intermediary) Andrew Puddephatt, Liberty’s General Secretary, at 21 Tabard Street, London SE1 4LA (tel: 071-403 3888).

    Seamus O’Connell, London NW6.

    TWO further questions are prompted by the letters about serial numbers on ballot papers. First, if I delete or cut off the serial number do I invalidate my vote? Second, have serial numbers ever been used for their official purpose – the investigation of electoral fraud?

    Janet Johnson, Rugby, Warwicks.

    JANET Johnson asks if serial numbers on ballot papers have ever been used for their official purpose: the investigation of electoral fraud. There was a case in the late 1970s in a council election in Richmond-upon-Thames. A German couple living in Gerard Road, Barnes, turned up to vote. They were not entitled to as they were not British citizens, but the poll clerk confused them with another family with a very similar name only two doors away, and they registered their vote. When the correct Mrs Such & Such turned up to vote she was told her name was marked as having already voted, and was allowed only a ‘tendered’ vote, which meant she could mark a ballot paper that was not put in the ballot box but kept separate. In the same street a girl was unwisely persuaded by a political agent to vote, although her name was marked with a ‘Y’ on the voting register as she had not quite reached voting age. The result of the election in our ward was extremely close, but after recounts the Conservative candidate was declared the winner with a majority of only one or two votes. At this, the genuine voter with a German name demanded that her case be looked into. It was established that her vote was valid and her German neighbours’ not. The under-age girl’s vote was also ruled invalid. By means of the serial numbers of the ballot papers copied on to the voting register, the invalid papers were traced and it was discovered that all three were for the Conservative candidate. The ‘tendered’ vote was for the Liberal. Thus the result was to reverse the outcome of the election in our ward.

    Margaret Sharp, Barnes, London SW13.

    I asked the clerk why the ballot papers were numbered as they could trace my vote, which I naively assumed was supposed to be confidential and anonymous. The clerk indignantly answered that there was no way to track my name from the paper, which was a blatant lie. I am sure that data from all ballots are stored, and the consequent lists are used by political parties when canvassing. I saw them use one such list in a documentary about the BNP.

    A. Dale, Beckenham, England

    I was appalled tonight to see my vote in the police commissioner elections was logged by number and should any person wish to do so they could easily cross reference the numbers and see how I voted. I suspected this previously at general elections but was assured that this was not the case. It clearly is the case. I thought we prided ourselves in the UK as the leaders in the Democratic process, but this is clearly not the case. Surely something has to be done about this or am I being too naive?

    Bernard Inns, Malvern WORCS

    I too asked similar questions about the potential non-secrecy of numbering my slip on Thursday at the polling station. The officer behind the desk gave the same reassuring replies that the numbering system was only to ensure that ‘people didn’t vote twice’ etc and that things would never be abused by those in power. I assumed of course that she was either simple or lying tho I inclined toward the former and so I did not press the point but thanked her courteously and voted. I’ve since read that the secret ballot was introduced explicitly to guard against worker intimidation by landlords/bosses in the 1860’s, not against governmental interference. Oh well.

    Asavarus, High Wycombe Uk

    Whilst convalescing after illness back in 2008, I had a job selling and fitting window blinds both residentially and commercially. One job saw me required to measure up windows in recreation halls, dining halls, and common parts of an open prison near Wetherby. Four weeks after the order was placed I turned up to fit blinds–all 28 of them–and was quickly checked through security and given an order by the Head Bod as to which to do the jobs, so that inmates did not get a chance to rifle through my tool-box, I guess. I was unsupervised as inmates were either locked up or on open exercise, or in workshops. About 3 hours into the job I entered a large room in which inmates were working round a table, unsupervised,and I ignored them and started work. It quickly became clear what they were up to. Four had lists which were plainly Voters Rolls, and four others called out numbers. ” Right these is red ones (Labour)–” and numbers from the voting slips were called out and ticked off with suitable coloured crayons. Next Blue–Next Green etc etc..Votes were conveniently bundled together –per colour–so the only chore was to search for the reference number cross referred with the voters name. Sheets of multi-coloured names were piled high on the floor. Suddenly a Warder type person came in, and bawled me out for being ” Where I wasn’t supposed to be” so I gave him a smart answer that his superior had listed me the room numbers I was clear to fit blinds in. He was not happy–not at all, clearly ex copper or ex-military–and bundled me out telling me ” I had seen nothing “–and falsely advising that my mere presence put me under the Official Secrets Act!! The fact he was carrying 5 pouches of loose tobacco and a huge packet of Rizla roll-up paper for fags made it obvious he was on an earner getting inmates to sort votes in return for “Snout”! That folks is what happens to voting slips after they have been counted.

    ken streete, leeds

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