Cost and space

Lord Norton

Victoria Tower 1 008The BBC has picked up on a written answer from Baroness Royall on the cost of Parliament, showing that the cost of the Lords this past year was down on the previous year.  As the figures also show, the cost of running the Lords is almost a quarter of the cost of running the Commons.

We tend to make a virtue of our frugality.  At the present time, this is probably justified.  Nonetheless, I would not be averse to an increase in resources where this enables the House to fulfil its tasks more effectively.  Here I refer not to our allowances but rather to staff support.  As Lord Tyler mentions, we get little provision to hire research assistants.  This could be extended and the contract be held with the House: in other words, the peers could do the interviewing and appointing, with HR support, but with the contract being offered and administered by the House.  The principal problem, though, is a physical one.  Where would we put them?  We are already under great pressure.  When what is known as the island site (2 Millbank) is complete, there will be more offices for peers, but still relatively little space for research and secretarial staff.   We are in a situation where there is no space or where part of a desk has to be cleared in a shared room, and space found for a laptop and a chair.  This is the situation in the offices of Opposition front-benchers and not just back-bench peers. 

It is not clear what the answer is.  There is no scope for a new building – we could not have our own Portcullis House (no space, too expensive) and there appears little available space in existing buildings.  The expansion of the Millbank site may provide some limited space, but there seems little we could utilise beyond that.   Or is there somewhere else that may be appropriate?

16 comments for “Cost and space

  1. Frank W.Summers III
    19/08/2009 at 2:05 pm

    From an outsider’s point of view it seems that the actual participation of the House of Lords in Parliament’s main action as a legislature has been in decline for quite some time and now the Law Lords have been removed. If the Lords as a whole believe that institutional self-preservation is always a presumptive goal one might annalyze a long term (or as close to perpetual as is possible in these times) treaty with Commons to keep such legislative and judicial remenants of power as it has while also being free to function in a number of other roles.
    1. A Peerage Association: Let the Peers of all kinds and only Peers pay dues to a creature and ward of Lords which would seek to develope and enhance the ideas and practice of nobility as an institution in the realm. Dues would at least be tax deductable.
    2.A Heritage Association: Give Lords the right to take possession of a few sites for its own use which are in danger of becoming ruins in return for assisting in an overall program of heritage preservation.
    3.A Library: Allow Lords to hold annual fundraisers, give tours on a few holidays fo donations to the Library and provide online Library related services.
    4.A Council of Select Powers: Allow Lords to take up charters and warrants under its purview which are in near extinction but unabolished nd to share in some revenue for their maintenance. This is very vague but there are many possibilities.
    5. A Graduate Program: Allow Lords to receive a small allowance from a handful of British and international universities granted special charters to allow interns to seve there in return for a limited specified use of the library and a few hours access to a supervising Lord or two.
    8. A Constitutional Foundation: Allow Lords to receive endowed gifts in trust.

    For really conservative people htis would all be an extended admission of defeat. I do not say I like such a plan but it may be the type of thing which is the least offensive future path.

  2. Bedd Gelert
    19/08/2009 at 2:09 pm

    might not ‘tele-working’ be an option for some staff ? They could ‘hot-desk’ into a London office for 1/2/3 days a week so that one could get a quart into a pint-pot.

  3. Croft
    19/08/2009 at 2:26 pm

    Are there no government buildings near enough that could be co-opted? I think it’s generally agreed that far too many civil servants are based in central London where their duties could be performed elsewhere in the country. The costs for the individuals and the state of basing so many in the most expensive place in the country is eye watering. It is one of those much discussed issues that oppositions talk about but never seems to change much…

    Out of interest roughly how many peers don’t have an office/desk (but want one) and how many peers share an office (with how many other peers/secretaries on average). What sort of reduction in the size of the Lords would allow each working peer (who wants one) an office – sufficient for them and their staff?

  4. lordnorton
    19/08/2009 at 3:08 pm

    Frank W. Summers III: You start from a false premise. The role of the House of Lords in the legislative process has not been in decline recently. Rather the reverse. The departure of the law lords has no substantive bearing on the legislative work of the House. The House is certainly more active, decade by decade, with greater participation by peers and with more time having to be found, through the use of Grand Committees, to deal with the legislative load. I should also mention that the House already has a substantial library (have a look on the Parliament website) and there would be no problem with providing interns from university, well one university in particular: I run a degree which entails a year-long placement in Parliament. There would be no problem getting students to be interns in the Lords: the problem is the very thing I have identified – finding space for them.

    Bedd Gelert: Yes, home-working is certainly possible to some extent, and I presume is already undertaken by some of those who do secretarial or research work for peers. On hot-desking, I thought one possibility may be to create a researchers’ room in the Millbank House development to allow for that.

    Croft: I do not yet have the numbers for peers who are without desks. Every peer, other than certain ministers, office-holders and former PMs), has to share a room. Even getting individual rooms for former PMs proved difficult. (James Callaghan objected when he was allocated a shared office.) On finding nearby office space in government buildings, I think the intention is to move officials out of some buildings (several were consolidated into one when the Ministry of Justice was created), so there may be some scope.

    • Croft
      19/08/2009 at 5:10 pm

      I see they quoted a Lords’ spokesman – that’s the first time I’ve noticed that…

    • franksummers3ba
      19/08/2009 at 5:46 pm

      Fair enough. Space and money seem related. I certainly did not mean to demean the work of your Lordship’s committee in the past and others. But over what period of time has there been no decline? You need not feel obliged to answer.
      There is a sort of long-term rhythym to aristocracy which is inescapable and which may not be in synch with politics of varied entities in power. Private and reserve funding for space owned or administered by the House and not the Parliament may be the least distasteful alternative — at some future date. Nonetheless, I stand corrected and allow that being squeezed may not indicate decline of public function.

      • Croft
        20/08/2009 at 9:58 am

        Out of ~725 peers ~92 are hereditary and even allowing for some of the ‘aristocracy’ being life peers they are certainly a minority of the house now…

  5. Senex
    19/08/2009 at 4:13 pm

    Lord Norton: “Nonetheless, I would not be averse to an increase in resources where this enables the House to fulfil its tasks more effectively.” I’m afraid all that the Treasury can offer you at the moment is a rain ‘cheque’?

    The HoL should be able to raise bills on the Treasury without going cap in hand to the Commons for pennies. In Australia their constitution allows this but only through the lower house.

    Whilst I nail your colours to my mast in terms of an unelected house it is a flag of convenience. You play your part by acknowledging the house is currently a reforming chamber however there is within the house a desire for an elected chamber.

    This is not in the best interests of the nation at the moment because the quality of Commons legislation is so poor. In fact the Commons has no incentive whatsoever to improve this quality whilst the HoL remains comfortable with its present role.

    However, should this change and the nation was well served by the quality of Commons legislation then I would remove my colours and transfer them to Lord Tyler because the house would be in need of a new purpose.

    In an elected HoL one individual in the Commons suggests that Lord Mayors should be given a seat. What would the house do given that the quality of Commons legislation was so good and reliable?

  6. 20/08/2009 at 12:02 am

    Judging by the BBC photo on the link in your opening sentence, Lord N, an immediate sizeable contingency better be arranged pdq for the shoring up of Big Ben.

    • Croft
      20/08/2009 at 9:53 am


      I was going to make a comment about the ‘Leaning tower of St Stephens’ but it seems someone got there first.

  7. lordnorton
    20/08/2009 at 11:58 am

    Frasnksummers3ba: The House was fairly moribund in the 1940s and 1950s: the House met for usually only three days a week, the sittings were only two or three hours in duration, and attendance was pretty minimal. The 1958 Life Peerages Act essentially helped save the House. The House acquired a new body of working peers and the number grew decade by decade. Life peers were in a minority but were disproportionately active. The House became busier, the attendance increased decade by decade, and the House proved more of a thorn in the side of government than did the Commons. The House has been even more assertive since the passage of the 1999 House of Lords Act. You may care to look at the work of Meg Russell, of the Constitution Unit at University College London, on the effect of the House post-1999: you can access her research and publications via the Constitution Unit website.

    Senex: I favour some reforms to the House, but not election. This is not just because of the pressures on the Commons, which make it difficult for MPs to do an effective job of scrutiny, but because we need an effective second chamber anyway. Even if the Commons did a good job, there would still be a case for a revising chamber, not a duplicate of the first, able to look at legislation from a different perspective. I should add that there is not a mood in the House for election: the House is very much in support of an appointed House and, in my view, for very good reasons.

    stephenpaterson and Croft: The person behind the camera also needed to clean the lens!

    • Senex
      24/08/2009 at 3:01 pm

      No takers here then for what an elected house might do if the Commons decided to do its job properly and with the full confidence of the public.

      Well, it could give scrutiny to money bills. Isn’t it strange that a valued reforming HoL is needed for legislation coming out of the Commons but not for money bills? UK plc is working without an auditor because the board feels that it does not need one.

      I suppose the country will have to go bankrupt before the electorate and the Commons are forced to return common sense back to our Parliamentary system?

      Ref: Big Ben’s Statutory Tax Burden

  8. Frank W. Summers III
    20/08/2009 at 3:03 pm

    Lord NBoL,
    Thanks for sharing the useful sort of expertise with actual (informal) citation and referral. It helps.
    Croft as to your reply to my reply. I am not British and my tone here is honest. The UK currently has a system in which heredity is not the prime determinate of aristocracy is what I would say. Historians always have a blindness and usually an agenda that is hard to avoid. The Greek aristocracy really always included Olymipc Champions of the most recent year equally with the noblest lords and old Olympians and lesser games Champions as second class aristocrats. The Greeks are seen as having codified democracy in the West and that is true. They also codified aristocracy and monarchy. Life peers do not make me snicker. You may sense that I am a defender of the idea of heredity nobility in an age when it is not popular — but that is a separate issue. Though your sense is not unfounded.

    • Croft
      20/08/2009 at 4:32 pm

      Frank: My point wasn’t what your were or weren’t in favour of or your honesty but simply that the aristocracy, at least in classic terms, is very much a minority of the lords. What has taken its place is not elected nor particularly meritocratic but largely what might be called the political classes. Ex-MPs/MEPs/councillors/donors, senior civil servants, Quango heads and so on.

      The Constitution Unit website, though very good, is like parliament rather too keen on PDFs for my liking.

  9. Croft
    22/08/2009 at 1:51 pm

    I’ve just thought of the prefect new office space that’s as close to parliament as you could wish. Even better it would allow politicians to show a lead and share the pain rather than just issuing missives about how the public should use public transport or be taxed into the ground. Parliament could close its underground car park and turn it into office space!

    PS. Lords of the Blog was 16th on the totalpolitics list of Non Aligned Blogs.

  10. lordnorton
    24/08/2009 at 7:44 pm

    Croft: The underground car park exists for the Commons. Whether they would be willing to give it up is open to question! I suppose the alternative is to excavate space under Old Palace Yard.

    Yes, I saw we came 16th in the Total Politics list of Non Aligned Blogs. Quite an achievement, not least since I think we were listed originally in the MPs list.

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