By Frank Young
January 13, 2021
The House of Lords is an extraordinary place, full of gold leaf, ushers in full white tie dress and an imposing throne. Few other countries have legislative chambers quite like it. It is hard to miss as a physical presence but is often overlooked by think tankers and policy professionals promoting new policy ideas. Any campaign or the profile of a report is amplified by ensuring it is raised in both Houses and will ultimately be more likely to come to the attention of Ministers.
The first (and very simple) top tip for policy wonks and think tankers is simple, don’t forget the House of Lords. If you find that your internal language around parliament tends to just mention “MPs” make a point of changing it to “MPs and Peers”.
One big difference between the two chambers, which should catch the eye of think tankers and policy professionals, is the different style of timetabling business within the House of Lords. Unlike the Commons, which is often tightly focused on legislative business and questions to ministers, there is more room in the timetable for responding to topical issues or bringing under-discussed issues to the attention of ministers.
The Lords also have their own committee system which is just as influential, publishing very authoritative reports, and not to be overlooked either.
The business of the House is often planned and made available weeks in advance. Make the Lords Whips website a favourite. It can be used to see who has ‘put down’ to speak in a debate giving plenty of opportunity for helpful engagement. Likewise, Oral Questions in the Lords are effectively mini debates, unlike their Commons counterparts, which can take the form of repeatedly partisan (or extremely local) questions being thrown at the responding minister. The more lightly whipped House of Lords will mean that fewer Noble members (honourable in the Commons and noble in the Lords) will be required by party managers to speak on issues they know little or nothing about.
Our ermine clad friends generally have more time to focus on policy interests than MPs with constituency and party demands on their time. They will therefore often take a deep interest in one or more policy areas and as such are likely to speak with authority on these matters. This might be because they come from a professional background in a particular subject, or they have committed to spending their time in the House focusing on an area of policy. Very often they have the gift of time with which to focus on a subject but, unlike MPs, they have no administrative or research support (unless they pay for it out of their own pocket). You are therefore likely to find Peers very receptive to serious policy engagement on their specialist areas in a deep-dive sort of way and over the long term. They are there for life after all.
Like any political (or stakeholder if we must use that awful term) relationship it is worth putting time into identifying Peers who seem to have an interest in a policy area you’re working on. Use the much underrated Hansard search tool which is like Google for spoken contributions in parliament and Written Questions to find Peers who regularly speak on matters you’re interested in. You’ll soon discover a pattern and Peers who pop up again and again. These Peers will often be recognised by ministers in the Lords for their interest and will become the ‘go-to’ people on any given subject.
The upper chamber is typically less adversarial than the House of Commons and contributions can be more data focused. The Government has no inbuilt majority in the House of Lords so a canny think tanker should always look to build cross-party relationships in the Lords, based on a policy area. This includes cross bench and ecclesiastical Peers who take no party whip. Party allegiances are much less pronounced in the House of Lords with members always working ‘across the House’ on a subject area, and members recognised for their interest in a subject. Policy professionals can work very effectively with Peers to provide them with the latest data or evidence to support their parliamentary work in debates.
The House is getting bigger and bigger and spoken contributions are much shorter than they can be in the Commons, often only a few minutes depending on how many people are speaking in a debate. This means tighter speeches which are often uninterrupted and then on the record.
When it comes to draft legislation, Peers have much more freedom to table amendments to legislation, especially through ‘probing amendments,’ and test ministerial thinking. If your work involves legislative change then the House of Lords is often the best place to start. Improving legislation is, after all, a primary function of the House and peers will likely welcome research which highlights problems with existing legislation or bills coming before them.
One issue that often comes up and causes many colleagues great anxiety is the formality of addressing the different types of peer, from Dukes and Earls to lowly Barons and Baronesses. It can be very confusing. This page on the parliament.uk website provides a handy guide to addressing them. It is well worth saving to avoid a very British slip in protocol.
Building strong working relationships with Peers will help to promote your work. If you’re working away inside a think tank, make sure you don’t overlook the House of Lords and the work done by Peers across the House in using the latest data or promoting new ideas to challenge all the different parts of Government to do better.