Influence and an absence of ping pong

Lord Norton

45007Parliament was prorogued at 4.30 p.m. today.  It was a quiet end end to a tumultuous session.  There was no last minute ‘ping pong’ between the chambers.  The absence of such ‘ping pong’ reflected the influence rather than the weakness of the Lords.  On recent measures – some of the big Bills going through the House – the Government has been busy accepting amendments, recognising that they improve the Bill.  Few of the amendments are the result of Government defeats.  The House proceeds largely by way of  a constructive discourse with ministers.  Each session, anything between 1,000 and 4,000 amendments may be secured in the House.  Occasionally, it becomes necessary to force a vote and the Government may be defeated.  As Meg Russell’s research has shown, about 40 per cent of defeats are accepted by Government; somewhat counter-intuitively, it is the more important defeats than tend to be accepted. 

The House thus makes a difference and it does so on limited resources.   The demand is greatest on opposition front benchers.   Many are basically full time but have no salary and extremely limited research support.   The demands are also great on those with expertise in a particular area who are willing to devote long hours in Grand Committee and on Report to pursuing amendments.  Some Bills are in Committee for several days.   We may sit late to get through all the amendments.   The important aspect of such sittings is quality rather than quantity in terms of who is present.  It is very rare to force divisions during committee stage.  It is the discourse between ministers and peers who know what they are talking about that is important.  I have achieved some modest changes, but none has involved forcing or threatening a vote.  They entailed moving amendments in committee, letting ministers (who initially resisted them) reflect on them, and then having meetings with the ministers to discuss what they may accept or assurances they are prepared to put on record.  It is not earth-shattering stuff, but it all adds up to an improvement in legislation.  

The most important work of the Lords, certainly in overall terms in affecting legislation, is that which you do not hear about.  The major defeat, or the failure to defeat the Government on a contentious issue, attracts the headlines, but what is newsworthy is what is exceptional, or – as with Prime Minister’s Question Time – what is televisual.   Detailed scrutiny in an essentially non-adversarial environment does not qualify.

12 comments for “Influence and an absence of ping pong

  1. Carl Holbrough
    12/11/2009 at 9:42 pm

    Thank you Lord Norton for the detailed view of work that goes on in the Lords. It is interesting to understand. It does sound very much like a defence of the House and it`s work but that is a good thing from your point of view.

    I feel from the recent blogs, and the replies, that you are one of the more revered Lords. I have quickly come to respect your views and indeed you as a person. Oh that some were as educated or cared that a word or two out of place can alienate by means of offense extremely quickly.

    However this blog (the whole) is fantastic and I am extrordinarily pleased that this avenue for debate has opened, though My Lords may not be thankful for my presence ! 😉

    • lordnorton
      13/11/2009 at 5:43 pm

      Carl Holbrough: Thanks for your comments. As my first inclination was to do a post entitled ‘In defence of the Lords’, I would not challenge your view of how it sounds. I don’t know about being a revered lord, though I do occasionally receive letters that open with ‘Dear Lord’. (Much preferable to the letters that begin ‘Dear peer/MP’.) Glad you enjoy the blog and that you feel it is fulfilling its purpose: that is, to encourage a dialogue. We are pleased with how many hits the blog receives and very impressed by the comments. (I have learned a lot from them.) Fear not: if we ever tire of your contributions, we will try to let you know in characteristically House of Lords fashion: that is, doing it so politely that it is a few minutes before you realise… More seriously, we appreciate very much the contributions that are made.

  2. Croft
    13/11/2009 at 2:30 pm

    As I was tough on Lord Tyler’s use of figures I’ll do the same here.

    Are not a large proportion of amendments you quote government amendments (which they are hardly going to oppose) tabled in the Lords simply administrative, to take pressure of the commons timetable and/or to prevent clauses needing debate in the commons when timetabling is used?

  3. lordnorton
    13/11/2009 at 5:52 pm

    Croft: My choice of language was deliberate. The number of amendments secured in the House each session does include a good number of Government amendments, but the fact they are moved by ministers does not necessarily demonstrate their origins. As I mentioned, there is a tendency (one I have noted more in recent years) for ministers to resist amendments in committee and then to hold meetings with peers who moved the amendments to see if agreement can be reached; sometimes it is a case of reaching a compromise or simply discussing the most appropriate drafting. Sometimes it produces not amendments but Government commitments. Also, there are occasions when reports from committees, especially but not only the Delegated Powers Committee, affect what amendments Government brings forward; it is extremely rare for Government not to accept the recommendations of the Delegated Powers Committee. The reports of the Constitution Committee also had a notable impact in respect of the Parliamentary Standards Bill. Some amendments are the result of correspondence between committees and ministers. Hence the methodological problem of getting an accurate figure for the number of amendments that can be attributed to private members (or committees). The impact is far higher than is suggested by looking at the amendments moved successfully by ministers.

    • Croft
      14/11/2009 at 11:18 am

      Thanks for that very full answer. As is often the case the truth is not very neat and is messy to categorise which is disappointing as clear figures are so useful!

  4. Hannah Smith
    13/11/2009 at 11:53 pm

    I know this is probably ‘off-topic’, as it were, but I’m a Year 12 student in the Sleaford Joint 6th Form (mostly St. Georges, though I do take Biology at Carres, which, I must admit, is very interesting!) and you came in to talk to us about the House of Lords today! (13th Nov.)

    Now, I must congratulate you on the informative presentation you gave us all, and I even found the time to look you up on Wikipedia, which led me to this blog! (Yes, I know I shouldn’t strictly speaking use Wikipedia, due to its more than occasional inaccuracies, but for my purpose just now, it suited fine.)

    Yes, I very much enjoyed it, and I hope you’d perhaps find the time to come back again (if you’d be so kind, my Lord) for I found it extremely useful (even though I wish to pursue a career in Biology, I do have an interest in politics) and I’m sure some of the others were as enthralled by it as I was!

    I was sorry not to catch the beginning of the presentation, as the train was rather late! I arrived when you were asking the audience what they thought about certain issues (e.g. Banning cigarette vending machines, Banning cigarette displays in small shops, Assisted dying, etc.) and now it’s been bugging me all day – I was wondering if I missed anything important? Anything that could be interesting?

    (Although, if the rest was anything to go by, I imagine the first part was just as captivating as the latter parts!)

  5. lordnorton
    14/11/2009 at 11:37 am

    Hannah Smith: Thanks for your comments. My visit to St George’s was actually my second visit to the school. I came early last year, so I was very happy to return and will be pleased to come again in the future. I’m glad you found the talk useful. I had opened by explaining why politics (the resolution of issues of policy that are going to affect a particular community) affects everyone – people may say they are not interested in politics, but to say that it doesn’t affect them is untrue. I then went on to explain the relevance of Parliament as the body that has to give assent to measures of public policy that are binding. Parliament discusses and assents to measures that have a profound affect on people’s lives and behaviour. They include measures on which people outside Parliament have strong views, though views may be divided. I took a few issues on which to sound out the views of those in the audience, including the issues you mention. I found the outcomes of the various votes extremely interesting. As you will have seen, some issue produced a very clear majority on one side, whereas on others it was less clear-cut.

  6. Adrian Kidney
    14/11/2009 at 11:10 pm

    Lord Norton,

    Again, also off-topic, but do you ever hold meetings with staff of either House?

    A lot of House staff (in my end, the Commons) have been working for many years in the House but do not have much of an idea how Parliament works. Equally, staff morale has taken serious hits in the past year with the expenses scandals. Particularly in the Facilities Departments of both Houses, which interact with Members quite a lot.

    I have a feeling some of this could be improved upon by one or two MPs/Lords say, dropping in on a staff event/conference and talking about their experience of House services and what they seek from them. Additionally they’d love to learn more about Parliament.

    I appreciate you may not be involved in the House of Lords management, and certainly not in the Commons, but perhaps it could be passed along?

    • franksummers3ba
      17/11/2009 at 1:27 am

      Because others have personaly singled out Lord Norton and made self described deviations from the topic I have decided to join this post. I have been around since January and predict that I will be around less in the future. Therefore, I am leaving a tribute to the Lord who has been my principal host whether to post or read privately. It is an Acrostic Name Verse a genre which I have written mostly to my girlfriends, ex-wife and those I thought might become romantic interests. Occasionaly I use them in a public way as here to someone in an entirely distinct category.
      “Lord Philip Norton, Baron of Louth”
      *
      Lords of the Blog lit my on-line list./
      One could observe the outreach of others./
      Respect reaches Lord Soley’s early gist/
      Drawing us to Noble sisters and brothers./
      *
      Politics and Parliament in pointed prose/
      Hull’s highly honored two Houses partner/
      I saw in interesting way ideas pose./
      Louth’s Lord led lectures in ether./
      I in interest ideas investigated./
      Philip Norton led as we debated./
      *
      Now, I have known some people in my life./
      Out among the lands in peace and strife./
      Review, his Lordship in Pennsylvania read./
      That gives him ties to these United States./
      Ohio, where I studied, nears Penn’s bed./
      Nonetheless, we bridged some old debates./
      *
      Baron of Louth at Hull devotedly teaches./
      America’s revolution and more divides us./
      Rightly he preserves Wilberforce’s focus/
      “On Buxton” might he make speeches./
      Now I live near former CSA beaches./

      Of the Queen’s Apology to Acadians also/
      Frank has yet said little in this flow./
      *
      Lord Norton I give this piece of text./
      Our word communion a blessing’s been./
      Under this great sky what comes next?/
      That’s harder than to tell the seen./
      Here you’ve earned my interest keen./

      • lordnorton
        21/11/2009 at 11:35 am

        franksummers3ba: Many thanks. Much enjoyed and appreciated.

      • franksummers3ba
        21/11/2009 at 4:44 pm

        LN,
        Thanks for the kind words.

    • lordnorton
      21/11/2009 at 11:35 am

      Adrian Kidney: I organise seminars for my students in Westminster. We have weekly meetings, addressed for example by the Librarian, Serjeant at Arms, Black Rod, the Clerk Assistant and so on, so that the students can get a good appreciation of how the Palace of Westminster is managed. I also variously speak to visiting groups of students, academics and parliamentarians from other legislatures. I can see the value of what you suggest. It would be interesting to have further comments on what you have in mind. Are you envisaging a meeting organised by the authorities or is there any existing body or framework that you had in mind?

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