The value of parliamentarians

In a previous post, I raised the issue of how to value the work of the House of Lords.  How does one ascribe monetary value to thousands of improvements achieved to measures passing through Parliament?  In that post, I touched upon the problems of ascribing value to individual parliamentarians.  Some analysts have sought to do it through looking at measurable activity in terms of the number of speeches made or the number of votes cast.  That, as I mentioned, is to confuse quantity with quality.  Speaking frequently in the chamber may have little impact – indeed, may be counter productive if one has a reputation for speaking too often – and there is an opportunity cost.  Sitting in the chamber may not be as rewarding as having a private meeting with a minister or questioning a witness at a committee meeting.  I have drawn attention in an earlier post to the importance of the use of informal space in Parliament: meeting informally with colleagues may achieve more than through making a speech on the public record.

During my time in the Lords, I have achieved various changes to legislation, but the main work in doing so has not been in the chamber: proceedings in the House have been the culmination of work done away from the chamber or through work in (or giving evidence to) committees.  One of my most productive periods was when I chaired the Constitution Committee of the Lords, which included using the chair’s prerogative to draft reports.  I wrote the Committee’s report on Parliament and the Legislative Process, which was accepted by the committee essentially as it stood and has been something of a template for subsequent legislative reform. Indeed, my main work throughout my time in the House has been through committee rather than the chamber.

My work, though, is minor relative to what has been achieved by some other parliamentarians, some of whom are especially adept at working to influence outcomes.  Such work, though, does not necessarily lend itself to observable decision-making.  The most effective MPs and peers can sometimes be those who do not have a high public profile.  Conversely, some who are busy gaining a public profile – a number are especially adept at gaining media attention – may not carry a great deal of weight with colleagues.  The emphasis on quantifiable activity – number of questions tabled, speeches given – may not only be misleading, but can be harmful.  MPs in particular are conscious of the attention given to such quantification, so can feel pressured to make more speeches or table questions in order not to appear to be neglecting their duties.  This can absorb time and resources of both the Member and the House – tabling questions carries a cost to the public purse – and is  time and energy that could arguably be more productively employed for the public good.

The most important question addressed to parliamentarians should not be ‘what have you done?’, but ‘what have you achieved?’   That would help focus the mind.  The importance of the question needs to be recognised, though, as much by the media and other commentators as by members at whom it is addressed.  Journalists are drawn to the easy data because it is cheap and available.  Addressing what parliamentarians have actually achieved, be it for the wider public good, local causes or constituents, is more demanding, but it a question that merits asking.  For MPs, it may also be helpful in focusing the mind on outcomes rather than sheer activity.  For members of the public, it may help them realise that there is more to parliamentarians than sitting in a chamber, heckling one’s opponents, and looking for the camera.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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