A year on: Natalie Bennett in the House of Lords

A year on from being introduced to the House of Lords as a Green Peer, Natalie Bennett describes some of what she’s learnt about working in the upper house of Parliament

Moses Room, House of Lords
Natalie Bennett

It is now a year since I became a member of the House of Lords. I can only say “what a year!”

One surprising development in a year of turmoil is that this unelected body, created through a mixture of 18th-century style patronage and medieval inheritance law, is now the most representative House, and the centre of resistance to an out-of-control, far-right, undemocratic government.

Boris Johnson has effectively 100 per cent of control of the House of Commons, having been backed by 44 per cent of the people who voted in 2019, but in the Lords it is the non-party crossbenchers who have the balance of power, and they’ve been increasingly prepared to use it. The Government loses more votes than it wins in the Lords.

After several years, when a finely balanced Commons saw it as a focus of campaigners' attention, I’m being approached more and more by NGOs and campaign groups seeking to engage with the Lords.

So, to mark the anniversary, today I’m setting out some of what I’ve learned in the past year, and how I’d suggest approaching using the Lords for political goals, something I’m increasingly being asked for advice on. You might call it a little “how to work with the Lords” guide.

Block-emailing the Lords – as groups often do to MPs – doesn’t go down well and is likely to be ineffective, even counter-productive. Many members don’t have staff support, they struggle with feeling swamped. So a good way to start is with Hansard.

Find peers who’ve spoken on your subject of interest, and approach them individually, showing that you’ve done your research. See also who is involved with relevant All-Party Parliamentary Groups and approach them with some kind of suggestion for action.

Every peer can ask 12 written questions a week – a good way to establish a government position to work against, or get on the record some policy failing that you already know is happening. Questions in the Lords are generally less restrictive than in the Commons and are supposed to be, and generally are, answered in about two weeks.

I’ve asked 196 thus far, ranging from questions about the regulation of bread to human rights sanctions for corruption, dividend recapitalisation to the badger cull.

Then, moving to the heavier-weight activity, if there’s relevant legislation coming before the House, any peer can put down an amendment (or raise an issue in a debate on a Statutory Instrument – the undemocratic mechanism by which the Government is increasingly ruling by decree).

Debate on legislation starts with a Second Reading – in which general speeches can be made addressing any aspect of the legislation. Here, for example, is mine for the Trade Bill, which I used to reflect on how the 19th-century philosophies of growth, which dominate in the House, are unfit for the 21st century. Peers who are interested in your issue will often welcome a page or two of briefing, setting out background information, relevant recent official reports and research, perhaps examples of what has been achieved in other nations.

Next is the committee stage, when any peer can put down an amendment and it will be debated (unlike in the Commons, where only amendments selected by the Speaker are discussed). So for the Agriculture Bill in the Commons there were a handful – in the Lords we topped out at 221.

The impartial Bill office is there to help peers turn ideas and proposals into a legislative format, so you don’t have to know how to do that yourself, although if you have a lawyer who can do that for you, that smooths the process considerably.

Each legal text is usually accompanied by a simple dry sentence of explanation. So when I moved Amendment 43 on the Agriculture Bill, on which I was working with the Landworkers’ Alliance, it said: “This amendment gives financial powers to develop local food strategies and infrastructure and to support small farms and/or community agricultural businesses with the purpose of improving public access to fresh and nutritious food, improving farm viability, reducing transport associated with agricultural products and securing our domestic food supply.”

Having the debate means the Government has to offer a view on the amendment; the issue is aired. But by convention, which I’ve never seen broken, amendments are not pushed to the vote in Committee, so your carefully crafted amendment will apparently be abandoned when the mover “begs leave to withdraw”.

But – do not despair! – next is the Report stage. There will almost certainly be fewer amendments, but yours – perhaps refined and improved after the debate in Committee, informed by what the Government response had been – can come back.

If you are really serious about trying to get it into the Bill, you will want peers from as many different parties as possible, and a cross-bencher, to sign the amendment. With a maximum of four signatures, most that get passed have a Tory, a Labour, a Lib Dem and a crossbench signature (Tory signatures are particularly prized, since this means through many crossbenchers’ eyes, they are not being “political”).  Fellow Green Peer Jenny Jones and I often stand aside at this moment for tactical reasons.

Currently, the House is inclined to back a maximum of six or seven amendments to defeat the Government in each Bill (see Agriculture and Immigration). But even if you aren’t expecting to push for, or win, a vote at this stage, an amendment at Report debate is all part of shifting the political landscape, demonstrating the importance of an issue.

Sometimes, I believe, however, it is worth pushing for votes you can’t win, as I did on freedom of movement in the Immigration Bill. On real matters of principle, a stand can sometimes be made.

If your amendment is inserted into the legislation, it then returns to the Commons, where MPs will almost certainly throw it out. The focus here – as the National Farmers Union has been focusing on Agriculture Bill campaigning, is to push Tory MPs to rebel.

So it comes back to the Lords without the amendment. Hopefully, however, the Lords puts it back in – and that’s how “ping pong” starts – Bills bouncing back between Commons and Lords. Or, just maybe, the Government is feeling pressured enough to make a modification to the Bill that goes at least some way to meeting the goals of the amendment (as happened with food security in the Agriculture Bill).

But whatever the outcome, you’ve done what you can as a campaigner to use the legislative process, made sure an issue was aired, that civil servants had to engage with and research the issue to prepare ministerial answers. You’ve used our dysfunctional, antique constitution to best effect for your cause.

If there’s no legislation in view on your issue, you might also, once you’ve built a relationship with a peer, consider asking them to put down an oral question, which initiates a short debate – as I did, for example, on ultra-processed food, or even (although these are as scarce as hen’s teeth), initiate a longer debate, as I did with poverty and Covid-19, which allowed me to get a good airing for Universal Basic Income.

One of my aims as a member of the House will always be to demystify, explain and share what is happening as much as I can – while of course working to abolish my own role as soon as possible by replacing our current antique arrangements with a modern, democratic constitution, for the Lords and the Commons.