When I start my Lords’day at 7.00 am or so, there is nothing more irritating than reading yet another press story saying we peers just pop in to collect our £300 daily expenses. It is particularly galling when it appears in the Sunday Times, where I worked for six happy years, and which reported on Sunday that “provided that they “clock on” with Lords officials, peers do not need to prove that they have done a day’s work.”
The facts are nearly right. In fact, you qualify for the £300 expenses (peers are paid no salary) if you go into the chamber. There, officials sit with lists of peers ticking those who come in and these lists are used to check claims.
Where the logic falls short is in suggesting peers are only working if they are sitting in the chamber. And this is rubbish, as ridiculous as suggesting that journalists are only working if they tapping at their typewriters.
Most of the things an active peer will do – reading briefs, attending meetings of Lords, all-party and unofficial committees, meeting representatives of outside bodies, addressing meetings, broadcasting and writing, attending official functions-and so on are nothing to do with going into the chamber. Indeed, when you are not involved in a particular bill or interested in a particular question, going into the chamber is probably low on the list of productive things you do in a day.
In any case, what different system could there be? Peers could be asked to fill in a time sheet recording what they are doing all day. But anyone determined to milk the system – if there are any peers who are trying to do that I haven’t met them – could simply create a work of fiction. Or perhaps the house should insist its officials shadow a peer night and day, to certify if they are or are not working. It’s absurd.
There is a further difficulty. The job a peer does is nowhere defined. In practice it is a mix of things – improving legislation, contributing to public policy making, offering access to parliament to those with an interest in its workings and so on. The precise nature of the mix will vary from peer to peer, and from week to week.
You get busy patches and quiet patches. Hansard records that I participated 166 times during the short period the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies bill was before parliament. It also records that I did not contribute at all in April and May – because I was on sabbatical at Harvard University in receipt (rightly) of no expenses or state funding.
It isn’t even clear what qualifies as lord’s work. Am I doing my job as a peer writing this blog?
Oh well. At 7.30 usually when the dinner break starts, at 10.00 on other days when there is a late whip, and on rare occasions through the night, I know I am , even if I should be unable to prove it to the satisfaction of the Sunday Times. The same goes for the huge majority of my Lordly colleagues.