Not so inbuilt

Lord Norton

It is variously claimed that the combination of Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in the House of Lords provides the coalition with an inbuilt majority.  It has not proven so inbuilt as to protect the Government from defeat.  In yesterday’s proceedings on Report stage of the Public Bodies Bill, there were three votes and the Government lost two of them.  On the first, on the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, the Minister, Lord McNally, basically conceded that the Government was going to lose.  It did, by 225 votes to 162.  The amendment, moved by Labour peer Lord Warner, was supported by the Opposition as well as by 52 cross-bench peers (only two voted with the Government),  6 Liberal Democrats and 5 Conservatives.  In the second division, on an amendment moved by former Conservative Cabinet minister Lord Newton of Braintree, the Government lost by 198 votes to 191.

28 comments for “Not so inbuilt

  1. Carl.H
    29/03/2011 at 4:58 pm

    Rebellions statistically are not as common as the noble Lord would have us believe.

    From the link below

    190 rebels from a turnout of 22,084

    My Lord, I know you like to promote the fact that the Lords are reasonably neutral and think in an evidential manner but this is not true in my opinion. There are divisions such as The Isle of Wight amendment when a few will go against Government but these are all too rare and in that case against all logic that was the Governments case.

    I’m sure in the bill mentioned above many members have strong feelings for a particular quango and there will be sections of all parties that wish to save these. Be it from self interest or a particular field, 2 does not a revolution make.

    Whilst revolts make interesting newspaper reading, they’re hardly commonplace nor do they always stand the test of Parliament.

    “The greatest number of Lords defeats suffered by any government was 126 inflicted on Labour during the 1975-76 session.

    In the first year of Tony Blair’s government there were 38 defeats.

    The highest number inflicted on the previous Conservative administration was 22 defeats in the 1985-86 session.”

    It appears statistically Tories are favoured by the House. I also feel the House suits itself as to when and where to apply the Salisbury convention.

    I understand the House should not and ever be “an opposition” but feel it should be a reasonable judge in that Government should need prove the requirement and suitability of legislation.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      30/03/2011 at 7:56 am

      Carl.H: One cannot compare defeats in sessions pre-1999 with post-1999 sessions since one is not comparing like with like. As my own research has shown, cross-voting by individual party members is rare. What causes defeats are (a) the Government failing to persuade the swing-vote group in the House (previously the Liberal Democrats and now largely the cross-benchers) and (b) Government supporters staying away from the vote; the tendency is not to vote rather than vote against.

      • Carl.H
        30/03/2011 at 8:32 am

        But your argument is merely theory and cannot be accurately measured whereas membership and rebellions can.

        A similar theory applied to the electorate is often called “apathy”.

        • Lord Norton
          Lord Norton
          30/03/2011 at 7:59 pm

          Carl.H: The fact that it cannot be accurately quantified does not mean it is merely a theory. There is plenty of evidence but not complete data.

          • Carl.H
            31/03/2011 at 7:37 am

            We are talking very specific numbers when we speak on divisions especially on successful rebellions. If we have an unquantifiable amount that may or may not have made a difference and you state that it would have changed the end result this can only be theoretical or mere speculation.

            I give weight to your expertise by calling it a theory and not merely speculation.

            a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact.

          • Lord Norton
            Lord Norton
            31/03/2011 at 9:11 am

            Carl.H: It is reporting matters of fact, even though the fact may not be amenable to precise quantification. It is certainly possible to do a study of turnout and establish deviations from a pattern. There are divisions where the Government have lost because of peers abstaining rather than voting: there was one instance at the beginning of the Parliament, where the number of Conservative peers declining to vote, even though present, was sufficient to deny the Government a majority. That was demonstrable in that they remained in their seats during the division.

        • Carl.H
          31/03/2011 at 10:03 am

          Were the peers asked if by remaining seated they intentionally abstained ?

          Can we accept that being present but not voting is an act of abstention ? Can we go further and say those present in the House but who do not go to Chamber for division also abstained ?

          If we apply not voting as rebellion how would we apply that to the electorate at elections ?

          It is reporting matters of fact

          When dealing with divisions,which is a precise act, we cannot add in an unquantifiable amount to summise the outcome was caused by this. One would have to know precisely the number and reasoning of the seated/in House (but not chamber) non voting members.

          Apathy or lack of knowledge could also play a part and one could assume the seated members suffered from either of the two rather than deliberately abstaining. There is without doubt evidence of both apathy and lack of knowledge within the House, quantifying those is also impossible.

          If we accept that members are not sheep who follow party blindly then we cannot rightly assume not voting is an act of rebellion.

          On the other hand if we accept members should and do follow party it totally destroys your view of the coalition not having a majority.

          • Lord Norton
            Lord Norton
            31/03/2011 at 10:10 pm

            Carl.H: On your last point, the coalition do not have a majority as it has less than 300 members in a House that has more than 750 members. That is why it suffers defeats. Absence from a division can be a deliberate abstention, it can be because one is away on other business, it can be because you are in a room (such the Speaker’s State Rooms in the Commons) where there are no screens, or it can be because you are delayed on the train. That is why you cannot provide comprehensive data, but that does not mean there are no data or that by analysing division data you cannot discern occasions when peers appear deliberately to have absented themselves. A survey of peers may also help identify particular occasions when they have deliberately stayed away. The whips usually have some idea of the difference.

          • Carl.H
            01/04/2011 at 10:04 am

            On your last point, the coalition do not have a majority as it has less than 300 members in a House that has more than 750 members.

            The figure for the coalition by the way is 313. We have seen by evidence I have previously linked to that the Crossbench voting statistics are so low in general that it rarely makes a difference, there are exceptions.

            In your own evidence:

            ” Cohesion without Discipline: Party Voting in the House of Lords , Lord Norton of Louth, Tory peer and professor of politics at Hull University, writes that although government whips cannot offer peers the incentives or threaten the sanctions that can sway MPs in the Commons, “party whips (in the Lords) can normally assume that when a party line is taken, the overwhelming majority of their supporters present in the Palace of Westminster will troop into the lobby”.

            We can see from Baroness d’Souza’s figures that Crossbench vote are divided pretty equally

            This will negate their effect except in exceptional circumstances. That together with the voting percentage record of the Crossbenchers, as I have previously shown, gives Government a majority infact if not in theory.

          • Lord Norton
            Lord Norton
            01/04/2011 at 8:49 pm

            Carl.H: By your own figures, the coalition only has a majority subject to certain conditions being met and those conditions are now not always met. In this Parliament, cross-benchers are making much more of a difference than in the preceding Parliament. Look at the analysis of divisions in the current Parliament (available online) and the occasions when cross-benchers turn up in some numbers and divide disproportionately against the Government. The fact that they do so now is significant in terms of anticipated reaction. The Government cannot be sure what will happen. We now keep a close eye on the screen to see the results after a division, since we cannot be sure that the Government will win.

  2. Matt
    29/03/2011 at 5:08 pm

    @ Carl.H

    “190 rebels from a turnout of 22,084”.

    Please explain what you mean by this.

    • Carl.H
      30/03/2011 at 8:18 am


      Merely playing with numnbers Matt as the Government does and most other people who want to prove an argument that will still remain factually unproven.

      From the link I gave there were 190 rebels from turnout totalling 22,084 across that period.

      • Matt
        30/03/2011 at 5:01 pm

        @ Carl H.

        Sorry, I still don’t understand what you have added together, here. Walk me through it …

        • Carl.H
          30/03/2011 at 10:16 pm

          22,084 total members present(who voted) over the period could have rebelled, either way. Only 190 did so.

          • Matt
            31/03/2011 at 5:51 pm

            @ Carl H.

            I’ve followed the link you provided, and, for the period 8 June 2010 – 28 March 2011 …


            … I make it 73 rebellions from total 13,048.

            I presume that ‘rebel’ is taken to mean any peer who votes against the advice of his/her affiliation’s whip.

            Admittedly, this is still rather limp stuff, from a house that claims to be more independently-minded, although, of course, it doesn’t factor in the cross-benchers (are they ever ‘whipped’ at all).

            One has to wonder … What is the carrott-and-stick that keeps the party peers so obedient??

          • Lord Norton
            Lord Norton
            31/03/2011 at 10:13 pm

            Matt: There are no notable carrots or sticks. Peers vote the way they do because they choose to do so. Bear in mind that votes are relatively rare. Over 95% of amendments are agreed following discussion without a vote taking place. Our principal impact is through persuasion.

          • Carl.H
            01/04/2011 at 8:29 am


            Strange that sorting that link page by date gives a different result than sorting it by rebellions.

            @Lord Norton

            Our principal impact is through persuasion.

            Judging by what expert committees say and what goes on in the House that persuasion isn’t good enough. As a political expert yourself and a member of a prime committee you must be frustrated and feel totally ignored at times.

            The House was I believe setup to be a check and balance on commoners, who although passionate could have some stupid ideas and still do. Sadly the wisdom of Lords Committees and the House is all but ignored and in most cases it is felt they simply roll over. I realise much is done privately, making Government less than transparent, it simply does not seem enough though.

            You probably realise that Government roll out the electorate as legitimacy as and when they feel and ignore them at other times. Too many issues are ignored, EU,drugs, prostitution et al., that are majorly important to the public. Scientific evidence is ignored, Committees ignored, the electorate ignored and politicians wonder why the public seem apathetic ?

            The question in my mind at present is does the House make enough difference to warrant it’s continuance when so much is eventually decided in Court of Law or in European Courts.

            If consecutive Governments are allowed to continuously fill the House at each election to sway the balance on major issues it makes the House totally impotent and worthless.

          • Lord Norton
            Lord Norton
            01/04/2011 at 8:45 pm

            Carl.H: Some things are frustrating but others are remarkably rewarding. When people ask what I regard as my most significant achievements, I would now add the changes to the Public Bodies Bill to the achievement of post-legislative review and the amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. That’s just me and I am hardly the most influential member of the House. Even if we don’t always achieve something first time round, we can pursue something until we get action. The House regularly achieves more than the Commons.

  3. MilesJSD
    29/03/2011 at 8:38 pm

    Lord Norton is a Conservative,

    Both the McNally-forelock-tugging along with the voting-figures then obediently seeming to go against the Conservative-LibDemocrat Coalitional Intention, and the posting Lord’s apparent impartiality, look quite similar to a cunningly-distracting Sop-to-Cerberus;

    whilst main further-bitter-cutting legislations amass fullest possible “attack” shooters and supporters.

    Then we shall see the truth or falsity of Lord Norton’s apparently impartial report, that the Upper House is not and will not be ‘stacked’ in the Coalition’s favour.

  4. tory boy
    30/03/2011 at 3:51 pm

    Two points unrelated to blog. Do the lords have any equivalent to the Commons no confidence motion? Second if a select committee reports recommendations are not accepted by the govt is it compulsory for the govt to explain why they are not taking on the report’s recommendations.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      30/03/2011 at 8:05 pm

      tory boy: The Government rests on the confidence of the House of Commons, so a vote of no confidence in the House of Lords (though on rare occasions tried) has no constitutional consequences.

      The Government seeks to respond to Select Committee reports within two months and a response usually deals with each recommendation in a report. If it rejects a recommendation, a reason is usually given. There can be an opportunity to pursue a minister further: if a committee recommends that a report be debated, then time is found to debate the report. A time slot is found once the Government response has been published. If the Government have provided a poor or less than helpful response, the minister may run into trouble in the debate.

  5. tory boy
    30/03/2011 at 9:15 pm

    Thank you could you inform me how the motion would be worded in the lords. What is the procedure on the floor on the house?

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      31/03/2011 at 9:13 am

      tory boy: The motion can take the form of ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ or indeed some variant, the same as in the Commons but without the consequences in the event of the motion being carried.

  6. Matt
    01/04/2011 at 6:46 am

    @ Lord Norton

    Taking you at your word about the effects of persuasion, it would seems like the ‘rebels’ statistic is not blunt an instrument.

    So perhaps the question should be re-framed as, ‘On how many occasions have the Lords persuaded the government to make substantial and significant changes to legislation?’…

    … A far more difficult thing to measure …

    BUT, given the sheer amount of shoddy/ unnecessary/ OTT law there is on the statute book, it looks to me like the Lords have not been meddlesome or disruptive enough (unless you want to argue that the laws would have been even worse without their involvement – a much weaker position).

    More evidence needed.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      01/04/2011 at 8:40 pm

      Matt: By your own admission you cannot quantify the extent of influence. There may be some bad legislation enacted but it would infinitely worse were it not for the work of the Lords. Take, for example, the Public Bodies Bill. Compare the Bill as introduced and then look at what it looks like when it leaves the Lords. That will give you some idea of the impact of persuasion.

      • Matt
        01/04/2011 at 9:18 pm

        Lord Norton: In fairness, I was running with Carl H’s thoughts on this one … And you seem quite happy to adopt what I called the ‘weaker position’ (ie, that the Lords have tweaked certain bills up from ‘shockingly bad’ to merely ‘fairly bad’). … But I would imagine that you do not consider this to be any kind of satisfactory ‘constitutional settlement’?? … And there are many small-c conservatives who would say that too much law is being churned out full stop; never mind the details.

        • Lord Norton
          Lord Norton
          02/04/2011 at 11:22 am

          Matt: I certainly believe the present situation can be improved, though I consider it a case of building on the strengths we have. Watch out for the report from the Leader’s Group on the Working Practices of the House, which is about to report.

  7. Matt
    01/04/2011 at 8:40 am

    (( My computer playing up this morning, and me not looking at what I’m typing … think I should have said, ‘TOO blunt instrument’ .. not ‘NOT blunt…’ ~ That’s if my last post has been logged )) …

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