Lords-a-sitting

Lord Norton

I was asked in an earlier post whether peers have their favourite places in the chamber.  Some benches are designated for particular groups of members – frontbenchers, bishops, privy counsellors – but otherwise back-benchers can sit where they choose.  Members tend to gravitate towards a favoured spot.  One cannot reserve a seat – it is first come, first served.  Some members can take a somewhat proprietorial attitude and this can lead to a little pushing and shoving; overall, though, we are very civilised.  If someone is in our favoured spot, we find somewhere else.

Finding a favourite spot has a number of benefits.  It saves having to think where to sit each time one comes in.  More importantly, other members come to associate you with a particular seat.  If you are referred to in debate, peers look to where you normally sit.  The choice of seat may have some strategic advantage.  My seat of choice is at the end of the bench just below the very back bench.  If you look carefully at the picture, I am in the bottom right-hand corner.   Sitting where I do has three advantages from my point of view.  First, by being at the end of the row, I am not hemmed in: I can come and go without disrupting others.  Second, I get a good view of the chamber; I can look at the different parts of the House without having to turn round.  Third, when I stand up I am right in front of one of the hanging microphones.  This ensures that there is no problem with being heard. 

Others doubtless have other reasons for their choice.  Most peers you see in the picture are sitting where they normally sit.  The only thing that would cause a major disruption would be a change of government.  Labour and Conservative peers would need to swap sides.

13 comments for “Lords-a-sitting

  1. 30/07/2008 at 11:35 am

    It’s funny you should mention changing sides. When I was younger I always thought people would site on the side of their political colour, i.e. Left wing on the left, Right wing on the right. I still do a double take when I hear the commons refer to “Ayes to the left, Nays to the right”.

    In fact I’m not sure where all this left/right description comes from. Perhaps the noble Lord could enlighten me to the origins of Left/Right politics?

  2. Adrian Kidney
    30/07/2008 at 12:28 pm

    I can give it a go…

    The terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ come from revolutionary France, where the representatives arranged themselves in the various legislatures. The aristocrats sat on the right of the Speaker’s chair, and the commoners on the left. This generally meant that the ‘right wing’ were conservative, both morally and economically, and the left were for radical change to improve the lot of the commoners. However, at the time, the ‘left’ included interests we would nowadays probably throw into the ‘right’ – i.e. free markets and minimal government.

  3. Adrian Kidney
    30/07/2008 at 12:30 pm

    Actually, a question…

    Lord Tyler, how would one go about finding a job working for a peer? Is there any funding allocated by the House for Lords to have an assistant or secretary/aide?

    Do you have one? If not, is there a vacancy? *nudge nudge, wink wink…*

    What would you say are the type of skills most sought after for these kinds of people? And how would one get noticed?

  4. lordnorton
    30/07/2008 at 3:29 pm

    Alex Bennee: Adrian Kidney has got in before me with the explanation. As you touch upon, there is a difference now between right and left ideologically and who sits on the right and left physically in the parliamentary arena.

    Adrian Kidney: I think your question is directed at me rather than Lord Tyler. (I don’t think Lord Tyler is likely to be found on the Conservative benches.) There is limited opportunity for peers to employ research assistants. The obstacles are both financial and physical. If you look at the notes accompanying peers’ expenses for the previous session (2006-07) you will see that each peer could claim a secretarial/research allowance of £69 for each day of attendance. Even if one attends the House four days a week, that still does amount to much a wage. (One can also claim the allowance, up to a maximum of 40 days a year, to cover secretarial and research costs during recesses.) Even if people were willing to work for a very limited amount, there is a practical problem in that we do not have space for them. Conditions are cramped for peers – we don’t have individual offices – and there is hardly any desk space for researchers. It is usually a case of trying to clear a bit of space on an existing desk, but in many cases that is essentially impossible. There is a problem finding office space for peers, let alone support staff. If one were able to take on researchers, important skills would be (apart from knowledge of the parliamentary process) a capacity to work in cramped conditions or an ability to work from home!

  5. Adrian Kidney
    30/07/2008 at 9:26 pm

    Whoops! Sorry, mixing my Lords!

    Thanks for your reply.

  6. Natalie Klein
    31/07/2008 at 1:56 am

    Hi Lord Norton. I just wanted to tell you (and the other blogging peers) how much I enjoy your posts. I’m a grad student in psycholinguistics in upstate New York with no special interest in politics, but this blog is really addictive. I’ve never been to Britain before either, although I’m set to visit next month for an academic conference, and thanks to your entries, I want to go check out where all the action happens while I’m there (when I’m done presenting data). You aren’t in session, but there’s still plenty to see, right? I’ll be the nerdy American girl walking around by herself!

    I just wrote my senator the other day (I’m a Texan) about alternative energy legislation, and today he sent me back a form letter that made me doubt whether he’d read my message at all. By comparison, the down-to-earth openness of this blog and your interaction with its readers is very refreshing. Thanks!

  7. lordnorton
    31/07/2008 at 9:35 am

    Natalie Klein: Thanks for the comment. We seem to have atrracted quite an international readership. There’s cetrtainly plenty to see when you are in London next month. Although both Houses have risen for the summer recess, tours of the Palace of Westminster are held throughout the summer. Indeed, the fact that both Houses have risen provides more time for visitors to be shown the complete Line of Route through the Palace, encompassing both chambers. Apart from going on a tour, it is also worthwhile spending time in Westminster Hall – the historic part of the Palace – which also now houses a cafe which is open to the public. There are also plenty of things to see within the immediate proximity of the Palace of Westminster, including Westminster Abbey – my office looks out on the Abbey – and the Jewel Tower. Enjoy your visit.

  8. lordtyler
    31/07/2008 at 2:29 pm

    Adrian Kidney, just in case your query was indeed directed to me, I do have an excellent Parliamentary Assistant … or rather HALF one! I share him with my successor as MP for North Cornwall, which helps both of us to keep in touch with continuing issues affecting that area. In addition, since he worked for me when I was a front bench spokesman in the Commons, he provides continuity in my work to reform both Houses of Parliament. He first came to work for me as one of Lord Norton’s brightest sparks, during his British Politics degree at Hull. It’s a brilliant course that gives students a full year working in Parliament between their second and their final year. As Lord Norton has explained we can only claim a very modest allowance for such assistance, so naturally I have to subsidise this from my own attendance allowance.

  9. Adrian Kidney
    31/07/2008 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks very much for your post, Lord Tyler, it’s quite interesting.

    I’d be very keen on aiding a Lord or a group of Lords in their work , but am loathe to give up my current job (and am not interested in a fee, anyway, more the experience). Is most work done by your half-assistant done during the hours the House is sitting, or is it relatively flexible?

    I am starting an MSc in politics in October, so would love to see where it could take me…

    And finally, to Natalie Klein – if you fancy a guide round London or Parliament, feel free to let me know!

  10. howridiculous
    06/08/2008 at 9:29 pm

    Lord Norton,

    I wonder if you could tell us how the House caters for those of its members who are in wheelchairs. Where they sit in the House etc.

    Howridiculous.

  11. lordnorton
    06/08/2008 at 9:56 pm

    Howridiculous: Various provisions have been made to enhance facilities for wheelchair-bound members. There is space now for wheelchairs behind the Clerks’ chairs in the chamber. This was allocated for wheelchairs in the latter half of the 1990s: the space previously was used by Hansard writers. The chamber and division lobbies are sufficiently large for peers in wheelchairs to vote by going through the lobbies rather than having their vote recorded by a clerk in the chamber.

    There is a dedicated microphone placed behind the Clerks’ chairs so that any wheelchair-bound member can speak. What was a small interview room just off Peers’ Lobby has more recently also been converted for use by wheelchair-nound members. The House also maintains a range of (mostly motorised) wheelchairs for peers.

  12. lordmark
    21/08/2008 at 9:21 am

    dear lords,
    could someone explain if actually there is still the english lord habit to sit on a particular side depending on the role (govern or opposition). Was it a past habit or historical? Was it motivated by some policies? This could explain very well why left wing and right wing are categories not applicable to English democratic tradition.

  13. lordnorton
    22/08/2008 at 9:14 am

    lordmark: Peers, like MPs, sit according to their party. This has been the case since parties emerged and was superimposed on the existing (historical) structure of the chamber. Labour peers, being in the governing party, sit on the benches to the right of the Lord Speaker. Conservative peers, comprising the principal Opposition, sit on the benches on the Speaker´s left. If there is a change in Government at the next election, we will swap sides.

    Adrian Kidney in an earlier comment on this post has explained the origins of the term left and right. They are terms that do have relevance in terms of the English democratic tradition: a lot of ink has been spilled in discussing to what extent they remain relevant.

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