More than the chamber

Lord Norton

Somebody recently asked if I got to see more of London since I joined the Lords.  They presumed that I did.  I had to point out that I used to see more of London before I became a peer than since I became one.  Indeed, I rarely see much beyond the Palace of Westminster.  On the days I am in London, I usually get in to the Lords between 8.00 and 9.00 a.m. and leave between 10.00 and 11.00 p.m. (or shortly before 8.00 p.m. if I am returning to Hull).   If I get out of the Palace during the day, it is the exception and not the rule. 

However – and this is my central point – although I spend long days in the Palace I spend relatively little time in the chamber.  It is common for people to equate each House with the chamber.  The power of each resides in the chamber, but the activities of each extend far beyond the chamber.  I presently spend far more time in committee than I do in the chamber.  I am a member of three committees – the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Bill, which meets on a Monday, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, which meets on a Tuesday, and the Constitution Committee, which meets on a Wednesday.   The committees are more than the meetings.  The paperwork for each is quite substantial.  I am also chair of an all-party group and co-chair of another.  Indeed, both met this evening, fortunately one after the other.   There is also much activity beyond chamber and committee meetings, not least dealing with the mass of correspondence (paper and electronic) than arrives in the House.  My in-box has been inundated with e-mails over the past 24 hours on the Welfare Reform Bill.   The paperwork on my desk requiring attention is not insubstantial. 

I understand why people who watch the Parliament Channel or see a clip of the chamber wonder why on occasion there are not many members in the chamber.  They tend to think we are not doing out jobs.  Sometimes, it is precisely because we are that we are not in the chamber.  If peers crowd into the chamber, there is an opportunity cost.   Coming together in this way is at times essential, but at times it makes more sense for members to be dispersed about the Palace getting on with a range of activities – Grand Committee, select and joint committees, all-party groups, meetings with ministers and officials, as well as essential office work – for which the chamber is not well suited.  The chamber is central to the activities of the House but it is not the exclusive focus.

40 comments for “More than the chamber

  1. MilesJSD
    18/01/2012 at 11:19 am

    Now that IS interesting to the common-people and the democratic-citizen;
    thank you;
    it helps us to be better ‘accounting’ for our present-and-purposefully-working Upper-House Peers and Lower-House advocates & representatives.
    (Not so sure about the total analyses of ‘absences-from-sight’, from Commons-workplaces, as well as from Lords’).

    By the way, I am still not at all satisfied that the Westminster Houses Precinct is adequately up-to-date and up-to-the-mark in that kindred matter of every-one’s Holistic Health maintenance and sustainworthy-lifespan-wellbeing-furtherance.

    Neither do the noble posting-peer’s second and third paragraph words inspire any common-confidence, that there is both room and sufficient time for our 60 million or so democratic needs-&-hows submissions to be tabled and honestly dealt with;
    the Palace is already overloaded, with both long-hours & inadequate-governance-office-space, and with full loads of ‘Work Paperwork’.

    (I submit that this sub-topic should be made publicly-continuable-by-democratic-discussion).

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 3:38 pm

      milesjsd: Many thanks. There is certainly something of a problem in the Palace in that it is rather old and cramped, especially so at the Lords end (which is why we have to share offices and have limited desk space), though we get quite a bit of exercise given the sheer size of the estate and the 200+ staircases. It may be physically problematic, but the work does seem to energise members who, on the whole, are a fairly fit lot.

  2. Howell
    18/01/2012 at 12:39 pm

    Members of the other place probably have more opportunity to dash in to a debate which they have been watching on screen, elsewhere, than the noble peer does.

    My own theatre and creative life came to a distinct end, once I had been persuaded to “do something useful in parliament”.

    Parliament and london life just do not mix. you get involved in the one, with opinions and high horses, and you become not particularly welcome in the other because of your publicised opinions.

    Some people succeed in transcending the divide, obviously BBC celebrities do, Bakewell/Bragg by way of example, but in the
    Commons the only candidate for both west end and Commons i ca n think of, is Roy Hattersley, when he was in the other place.

    He had the most charming way of lurking in the West end/Covent garden which took some beating, and without any snide comments from the press.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 3:40 pm

      Howell: I think a fair number in the Lords do transcend the divide, it’s just that I am not one of them! There have been some artistic sorts in the Commons, not least the late Andrew Faulds.

  3. tory boy
    18/01/2012 at 12:47 pm

    A very good blog which can be applied to the HoC, I hope the media take note!!

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 3:40 pm

      tory boy: Many thanks. One can but hope.

  4. Matt
    18/01/2012 at 2:54 pm

    Lord Norton: I do fully understand and appreciate the points you are making – BUT – certainly in the House of Commons – there has been many a time when there have been barely 40 members in the chamber – and the subject-matter has hardly been arcane or trivial, either … Would you seriously suggest that there are 610 (that’s 610!) perfectly valid reasons why the others aren’t there????

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 3:42 pm

      Matt: Bear in mind that MPs do have constituency responsibilities and dealing with constituency work – or supervising staff in dealing with it – has proved increasingly time consuming. The demands made on MPs’ time is creating problems, not helped by MPs themselves who are very bad at saying no to invitations – even if, having accepted, they do not always turn up. Some MPs, though, are much better than others in devoting time to the chamber.

      • Matt
        18/01/2012 at 4:26 pm

        Lord Norton: I will take that as meaning something like, ‘the vast bulk are genuine, but yes, there will be a handful who simply don’t care enough’.

        • Lord Norton
          Lord Norton
          18/01/2012 at 4:55 pm

          Matt: I think I would express it as members having different priorities!

          • Matt
            19/01/2012 at 1:08 am

            LN: Are these the same kind of priorities that see a huge exodus from the Lords chamber at the moment that topical questions finishes?? Talk about rude – some of them could at least stay on for another 15-30 minutes – you never know, they might even learn something …

          • Lord Norton
            Lord Norton
            19/01/2012 at 8:33 am

            Matt: I know. As a matter of course, if I am in for Questions, I stay for the start of the debate rather than joining the exodus. One tends to learn far more from debates than Question Time.

  5. Gareth Howell
    18/01/2012 at 3:02 pm

    Interesting that the style of debate of the two chambers is so different that it is surely the confrontation of the HoC which condemns anything creative to the dust cart or the trash bin.

    Archer, the writer, did not seem to be affected by it, but I did wonder quite often how he “collated” his literary “works of art”.

    I suggested the other day, to a lady with some literary knowledge, that he might have one book of lasting value, amongst the volumes he wrote but she replied by saying it would take so long to decide which!

    If it even becomes clear as to which, I shall do the same for Archer as I agreed with Graham Greene I would do for him,and did,after he had gone,(and his literary archive is still recognized as brilliant by many) and that is to read a good many of them.

    The huge difference between the two prolific
    writers is that one was secretive, to the point of idiorhythmy, and the other was a publicist to the point of … shhh.. libel… and beyond.

    By comparison with my agreement with Graham Greene, I may not have much work, (and a real pleasure), to do.

    I do wonder whether there is any uni dept which is trying to assess Archer’s work!?
    (I may have questioned it before; I shall search)

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 3:44 pm

      Gareth Howell: I think the contrast in debating style is a valid one. I think I had better refrain from commenting on the writings of Jeffrey Archer, not least because I don’t have time to read fiction.

  6. Gareth Howell
    18/01/2012 at 3:10 pm

    Perhaps I am just not with it:

    Clifton Chronicles
    Sins of the Fathers
    Prison Diaries vol 1)Heaven, vol2)purgatory, vol 3)Hell

    According to him, 1.46m web hits per month.

    Now what excuse can I give for NOT reading anything by Archer?
    I know! LN will appreciate this!
    I can not possibly read anything by a former chairman of the Tory party, jail bird or no jailbird. How can it possibly be any good?

    It is bound to have improved since he was forced out of parliament entirely!

  7. Frank W. Summers III
    18/01/2012 at 3:29 pm

    Lord Norton,
    A sizable number of Americans have expressed to me in varied language that the House of Lords fulfills a minimal ritual and symbolic function with a bit of editorial responsibility for the language and mostly phrasing of Bills. That it is in “no way” comparable to the role of our Senate. I gather that either you would disagree with this or else there is a need for much more efficient time management…

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 3:46 pm

      Frank W. Summers III: I fear your compatriots are in need of being educated about the second chamber. The House of Lords makes more of a difference to the detail of legislation than the House of Commons. The House of Lords is not comparable to the US Senate, but then few second chambers are.

      • Dave H
        18/01/2012 at 7:26 pm

        The UK system has a single Bill that has to pass through both Houses, whereas in the US it is possible for the two chambers to pass conflicting Bills that then have to be reconciled. In the case of a tie, the Commons wins in the UK, I’m not sure the US system has a way of resolving impasse except by letting it all drop.

        • Lord Norton
          Lord Norton
          18/01/2012 at 8:44 pm

          Dave H: Congress employs a conference committee to try and resolve differences. If it cannot, the Bill is dead. If it reaches agreement, each chamber has to vote on the Bill on a yes or no basis.

          • Frank W. Summers III
            19/01/2012 at 1:41 pm

            Lord Norton & Dave H.,

            Lord Norton is as usual correct. The Bill as it emerges from the Conference Committee has traditionally been called a reconciliation bill. There are also elaborate processes which can allow for amendments to these instead of yes or no and then it must return to conference committee and eventually be sent out for a yes or no vote. When such amendments are made is the closest we ever get to the process of the modern British procedure sometimes called “ping pong”. Our legislative traditions are more tied to ancient Mediterranean practices than are Europe’s over time and so the legislative parties are weaker and the chambers consult in ways which make the conference committee essential.

  8. Gareth Howell
    18/01/2012 at 4:06 pm

    The House of Lords is not comparable to the US Senate, but then few second chambers are.

    Obama had to get ‘elected’ to the Senate first to stand any real chance of the presidency.
    His manner of doing so suggests that the US senate elections are every bit as much determined by electoral college as for example the FPTP country seats of the Tory party, in the Commons, or the Union Convenor seats in industrial areas of the UK.

    • Frank W. Summers III
      19/01/2012 at 1:51 pm

      Gareth Howell,
      I assure you that the electoral college only applies to Presidential races. It is a system which allocates to each State the number of electors which it has delegates to Congress. Thus each State has two for its Senate seats and a vastly arrayed number by population for its House Seats. The seats exactly match the electors. Therefore it has no connection whatever to the way elections with a state occur. Senators are the only Federal officials elected by an entire State and each State in whole elects both of its Senators.

      The only relevance that exists is that States with important electoral representation may be more prone to consider whether their Senator would make a good President. However, all States consider that chance a bit and very few Senators from any State become President. Illinois has had very few Presidents for a large State.

      Presidents have mostly been former Vice Presidents, Governors, Senators or victorious Generals. Some have been several of those things. Some have been none of them.

  9. maude elwes
    18/01/2012 at 5:32 pm

    @Lords Norton:

    It is hard to believe all those who have the right to a seat in the Lords can be involved heavily in these incessant out of chamber discussions. After all, at last count there was around 750, most of whom are appointed for life, as well as twelve Law Lords and twenty six CofE Bishops. Which is a disgrace in a democracy.

    However, more than that, when I watch the red chamber on Democracy Live, many of these people in that room look severely past their sell by date, and no amount of committee work is likely to restore their ability to perform. So what are they doing whilst you have your nose to the grindstone? And why are the tax payers forced to keep them in luxury, whilst others who are unable to work in our society or keep up with the perpetually fit, are fed to the wolves?

    MP’s, we must remember, not only are busy looking after their constituents are they? They are also looking after their second jobs. You know the ones they have at Morgan Grenfell & Co and elsewhere in the City. That also has to take up a great deal of their time, so the green chamber is expected to be empty as those elected use it only on a part time basis. They have to look after the hard money first.

    Don’t they?

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 8:48 pm

      maude elwes: The average daily attendance in the House is now nearly 500. They are not necessarily the same 500 each day, so there is actually a very good turnout of members during a session. Some may look very elderly (because they are) but still remain significant contributors to debate. The late Lord Simon of Glaisdale looked well past his sell-by date (eye-patch, ear-trumpet, among other things) but was brilliant in his contributions.

      If MPs have second jobs, one can at least see what they are, each House now having a rather extensive register of interests. There are far fewer MPs with major outside jobs than used to be the case.

      • maude elwes
        19/01/2012 at 11:12 am


        I feel the ‘Lords’ is now filling on a daily basis because the dwellers on those seats are in fear of losing their stipend. That aside, it has been confirmed that the human race begins to lose its mental capacity very much earlier than once realised.

        Do you honestly believe our nation should be relying on the severely aged to pass laws scrutinized by individuals who not only cannot absorb what they once used to accept in seconds, but now, too often, are out of touch with what is taking place in society as a whole.

        Isolation from the masses in general being a big decider on adaptation to a changing world. Even you, with your brilliant mind, admit you rarely go outside the Palace of Westminster when in London.

        Surely there should be an ‘outside body’ not friends on the inside, who assess the mental capacity of the Lords on an annual basis? As what takes place there is exceedingly important to our ability as a nation to survive adequately, as well as compete at a very high level in the world.

        Wisdom indeed is a must have and necessary, but, what is required as much, is the knowledge of the day. And what I see in that chamber is far from able to absorb the changes this world is making now and so rapidly.

        It’s time that those who run our country, and the Lords are a big part of that, should be seen to be fit for purpose. That means scrutiny by the people they are asking to accept their judgment on our behalf. And as this group do not accept a need to be selected by the public by running for office, those who pay the bill for their purpose, have no other way to be sure our investment is working for us supremely.

        It is odd that such a body would not have considered this a long way in the past. And it is selfish in the extreme to hang on, knowing the importance of the role played by their position.

        The aged are often incapable of seeing a situation past their early frame of reference. They are also moribund in their views and regardless of evidence, refuse to let in the light, as they fear an outcome they cannot compute.

        Just as it is now felt we owe no living to our sick and disabled, we also owe no living to the friends of the state in that second chamber.

        I feel there is indeed food for thought here.

        • Lord Norton
          Lord Norton
          19/01/2012 at 1:48 pm

          maude elwes: I rather thought recent research had found that mental faculties do not necessarily decline in the way outlined. (I am not sure why I paid especial attention to that research!) If a peer starts to lose it, it gets noticed. Some peers may be elderly, but their store of experience and knowledge can be exceptional. The Lords provides the means of drawing on that when it is salient – i.e. when a Bill is being considered. I may spend virtually all my time in the Palace of Westminster when I am in London, but I am not in London all the time. Peers may devote themselves to parliamentary work when in the Palace, but otherwise are out and about, engaging in other (and varied) jobs and in many cases being closer to the realities of life than MPs.

          • maude elwes
            19/01/2012 at 5:57 pm


            This report tells a different story. In fact it tells us that brain function diminishes in our twenties and is downhill from then.

            However, many become delusional and refuse to see the forest for the trees.

            I wonder why that is?


          • Lord Norton
            Lord Norton
            20/01/2012 at 7:38 pm

            maude elwes: I was familiar with the earlier research suggesting we reached our intellectual peak in our twenties. I thought that was probably true, at least until I turned thirty.

  10. Gareth Howell
    18/01/2012 at 7:50 pm

    I spoke to the great Glenda Jackson on one occasion, and enquired why there are so few actors in the Houses and she denied it vehemently. We omit to mention such a fine actor/politician at our peril!

    Literary creativity in other spheres seems to suffer if public administration and law is the main purpose of daily life!

    Geffrey Archer’s 1.4m a month website hits may be his usual exaggeration. Such fiction sells at about £9 on the E-readers but his works currently go for £2.50/£2.99, which is not so popular. He may be grateful that they are not giving his books away free.
    Royalties on 100,000 at £2.99 is a wage I would not argue with.

  11. How Ridiculous
    18/01/2012 at 10:01 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Surely the response to the assumption that you see more of London is simple: what more of London is there to see than the Palace of Westminster?

    How Ridiculous.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      18/01/2012 at 10:10 pm

      How Ridiculous: There is indeed very little to compare with the magnificence of the Palace of Westminster. I am more than happy to remain within its embrace.

  12. MilesJSD
    19/01/2012 at 12:20 am

    It appears that Information-gathering & sharing in the two Westminster Houses, and also Discussion and preliminary ‘sub-debating (win-lose), is done in other rooms than the two respective Chambers; as also is any other ‘non-big-debating-and-voting’ procedure, such as Scrutiny committees.

    Maybe the People should sometimes initiate some scrutiny, too ?
    Let me submit then:
    Given that British Democracy trains all levels of its citizens to maximum-achievement levels in governance skills, especially in the progressive or sequentially-enabling – and thereby ‘empowering’ – know-hows of ‘Friendly’ Information gathering & sharing, ‘Friendly’ Method III Needs & Hows Recognition and win-win-win cooperative problem-solving, ‘Friendly’ Discussion, and last-of-all the very different and essentially Competitive win-lose skills of Debating;

    then surely such right democratic sequence of participation, By-The-People, in any governancial Matter, Need, or Problem, must be given plenteously participatory e-sites and timeframes, to do just that progressive-participation
    and haved it completed Before the win-lose competitive debating is launched ?
    One notes that there are (at least) two distinct ‘styles’ of Win-Lose Debating, the Commons using the one, and The Lords the other.

    Pray, what are all the other forms of communication, information-gathering & sharing, evaluation, selection, discussion, and so on and so forth, both necessary and sufficient in Britain’s Westminster ‘Style’ of Democracy ?

    Clearly the Government of Britain including all our Foreign-Relations and Commitments, is far from being a full-time job;
    yet each ‘worker’ therein draws fat-salaries made up of multiple human-livings from our Common Purse,
    on top of all Costs & Expenses;

    And as clearly the People (as sovereign-power-&-ultimately- responsible-Body) have no way of ‘filling-in’ for those part-time-parliamentary-politicians and civil-servants;
    Worse, the People do not in fact have the necessary & sufficient Democratic-Participation enablements, channels, and timeframes to participate i.e. to communicate and scrutinise both response-ably and responsibly.

    So does what you’re telling us rather add up to such an ultimate-miracle as PM Thatcher gave us when she announced
    “We no longer need Society” ?

    Isn’t this Westminsterian ‘body-language’ clearly saying
    “We never have, and still never will, need the People to be an increasingly constructive and effective Participatory-Democracy” ?
    PS this above is in no way intended to negate my initial ‘Thankful’ reception of your lucid inside-glimpse-tour of the work of the Houses and of their Members, Lord Norton;

    And thank you for standing witness to the de facto in-action fitness-for-purpose of many ‘visually-past-their-use-by-date’ workplace-attendant Peers.
    I too glean confidence from most of the House of Lords speakers,
    whilst only ding-dong scrapping comes across from the Green chamber.
    But I have to say that a strong-mouthed few politically-jumped-up Peers turn that Noble Palace into a blunt and uneducated sort of ‘kangaroo-court’ increasingly often now;
    and I include both Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally in this unwelcome category
    (and as some Americans say, “giving such bullies a Title ‘sticks in my craw’ “)
    the former having most brutally and out-of-order literally squashed and then personally-attacked a well-spoken and positively-contributing Baroness last year without even acknowledging her brief, cogent, insightful, and quite necessary input;
    and the latter having only this week Summarily dismissed all vital-needs and reasoning put forward by many honest Peers in these Welfare and Legal-Aid matters, with the blunt word that his Government is determined to cut off from Lifesupport all disabled or disadvantaged citizens except the few and affordable “Most-deserving”.

    (Hard handedness downwards surely calls for hard feedback upwards, and outwards ?)


  13. Gareth Howell
    19/01/2012 at 8:32 am

    magnificence of the Palace of Westminster. I am more than happy to remain within its embrace.

    The building and its specifications and Portcullis too, in a very different way indeed, are a pleasure to be in, but becoming possessed by its proceedings makes Jack a dull boy indeed.

    One of the new Tory peers whom Lord Norton could learn from would be my good neighbour at West Stafford Julian Fellowes.

    He really does take his responsibilities seriously, both theatrical and now political.
    Our sweet natured woman vicar worships the ground he treads upon, which may be part of the function of hereditary peerage but not the new ‘uns, I don’t think!

    Perhaps the Gurkha campaigner, Joanna Lumley, will take her seat shortly to make the chamber cheerful with ear trumpets, and pebble glasses. A brilliant performer.

  14. Twm O'r Nant
    19/01/2012 at 8:35 am

    Thanks to DaveH and LN for that fairly simple exposition of the bill passage through the US houses; what this blog is about.

  15. Gareth Howell
    19/01/2012 at 8:04 pm

    The old palace looks jaded by comparison with the new one, Portcullis House, or does Lord Norton include that as “palace”? The panelling is phenomenal; the portraiture sometimes very witty!

    Is it described as functionalist architecture or does a building not need a particular description of that sort?

    Functional and Palatial yes. Palatial in the perfection of all its attributes.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      20/01/2012 at 7:40 pm

      Gareth Howell: Portcullis House is part of the parliamentary estate, but not part of the Palace. The contrast between the two is certainly remarkable and certainly one that tends to strike visitors. Portcullis House is fairly well designed. The Palace is more of a warren – it is easy for people to get lost – but nonetheless awe inspiring.

      • Gareth Howell
        21/01/2012 at 11:22 am

        After saying that I looked through the parliamentary estate and discovered that parts of the vicinity I thought I knew, have completely changed and been renovated for parliamentary use, since I last turned left instead of walking down from Trafalgar square
        directly to Parliament. Again those renovations sound splendid, and fitting for a modern democracy.

  16. MilesJSD
    20/01/2012 at 10:34 am

    “What this blog is about”
    in fact what any politico-social ‘forum’ dialogue needs to be “about”
    is the Sustainability of the Earth-Lifesupports Base, and about the Sustainworthiness of both the Human-Workplace and the Human-Lifeplace (world-wide, as well as our British bit)
    to live constructively within those Lifesupports Limits,
    not “creating & consuming” in either Workplace or Lifeplace (nor in Both as alas is the shamefully insidious case) exceeding our Lifesupports limits, at our own human-developmental and life-fulfilment expense as well as at the ultimate expense of this human race’s future-lifesupports.
    In short (Twm) every such collective-blog topic, issue and outcome needs to be supported by a sustainworthy greater context;

    so “the passage of a Bill through Parliament” has the greater underlying context of “meeting the British People’s Needs and Affordable-Hows”
    and doing so “by Participatorily-Democratic Processes”,

    both of which greater-needs are not being met

    which is malfeasance –
    ‘bad governance’ –

    and so, even such a sweet-reading and sounding ‘forum’ (blog) such as this particular one, comes tainted. already flawed by the faulty grounds upon which it holds sway.


  17. sophieduschl
    24/01/2012 at 3:07 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Hello from Germany! I have a relatively basic question. When there is a debate in the chamber and you cannot attend it because of a committee meeting, is that officially counted as absenteism? And if so, how do I have to treat statistics about absenteism in the upper chamber?

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      25/01/2012 at 7:57 pm

      sophieduschl: If there is a committee meeting and there is a debate in the chamber that you cannot attend because of the committee, the concept of absenteeism does not really apply. If you are in the chamber, you are recorded as attending that day, but the same applies if you are in committee.

      The concept of absence is more relevant if there is a vote (if a peer is not present, it could be an abstention or simply unavoidable absence), but that is not particularly relevant in the context of committees: if a vote is called in the chamber, a committee adjourns so that members can go and vote.

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