Every so often, one sees in the press or on Twitter someone claiming that the House of Lords does not represent value for money. This will often derive from the figures published for the annual cost of the House or the daily allowance that may be claimed or is claimed. Some of the criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of the figures – the cost averaged out per peer is not the figure it will cost the public purse if a new peer is created, for example – but there is a more fundamental point. There is no clear criterion or criteria offered by which to assess value. Some academics have sought to work out the value of peers by the number of speeches made or questions tabled, but that is to mistake quantity for quality. Speeches or questions tell one nothing about the value of the House in terms of public good.
Two of the principal functions of the House are legislative scrutiny and calling the government to account. In a parliamentary session, it is not unusual for several hundred amendments to be secured to Government Bills in the House of Lords. (In the 1999-2000 session, it was closer to 5,000.) Most of these are moved by Government, but – as the research of Meg Russell has shown – many if not most will have their genesis in amendments moved at earlier stages by backbenchers or members of the Opposition front bench. Some of the amendments make substantial differences to Bills. I recall the campaign to get rid of Schedule 7 of the Public Bodies Bill. Had that been enacted, it would have thrown a large number of public bodies, including some quasi-judicial bodies, into potential turmoil for years. How do you place a monetary value on avoiding that? If one could, one then need to work out the value in monetary terms of all the other changes achieved by the House.
And what value does one place on good government and ensuring the Government does not become overly powerful? The Lords has been particularly vigilant in respect of ministers seeking powers through Henry VIII provisions, enabling them by order to amend primary legislation. I have made the point elsewhere that whereas the House of Commons is characterised by the politics of assertion, the House of Lords is characterised by the politics of justification. It helps ensure that ministers seek to explain and justify their actions. It can serve as an important deterrent.
The statute book may not be perfect and Government may not be about to win prizes for being the very best, but the statute book would be in a far worse state, and the quality of Government much diminished, were it not for the work of the House of Lords. It is impossible to place a monetary value on what it does. If one could it would help put claims about the value of the House in perspective.