In the debate on Members Leaving the House, referred to in Lord Tyler’s recent blog (Exit Routes 2) Lord Hunt of Kings Heath referred to the fact that voting by crossbenchers was, in his word, “limited”. (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/101116-0001.htm#10111631000356). While our benches protested in a mild kind of way with an “Oh!”, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath pressed on in an obviously critical way. “I am afraid that is the case. If we take that into account, then the coalition Government have a practical majority in your Lordships’ House. Over the years this House has developed a wonderful reputation as a revising Chamber. However, with the greatest respect, if the House is not able to cause the Government to think again, how on earth can it be a revising Chamber?” Since crossbenchers split down the middle politically and it’s rarely predictable how they will vote when they do I am not sure how it would help the Opposition to have more of us vote but his criticism reflects views that are becoming more generally expressed by the political parties. It comes down to the question of what the role of the independent crossbenchers should be.
The question of whether we should vote more frequently was discussed at our own weekly crossbenchers meeting yesterday. Some were keen to do so and indeed do spend a great deal of time in the House, more so than political peers, because they, like all crossbenchers, feel it is crucial to understand what we are voting about when we do vote. The luxury of having a whip order you to vote with the party makes life very simple; you simply turn up and go through the lobby you are directed to when the bell goes. Most of us however simply can’t give a sufficient amount of time to every bill to understand every clause; some because of having other jobs and roles that take us away from the Chamber, others because they will not vote when the amendment before the House is an overtly political manoeuvre which reflects party political squabbling, as happens quite frequently. And then there’s the sitting hours problem…there’s no doubt that the earlier in the afternoon the vote is called the more peers of all political persuasions and none will be there to vote; staying late in the evening to vote on an issue which you haven’t been following very closely and may make marginal difference to a piece of legislation is not appealing.
It’s often forgotten that older crossbench peers appointed before 1999 were not asked to become working peers; it was an honour and not a demand for work. One peer mentioned that before accepting a peerage he asked No 10 specifically if he was expected to serve in the legislature and was told that the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin came in to the chamber once to give his maiden speech and never appeared again ‘and he did nothing wrong’. Nowadays there would be a lot of huffing and puffing by colleagues (no doubt The Daily Telegraph would say he was on the fiddle). Many colleagues feel the ground rules have changed without their being consulted and they continue to give of their expertise when they can but that doesn’t mean full time. I sit somewhere in the middle, I try and vote when I’m there and inform myself as best I can about the plethora of bills but I confine my major interventions to the areas I know best. I would quite often like to have a green light flashing on top of my head saying ‘Abstaining’.