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7 August 2000

A lord’s lot is not a happy one

The recently ennobled David Lipsey finds that a new Labour peerage is sheer drudgery

By David Lipsey

Among candidates for socialist sympathy, new Labour’s new life peers come last. It seems the ultimate icing on the cake: power, honour, a good club with a fine library, free London parking and up to £150 a day in allowances. So, naturally, there is no shortage of volunteers.

This is not quite how it looks, once you get to the Lords. This month and next, the lucky (because well-off) ones will enjoy a holiday. But for many, August and September will bring little respite. Their summers will be spent earning a living, something that the life of the House and the attentions of the whips make practically impossible while it is sitting.

Ah, those whips. They are delightful – all of them – but demanding. There has been recent controversy about the hours the Commons sits but, by comparison with the Lords, they work half-days. We sat, for example, until 5.12am on 24 July, until 11.38pm on 25 July and until 11.50pm on 26 July. Whips being whips, they are not satisfied with keeping the 30 peers who must always be available to prevent business collapsing, nor even with keeping enough peers merely to win the votes. They require peers en masse to pile up big majorities and to protect against any adverse contingency. They are not letting up; the Lords returns on 27 September, nearly a month before the Commons, with a mountain of unfinished business to deal with.

But it is not merely that our hours are long by comparison with the Commons. These hours are worked at less convenient times. We sit late on most Thursdays, while the Commons doesn’t. Worse, they are less convenient. By tradition, the committee stages of most bills are taken not in small subcommittees, but in the full panoply of the debating chamber. Bills are not timetabled, as in the Commons, and a vote can take place at any moment. So, from 2.30pm when the House meets to close of play many hours later, peers are unable to stray very far. Where procedural reform in the Commons has been slow, it has been practically immobile in the Lords, obstructed as it is by the conservatives of every party and none.

But surely while you are there you can work, even earn a living? Well, things are not so easy. Most new peers do not have a desk. They do not have a telephone. They may use one of a handful of supplied collective phones, but they have to pay for any overseas call. Although laptop computers are issued by the House, the authorities do not readily supply modems for them. In any case, snail-mail is, in most cases, quicker than the slow, utterly unreliable parliamentary e-mail system. Meeting rooms are few and refreshments are banned within them. Many peers work in the Royal Gallery, with its 40ft ceiling – vast canvases depicting Waterloo and Trafalgar – but have no phone, computer, desk or privacy.

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In truth, it is almost impossible to be a conscientious peer and hold down a proper job. Thanks to the Nolan and Neill committees, the sinecures that ministers used to produce for peers have diminished. Indeed, Labour peers are now often disqualified from public appointments, such as in regulatory bodies for which they are otherwise suited, on the grounds that they are political. Most rely on their pensions from previous employment, and judicious ducking and weaving. A car? A pension? Health insurance? Luncheon vouchers? You have to be joking.

As for power, it has to be understood that, for elected politicians, the Lords is the lowest form of political life. Did the government think of the Lords when it introduced its Football (Disorder) Bill? Probably not, but we were expected to buckle down loyally to long sessions and several defeats on it, waving progressive legislation such as the “right to roam” Countryside Bill to one side.

Even the honour isn’t what it was. Tony Blair’s appointments to the Lords were necessary to get rid of the huge Tory majority. They still have 33 more peers than we do, not counting their many cross-bench fellow travellers. Yet the scale of the new appointments has been cleverly exploited by the Tories. The “Tony crony” label has stuck to us new boys. Besides, society has lost its slavish respect for authority, and Britain no longer loves a lord. Many of us find the title simply an embarrassment.

Moreover, a few garish appointments have tarnished the reputations of the many. If the public thinks all peers are like Michael Ashcroft, the expat Tory treasurer enobled by William Hague, it is no surprise that they do not think much of us. The Tories have not helped, either, by resisting the creation of a proper register, akin to that in the Commons, wherein peers record their interests – a register that Labour peers enthusiastically welcome.

For the average new Labour peer, this is quite bemusing. In the old days, more life peers were ex-MPs who knew what they were getting into. Today, most new peers come from a range of backgrounds in the arts, the voluntary sector, trade unions, local government and so on. Most of them are people of high ability, but they are not trained, professional politicians. Weighed down with archaic procedures and un-written rules, patronised by many Tories who affect to believe that nobody without several decades of experience can really understand how the place works, they often find it hard to find ways of using their expertise to maximum effect.

Labour debate on Lords reform tends to revolve around the hoary old issue: whether lords should be elected or appointed. In practice, the more important issue is what kind of second chamber, if any, we want. It needs modernising. New Labour is a modernising party. How long must we wait?

Lord Lipsey became a life peer in October 1999

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