My fellow blogger, Frances D’Souza, and I have been interviewed about the ‘LordsoftheBlog’ project for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Week in Westminster’, broadcast on Saturday morning. Even the respected journalist Elinor Goodman – hostess of this week’s discussion – couldn’t resist challenging us on our motives. Is this just PR (that is ‘public relations’, rather than anything to do with voting) or has it any real democratic value? Well, that’s for you to judge.
However, I took her to task. If democracy doesn’t involve any relationship with the public, what is it for? Modern technology enables representatives to listen to a much wider selection of the public. Those with money and influence may have had a hot line to Ministers, MPs and Peers in the past. Now every citizen who has a genuine, informed, personal interest can make their voice heard. MPs and Peers still have to use their own judgement, but at least they can (and should) have a wider range of views to base it on. That is effective public relations.
Naturally, we were also asked if we were paid to do this. Hearty laughter from both of us. Peers receive no salary, and get nothing extra for communicating they do. Instead we receive a (modest) allowance for every day we attend the Lords (in the Chamber itself) or in Committee. To be fair we should also say that these allowances are tax-free, so if a Peer is also earning a good salary elsewhere (I say ‘not guilty’ to that) the allowances are a useful bonus. And, of course, some Peers are a great deal busier here than others, but it would be difficult to base the amount paid on the number of words we speak or write. It certainly would be totally wrong to fix the sum paid by counting up the number of times each of us votes. We do not want to be just ‘voting fodder’, voice-less sheep herded through the Division Lobbies!
Parliament should however take a serious look at the considerable number of Peers who have been awarded lucrative Government jobs at the heads of the various quangos. It seems to me that people shouldn’t, at one and the same time, run Executive Agencies for Ministers and be a part of the legislature charged with scrutinising them.