Parliament 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.