If only…

Lord Norton

I switched on BBC1 this evening, too late for Panorama, and no sooner had I switched on than I saw a shot of Westminster.  This was in a programme called New Tricks and it showed what purported to be a meeting with a Labour peer at the House of Lords.  The programme-makers clearly have no knowledge of the House.  It showed the peer in a rather grand office of his own.

This was misleading for a number of reasons.  Only the Lord Speaker has a large, grand office of her own of the sort portrayed in the programme.  A few other office-holders – the Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition and the like, as well as law lords – have individual offices.  Everyone else has to make do with shared offices, some of them rather crowded.  My desk is in a large room – it was initially Black Rod’s living room – but it houses ten desks: seven of us are among the regular attenders.  What was formerly a shower-room across the corridor has been converted into an office for two peers!  When former Prime Minister, James Callaghan, joined the House, the then Labour Chief Whip, Ted Graham, had enormous difficulty getting him an office of his own.  When Lord Callaghan died, his small office was immediately converted into an office for two senior peers.

Some offices are in good locations in the Palace of Westminster.  My room on the second floor overlooks Westminster Abbey.  Others are not so fortunate and have windows looking out on walls or courtyards.  Pressure on space means that outlying buildings have been acquired to create additional office space.  The offices are modern, but it entails quite a walk when a division is called in the House – not much fun if it’s raining and there’s heavy traffic when crossing the road.  Such is the pressure on space that I once found the Government Deputy Chief Whip in the corridor on my floor wandering round to see if he could identify additional space.  Some peers have, or prefer, to work in the Library or at one of the desks in the Royal Gallery.  Lord Healey some years ago told me that it reminded him of what the House of Commons was like in the 1960s.

I report this for information, not for the purpose of complaint.  Rooms are allocated on a party basis and it can be useful to discuss issues, and share information, with one’s colleagues.  There’s an extremely good atmosphere in my office, which makes it a pleasure to work in.  I had the opportunity to move to another room when I was made a Chairman of a Select Committee, but I declined.  Being where I am is a privilege and I have no wish to move.

18 comments for “If only…

  1. James Clarke
    09/09/2008 at 12:59 am

    Dear Lord Norton,

    You have thoroughly destroyed my imaginings of life within the House of Lords. It sounds to me like Brian Haw (the chap who protests in parliament square) has more room for paperwork than your office. I thought if the PM and the chancellor get a house you would at least get an office to yourself. Next thing you’ll be telling me is that Lords don’t really get to ware funny hats and things! No wonder some people don’t turn up 🙂

  2. Blue
    09/09/2008 at 10:02 am

    Does the Queen really need her robing room? Maybe, you could use that instead?

  3. 09/09/2008 at 3:31 pm

    Are there not any nice shared grand offices which you could use for the purpose of recieving visitors? Just for the impression you understand 😉

  4. lordnorton
    09/09/2008 at 4:23 pm

    James Clarke: if you saw my desk – and the floor space surrounding it – you would realise that Brian Haw probably does have more space for paperwork than I do! As for wearing funny hats, this is another of those topics that gets me going. I was planning a post to make clear that no lords wear wigs – not even the law lords. You occasionally see stories about the Lords illustrated with men in robes and wigs, including some at the State Opening of Parliament. They are not lords. The ones at State Opening are senior judges summoned for the occasion. The law lords wear red robes, as do the Lords Spiritual, and sit with their fellow peers. The only time any peers wear strange hats is when Parliament is prorogued and the leaders have to don robes and tricorn hats to announce the prorogation. Otherwise, there is no occasion when peers wear funny hats – and no occasion on which they wear wigs.

    Alex Bennee and Blue: The Royal Gallery is an impressive place to take visitors for a meeting. It has the advantage of being the grandest room in the Palace. The Robing Room is used occasionally now for meetings addressed by leading speakers. Transforming it into office space would make it look like a vast typing pool and might create a few logistical problems during State Opening! The Queen having to weave her way round a lot of cluttered desks might not quite convey the majesty of the occasion.

  5. Adrian Kidney
    09/09/2008 at 9:28 pm

    During the Second World War the Robing Room was used as the Chamber of the House of Lords, and the Commons used the Lords Chamber, while the Commons Chamber was out of bounds thanks to enemy bombs.

  6. lordnorton
    09/09/2008 at 10:43 pm

    Adrian Kidney: It certainly was, with division lobbies being constructed through the use of screens. The Norman Porch served as the ante-chamber.

    During the war, the threat of enemy action meant that Parliament did not always meet in the Palace of Westminster. If MPs asked to go to ‘the Annexe’, taxi drivers knew to take them to Church House, Westminster, a short distance from the Palace.

  7. Nice One Sunderland!
    09/09/2008 at 11:13 pm

    Surely it would be better to have space for Parliamentarians to work for the good of the nation, rather than the Queen having somewhere suitably palacial to get changed once a year – I’m sure she could make do with getting changed in the toilet like the rest of us would have to! I believe there is a fine W.C. just off the Robing Room if memory serves me correctly?

  8. Blue
    09/09/2008 at 11:15 pm

    When i visited, I was intrigued as to the location of the gift shop, too. Wasn’t someone important shot there? If you ask me, it’s terrible to “cash in” where someone died by putting a till there!

    Personally, i do not see much problem with the Queen shuffling around a few desks with her crown…

    Is there no room for an extension on the roof?

  9. lordnorton
    09/09/2008 at 11:49 pm

    Nice One Sunderland and Blue: I think we can find space without needing to utilise the Robing Room. There would, in any event, be major problems with converting it. We are extending one of the outlying buildings and the rooms of the law lords will be available next year. There has already been additional in-building within the Palace to create additional space, though that has been principally at the Commons end. Nice One Sunderland: your memory does indeed serve you correctly about the Robing Room. Blue: the gift shop is close to the Cholmondeley Room, but gifts are now available in St Stephen’s Hall and hence available to all visitors. For what it is worth, there are some differences between what is available from the Commons and from the Lords.

  10. Adrian Kidney
    10/09/2008 at 6:01 am

    The Robing Room’s not that outlandishly big anyway. The Royal Court dwarfs it, and that’s used by peers and some exhibits for tours.

    And anyway, when the Queen comes to Parliament, work stops for the intended ceremony. Once she’s returned to Buck House, the desks are whipped out again and work resumes.

    Doesn’t take long and it’s worth it for the ceremony!

  11. Adrian Kidney
    10/09/2008 at 6:04 am

    Blue, you may be referring to Spencer Perceval, the only British PM who was assassinated, in 1812, by businessman John Bellingham, in the Members’ Lobby.

    St. Stephen’s Hall is where King Charles I demanded the House of Commons tell him where the 5 rebellious MPs were which were causing him grief, and Speaker Lenthall told him where to go.

  12. lordnorton
    10/09/2008 at 8:55 am

    Adrian Kidney: Quite correct about Spencer Perceval, and the link with the souvenir shop is the souvenir desk in St Stephen’s rather than the souvenir shop in the Lords. The Robing Room is certainly smaller than the Royal Gallery (but then so are most rooms in the Palace!) but still quite spacious. There are some interesting pictures of it as a temporary chamber during the war. The desks in the Royal Gallery are, as you say, removed for State Opening. It would be more problematic in the case of desks that were dedicated desks for particular peers, with attendant paperwork, filing cabinets, PCs, printers and the like. Given the time it takes to prepare the Royal Gallery for State Opening, the affected peers may not be too happy to having to decant their offices for such a period! If the Robing Room were converted, I suspect it would need to some structural changes as well.

  13. howridiculous
    10/09/2008 at 10:34 am

    Dear Lord Norton,

    A very interesting post. I wonder, do you know if Lady Thatcher has her own office? I certainly think she should.


  14. ladytizzy
    12/09/2008 at 2:22 am

    Oh, for heaven’s sake, leave the Queen to get ready in privacy. How many other businesses shuffle stuff around to make way for a one-off minor visiting dignitary?

    I’m already ticked off with the destruction of our traditions. If the working conditions don’t suit, don’t take the peerage, or reduce the number of peers.

  15. Senex
    13/09/2008 at 10:45 pm

    As you mentioned the Speaker, apartments and the Palace of Westminster I had a quick glance at Google’s digitized ‘Men’s Magazine’. Its a favourite with some of the House’s more ethereal residents that haunt the place from time to time.

    Quoting from: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jgentleman.htm

    “Gentleman’s Magazine was founded by Edward Cave in 1731. It is believed that Cave was the first person in Britain to use the term magazine to describe a publication. Cave’s original plan was to reproduce a collection of items from other journals and news-sheets. Gradually the Gentleman’s Magazine began to include its own material, including literary criticism, essays and parliamentary reports. Dr. Samuel Johnson, a friend of Cave, was a regular contributor and helped him run the journal. The Gentleman’s Magazine ceased publication in 1914.”

    What created my interest was the mystery of the Speakers apartment and its State Bed. http://www.achome.co.uk/architecture/ac190.htm

    It was sold to somebody, reclaimed and restored to the Speakers apartments. The bed is an important symbolic link between Monarchy and Parliament.



    On page 560 of Mens Magazine:

    The writer explains how on the night preceding the Coronation their Majesty must sleep in the bed. The Lord Great Chamberlain will sleep in the next room so as to be in readiness on coronation day to perform their ceremonial duties.

    Is the State bed part of the tourist itinerary of Parliament? What can we do to improve the symbolism between Monarchy and Parliament?


  16. lordnorton
    18/09/2008 at 8:55 am

    I think the quick answers are yes and no: yes to howridiculous – an individual office was made available for Baroness Thatcher – and no to Senex: the State bed is not part of the normal tour of the Palace of Westminster. I should mention, though, that both the Speaker and Lord Speaker do make their State Rooms available for occasions such as charity receptions.

  17. Senex
    18/09/2008 at 7:42 pm

    I was visiting Blickling Hall today, for the first time as a National Trust member and was amazed to discover that it too had a state bed, one built for George II.


    The one in the speaker’s apartments was build for George IV the immediate predecessor to Queen Victoria. Upon further research it seems these state beds are to be found in quite a few other places as evidenced by a manufacturer of weaving products.

    Search the page for ‘state bed’:

    It still represents a mystery to me why so many state beds exist. Where they built just in case the Monarch happened to be passing or were they built because of a state visit?

    Given the prospect of a rising river Thames, warmer, damper climate and a prospective invasion of termites or death watch beetles would it be unfair to sell the Houses of Parliament to the National Trust and move everybody to newer buildings with all the mod (plastic) cons?

  18. Howridiculous
    19/09/2008 at 9:00 pm

    Thank you, Lord Norton, for answering my query. I am much pleased to hear Lady Thatcher has her own office. A formwr prime minister in the Lords should have nothing less – despite being among peers!


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