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.