Dear Lord….

Lord Norton

44969.jpg Parliamentarians, especially MPs, receive a mass of letters.  Each year, I put down a question asking how many items of mail were received in the Palace of Westminster in the previous year.  Last month, I was given the figures for 2007.  A total of 4,199,853 items of post were received.   The percentage split between the Commons and Lords was 80/20, meaning the Lords received approximately 839,970 items of mail.

MPs receive a large volume of constituency correspondence; the number has increased substantially decade by decade.  Peers don’t have constituents, so the type of mail we get is often the lobbying type that MPs also get.  Much is from interest groups or organisations keeping us informed of their work; other material is geared to Bills going through – advocating amendments or urging support or opposition.   Many organisations write directly, whereas others encourage members to write individually to members.  Though letters come in personally written and signed by individuals, there are often tell-tale signs that the letters were inspired or orchestrated by a particular organisation.  One case in point was when the House was considering Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying Bill.  One morning, I received no less than 99 individually written letters expressing opposition to the Bill.  The giveaway that they had not been written spontaneously by the individuals was the fact that all 99 letters arrived in the same envelope!

 The issues that have generated the largest number of letters in recent years in my in-tray have tended to be on hunting, assisted dying, sexual orientation, and (rather unexpectedly) banning the docking of dogs’ tails.   Increasingly, the lobbying is via e-mail, adding considerably to the volume of mail we receive.

 Do letters and briefings from organisation influence my thinking and indeed my voting?  On some issues, they certainly have done.  In some cases, the arguments have been well made and, along with the debate in the chamber, have influenced my voting.  Occasionally, the material has had the opposite effect to that intended: the arguments in support of a case have been so badly argued that it has led me to look much less favourably on the cause being advocated and in one recent case actually to vote against. 

Well argued letters are always worth writing.  They get read and they can make a difference. 

16 comments for “Dear Lord….

  1. Stuart
    25/03/2008 at 9:09 pm

    May I ask what was so wrong about the letters that had the opposite effect on you from the one intended? Were they too emotional, did they use intemperate language, or was it just a flaw in their logic?

  2. Bedd Gelert
    25/03/2008 at 10:32 pm

    A few disparate ramblings..

    * Could the noble Lords try and refrain from posts using their job title preceded by ‘Good..’, ‘Dear..’, and so forth – it is not witty, clever or funny, and whilst the changes in the blasphemy laws mean that a conviction is unlikely anytime soon, it is courteous to avoid it. A bit of thought to come up with a catchy by-line repays effort.

    * One of the other ‘bloggers’ mentioned today that the average age of the House of Lords is around 68. It is good to see that use is being made of the superior wisdom which age brings, and that not everyone is in thrall to the cult of youth. A wise person once made the following observation..
    – At 20 you spend a lot of time worrying what people think of you.
    – By 40 you have more or less given up worrying what others think of you.
    – Only when you get to 60 do you realise that the other people weren’t thinking about you at all..
    Which confirms the wisdom of the Lords not pandering to the whims of the public at every stage.. Few people will be able to retire before that age very soon, so it is good to see the HoL setting the trend.

    * Lord Norton’s points about lobbying are well made, and that the Lords shouldn’t be hijacked by every special interest or lobby group.
    Although I would argue that just because a petition or campaign is run by Greenpeace/Oxfam/Jubilee 2000 doesn’t mean that opinions of people ‘signing up’ are not honestly or strongly held sincere views.

    * On a lighter note, I notice that even in Japan there are concerns about falling standards of courtesy, civility and good manners.

    When I read of the age of the etiquette police, I did think that if the country were ever foolish enough to try and get rid of the House of Lords, maybe we should unleash them on the London Underground and tackle miscreants who play their stereos loudly, swear and refuse to give up their seats for pregnant women or the elderly and infirm..

  3. ladytizzy
    26/03/2008 at 4:23 am

    Would you like some more? I can post/email a précis of several ongoing issues for your comments.

  4. Tannhauser
    26/03/2008 at 9:04 am

    Tis’ why, i think, the English(Brititsh) Parliamentary system of government is the best example of democratic rule in the world today. There may be “4,199,853 items of post” and even the 10% or so of them which are nonsense are being read as well! A supreme example of what it means to be able to “write to your MP” on any issues one might have. Accountability is the key word here, i believe, and keeping in touch with the people who voted for you(not quite so in the case of the House of Lords, but nevertheless), caring, analysing and responding to their concerns shows just how efficient the system is.

  5. Miss Martin
    26/03/2008 at 3:06 pm

    I am not at all surprised, as one of the many charged with the task of sorting such piles of correspondence. If anything that number almost seems low.

    A great many of letters sent to MPs utilise standard letters sent out by organisations. I’m in two minds as to whether this stifles or facilitates the ability of constituents to put a point of view across to their elected representative, since quite often the same small group of people are the ones using them. Furthermore, constituents with specific concerns which an MP may actually assist with can tend to be drowned in the chaos of postcards and mass-mailings.

    Then again, there are few things more guiltily satisfying than seeing the enormous paper trail created by Greenpeace and similar lobbying organisations, and noting the irony.

  6. 27/03/2008 at 12:01 am

    ‘But Uncle Fred, you said I could have one.’

    ‘Did I? Did I say you could have one? Did I say you could have a chocolate bun with a whipped cream centre and chocolate icing, topped off with red, white, blue, green, yellow, orange, pink and purple Smarties? Did I? NO! I said you could have a chocolate bun with whipped cream centre and chocolate icing, topped off with red, white, blue, green, yellow, pink and purple Smarties. Silly boy. Run along and stop being demanding.’

    Please can we have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, as promised? It doesn’t take a smartie pants to work out it’s just an orange Smartie short of the Constitution.


  7. lordnorton
    27/03/2008 at 9:53 am

    In response to Stuart, the law was the blasphemy law. The arguments I received in support of retaining it were so appallingly argued (not least by one particular organisation) that I decided I could not support its retention.

    Sorry Bedd Gelert, but ‘Dear Lord..’ is how most letters to male peers begin (apart from a few who utilise the old but formally correct ‘My Lord’) and the likelihood of me not using references to Dear Lord, Good Lord and the like in the future are virtually nil! They are useful for making a point and, indeed, for attracting attention. This post has been one of the most read on this site.

    In response to ladytizzy, Tannhauser and Miss Martin, I read all the letters that are sent to me. Some are simply round-robins and not always well argued, but letters from individuals are usually on topics important to the sender. The extent to which parliamentarians do read and act on correspondence is crucial to our political process (and something that we know from surveys people think is very important); even if people do not write, there is value in knowing that, if they feel strongly, they can write to parliamentarians. Postcard campaigns will not have the same effect as personally written letters.

    I would also add that it is the content of correspondence that counts. A well-argued letter from an individual will count for more than a superficial case advanced by an organisation in a glossy brochure.

    In response to Britney British, the Second Reading of European Union (Amendment) Bill – on the Lisbon Treaty – takes place next Tuesday (1 April). More than sixty peers will be speaking. You may like to follow the debate.
    I might add, though, that I have had very few letters on the Lisbon Treaty and the issue of a referendum.

    I may come to regret writing the last sentence!

  8. Bedd Gelert
    27/03/2008 at 4:39 pm

    Right, You’ve annoyed me now !!

    If you are going to be so rude as to use the ‘Good.. ‘ to attract attention, then at least show your bravery by being equally rude and ignorant to the Moslem faith, and see how you get along ?

    You would get a lot of hits on this blog by shocking and annoying people by appearing in the nude, but that isn’t really the point of this blog, now is it ?

    Grow up !!

  9. Anarchy in the EU
    27/03/2008 at 8:22 pm

    The anarchists used to have a saying ‘If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it.’ This seems particularly true about matters to do with the EU.

    I accept that you may not have had many letters on this, but this is surely because the focus of individual complaint about this issue will have been to MPs, the media, ‘petition groups’ such as ‘I want a referendum’ and so on.

    I don’t really think any of the noble Lords can be in any doubt of the ferocity of views [both pro and anti, granted] held on this topic, at least since the Lib Dems ‘walkout’ on the issue in the other place.

    I do trust that you will consult more widely than simply this blog on this important issue. Much as the media is largely owned by right wing oligarchs, this is an issue where right and left have little real meaning, as the debate unites people like Tony Benn and Nigel Farage.

    People just want a choice, or an admission from the Government that they have gone back on their manifesto commitment. That would at least be more honest than the fiddle they have done over branding the constitution as something different.

  10. lordnorton
    28/03/2008 at 12:15 am

    In response to Bedd Gelert, the name lord is widely used in a range of contexts, secular as well as religious. It does not necessarily refer to a particular individual. The phrase ‘good lord’ long ago entered common usage as a term to express surprise or amazement. One can make a similar point about a great many words or phrases. I would have more sympathy with your view in respect of terms that do utilise a particular name.

  11. ladytizzy
    28/03/2008 at 2:45 am

    The above reminds me of an incident I accidentally started, after engaging with a group of French youngsters who became terribly excited when I corrected their English and told them I was a ‘lady’ (in a time before ‘woman’ became PC).

    I will be writing to you, Lord Norton, hopefully in the next fortnight. I don’t expect tea and sympathy, but will be interested if you consider any of my points worthy, to get a baseline if nothing else!


  12. lordnorton
    28/03/2008 at 10:42 am

    The purpose of this blog is to encourage interaction. We do get a lot of correspondence, but as I indicated much of it is from organisations wanting, quite legitimately, to press a case. I am surpised at times by the extent to which we are not lobbied by individuals and others with a particular and quite valid view to pursue. Some people (often the ones with the most serious problems or the most cogent arguments) are the ones most reluctant to contact parliamentarians or others who may be able to take up the issue for them. Large organisations with significant resources are quite capable of making their views heard. It is the individuals who don’t have those resources that it is important to hear from.

    This is a long-winded way of saying please do feel free to write. Peers don’t pursue particular constituency cases (that is, rightly, the preserve of MPs) but we are interested to have comments on issues of public policy, including measures being considered by the House.

  13. Bedd Gelert
    28/03/2008 at 11:35 am

    Lord Norton, I am not going to get into an argument with you about the by-lines for two very good reasons.
    1/ I am very lazy, and don’t have the energy
    2/ You clearly have a lot more experience in arguing, and I may lose…

    Your post does raise some important issues.
    When I am travelling on the train and there are some little hoodlums swearing and acting in an anti-social manner I sometimes wish that it were possible for the police to ‘tazer’ them into submission, and into acting with a little more consideration and civility.

    But we all know that this isn’t really the sort of society we want.
    For a start they would probably say ‘I can’t guarantee I will not use that language again’, although with fewer words and fewer syllables.

    We would like people to act with consideration for others, but it really doesn’t help to have to resort to the law – you can’t legislate for common sense. However with the recent release of Geert Wilders’ film ‘Fitna’ on the internet, some questions are raised about free speech and debate on the internet generally.

    How much ‘right’ does one have to offend others ? Should there be limits to ‘free speech’. Bizarrely [and perhaps rather hypocritically] I am glad the Lords turned down the poorly worded and ill-thought out law on ‘Religious Hatred’. My view is that there should be a ‘level playing’ field. We should aim to be considerate to others beliefs. But if we are going to allow ‘Jerry Springer’, then we can’t have a situation where documentary makers cannot make films about, say, whatever ‘-ology’ the Hollywood stars are joining today.

    Or indeed about the battle for the minds of young people between hard line Moslem clerics, and moderate proponents of the Islamic faith. This may turn out to be a defining debate for our generation, and if it is stifled in public, it will just go underground.

    As for the internet, and its use in garnering public opinion – the problem is that one can easily find a lot of ‘heat’ [Comment is Free is one example on the ‘left’ and Guido Fawkes on the ‘right’] but not a lot of light. This is why I feel quite strongly that avoiding using strong language on this blog would help, as ‘attention-seeking’ can easily result in an ‘arms-race’ on who can use the ‘strongest’ [i.e. the most offensive] language.

  14. lordnorton
    28/03/2008 at 12:17 pm

    You raise a perfectly legitimate point. It is a matter of balance and one has to look at context.

    The basic point is one that Parliament has variously had to wrestle with (as you touch upon with your reference to religious hatred): to what extent should free speech be limited by the need to protect others in society? To what extent should we distinguish between expression of opinion and inciting others to hate or harm? One person’s balance may be another’s going-too-far. It is important not to focus on the trivial if it dilutes the significance of what really matters.

    It is an issue that I had to confront in deciding how to vote on a number of issues. I am, though, reasonably clear as to the wider boundaries and none of the terminology in any of my posts comes anywhere near to constituting ‘strong’ language.

  15. Level Playing Field..
    28/03/2008 at 9:04 pm
  16. 17/04/2008 at 9:24 pm

    I think I might write in as well.

Comments are closed.