Parliamentary Puzzle 3: What Do Peers Do?

By Dr Ben Worthy reports on an visit by Baroness Bakewell to the Department of Politics Parliamentary Studies course

This post originally featured on our sister blog, 10 Gower Street.

In our Parliamentary Studies course, Baroness Bakewell of Stockport, the President of Birkbeck, spoke to the class about her experience as a Peer in the House of Lords.

Baroness Bakewell spoke of how it felt to be appointed to the House of Lords in 2011. As you would expect, the House of Lords is a very traditional place. The tradition is contained within the buildings and space as well as the ceremonies and rituals, from the grand state opening to the forms of address between members (called ‘Peers’).

It is also a rather calm and ‘nice’ place. Politics and debate is conducted in an ordered way and Peers regulate themselves in discussion. Unlike the House of Commons down the corridor, members are often towards the end of their professional career with less ambition and, most importantly, no pressure to be re-elected. For a great exploration of how it feels to be there, I’d recommend a look at Dr. Emma Crewe’s anthropological study.

Yet, as Baroness Bakewell explained, the House of Lords is more than this ‘nice’ place. First, it is a highly expert place. Baroness Bakewell pointed out that the Lords contains a high number of the very people you would want in any ‘revising chamber’ – lawyers. It also has academics, surgeons and members of the military (as well as plenty of ex-politicians), many of whom continue with their professional careers part-time.  Sitting in on debates, she said, means you always learn something.  To get an idea of the variety, see this table of expertise from 2010 study by Meg Russell and Meghan Benton.

This means that discussion in the House of Lords is often backed up with knowledge. This expertise means the Lords can and, increasingly, will question and, ultimately, temporarily block government legislation. Baroness Bakewell had just returned from debate around the  Anti-Social, Crime and Policing Bill. In this case, the House of Lords rejected the government proposals after a lengthy analysis of its clauses.

Second, the House of Lords is also changing. The composition is shifting . In fact, up until the last General Election in 2010 there were more women in the upper (unelected) House of Lords than in the lower (elected) House of Commons. Not only is it changing in terms of numbers. Its opening up to the world and spending more time explaining what it does-see this great collection of House of Lords bloggers. There’s also the brand new Lords Digital Chamber which brings together the tweets, blogs and videos of all the Peers.

Our ideas about the House of Lords come from the images and ideas about privilege, tradition and aristocracy. But it isn’t all like that. The House of Lords is changing. As Baroness Bakewell pointed out, it’s more professional, more knowledgeable and more assertive. Governments should beware.

The Department of Politics would like to thank Baroness Bakewell for taking the time to speak with the staff and students.