The value of the House of Lords

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 would 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.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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21 Responses to The value of the House of Lords

  1. Phil Turtle says:

    And that dear Lord Norton is why although everyone loves to take a pop at the House of Lords none can find a better alternative. Long may your house continue to keep politics (relatively) sane. Phil Turtle.

  2. William MacDougall says:

    The Lords is a great and valuable part of our constitution. The biggest problem is its ridiculous size, easily solved: draw lots, and reduce it to 200 members. Would have about the same political and talent mix, but would become more practical and respected.

    • Croft says:

      No, 200 would completely change the house. You’d have to get rid of the XB and independant peers almost entirely. Even the active party peers are double that number. You’d get a more political house with fewer 9if any) experts and more burnt out MPs kicked upstairs as golden parachute.

      • William MacDougall says:

        Why would you have to get rid of XB and independents? My proposal is the drawing of lots among all members to choose 200 at random. It would have about the same proportion of XB and independents. I’m not suggesting changing the make up, just the size.

    • tizres says:

      Instead of plucking a figure out of the air, it would be more useful to tot up the number of hours put in by members of HoL, and work out how many are needed; given the various functions, 200 peers would not be feasible. Also, random selection would only compound problems of imbalance, not just by party but by all protected characteristics.

      • William MacDougall says:

        Well the US Senate manages with 100, Canada with 105, Australia 76, Germany with 69, and Japan 242. I would suggest 100 members, but I think we could live with 200. It would indeed duplicate the current problems of imbalance, but not compound them; let’s fix one problem at a time.

      • tizres says:

        WM: irrelevant.

      • Croft says:

        The US senate taking your first example doesn’t have government ministers so is a poor comparison. Its also slightly amusing in respect of a ‘numbers’ reduction argument given the senators average around 34 staff each and once you include ‘officials’ totals >5k.

        Different groups have wildly different attendance. Just to fullfill core functions you’d need more party peers than you figures allow unless you go the US route.

      • Croft says:

        Just to add detail; Once you remove the ministers (who obviously can’t scrutinise the government in committee!) their shadows in other parties you have lost a large proportion of you 200 already (25 for the government alone)

        If you think the remainder can handle more work then I think you might find they want more than under half a staff member each which is the present share!

  3. William MacDougall says:

    Dear Croft, so perhaps we should compromise on 300? Still a vast improvement…

    • James Hand says:

      As an earlier comment has either gone into the spam or the WordPress blackhole, I will just say that 300 full-timers is not necessarily better than 450-600 part-timers (and the latter would still see a fair reduction)

      • Croft says:

        Certainly trading in 2 or 3 XB peers who are experts in science or medicine etc and only attend on those areas for one full time peer who is at best an expert in one area, and perhaps none, (full timers generally being more likely to be professional politicians) doesn’t obviously seem an improvement.

        I’m not saying the HoL isn’t too big. But the numbers argument often misses the point about attendance -v- numbers and what different peers contribute. As in my above example the HoL is very unusual (internationally) in having experts inside the chamber.

      • Croft says:

        I do think the house could do with fixed terms which would, in part, address numbers. Experts do (unless they are still working) lose their up-to-date knowledge over time and can indeed become a nuisance.

      • James Hand says:

        My concern with non-renewable fixed-terms is that diversity of experience in the House would be curtailed, that the available direct memory would be shortened (can be useful to have people who can draw on experience from when the matter arose e.g. 20 years before) and, if applied retrospectively (unlike the Speaker’s committee recommendations), Lord Norton would be time barred.

      • Croft says:

        I’d not support retrospective changes but for new creations only. While I can see your argument on collective memory that can be a strength but also a weakness. Arguments of the past can very easily be relevant to the past (and wrong event then) but irrelevant to present circumstances. Given how many peers are ex-MPs events of 20 yrs prior will not be lost under any circumstances.

  4. Croft says:

    LN: I just had occasion to look at the Hull website (Politics and International Relations) The picture of Lucy Dunwell looking angelically upwards (styled like she’s enthused by a lecture – with a quotation eulogising you) did remind me of those Baroque veneration of Jesus paintings!

    I’ll let readers decide 🙂

    http://www.hull.ac.uk/Study/UG/2018/politics.aspx (half way down page)

  5. Pingback: Lords reform: 1911 all over again…. | The Norton View

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