Eric Avebury writes… Press conferences in the Lords

house of lordsBelieve it or not, there is nowhere in the House of Lords where backbenchers can hold press conferences! We used to be able to use any of the Committee Rooms, but in March 2010 the House agreed that only Committee Room G could be used for this purpose.

Two years later, an obscure Committee which deals with matters such as charging for tours of Big Ben and the use of electric hand dyers decreed that press conferences should be exiled to a small room in a building five minutes’ walk from the House. No consultation was held with backbenchers in arriving at this decision.

This Committee forgot to obtain the approval of the House, but officials tried without success to enforce their ruling all the same. When they suddenly realised this irregularity they tabled a motion to correct the omission on December 17 2012, and won the vote handsomely because the establishment came together on both sides. The Labour Party had a Whip on the vote **, without which it would probably have been lost, though it wasn’t a party-political matter.

In the debate, there had been no answer to the case made for the retention of the single remaining committee room in the Palace of Westminster in which press conferences were allowed. It was said that somehow the media would imagine that views expressed would be seen by the media as being those of the House, though no evidence this had ever happened was cited. No evidence was given, either, that problems had arisen in the Commons, where press conferences can be held in a dozen rooms.

It was said that undesirable characters would be allowed to air their opinions, and the example given was that of Geert Wilders, the Dutch extremist, who showed an Islamophobic film in the Lords. Wilders is always careful to say that he hates Islam, not Muslims, and however unreal the distinction may be, it is not unlawful. There might have been public order grounds for banning his entry to the UK, but the Home Secretary tried that and was overruled by the courts.

Some press conferences on international issues are held to allow oppressed people who are silenced in their own countries to reach an audience. Holding such meetings in the Palace of Westminster does enhance their prestige with journalists, the very object of the exercise.

It has to be said, too, that Members of both Houses are not keen on trundling over to an outbuilding for meetings. Their days are full enough as it is, and if there are votes it is risky. For the disabled, that remoteness probably means an absolute barrier to attendance in practice.

At the very end of the debate on December 17, after the vote, the Chairman of Committees withdrew the motion, saying that consideration would be given to allowing the use of a room in Millbank House, almost as far away and no larger than the one already available in an outbuilding.

It was not clear how that could be done within the rules of procedure, but the effect was that the status quo remains until a further motion is brought before the House. When that happens, there will be a further attempt to counter officialdom’s attempt to control Members’ rights and stifle freedom of expression.

 

** Correction: I inferred, since most Labour peers voted to exile press conferences from the main Parliament building, that the Labour Party had a Whip on, but the Opposition Chief Whip assured me they had a free vote.

* Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, is a working peer, and Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group. He blogs here.

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9 Comments

  • Richard Dean 20th Jan '13 - 11:23am

    Freud would have a field day, Uduwerage. But to skip all that, don’t we believe that the Lords should not exist? In which case, restricting their access to the press, and vice versa, might be a good start. Officialdom seems to have succeeded while the Commons continues to experience curtailment of its “rights” and stifling of its “expression”

  • This is simply an attack on democracy. The Lords are part of the system as it exists & we dont help change by allowing the Establishment to control it even more thoroughly. We should be making more of a fuss about this.

  • Tony Greaves 20th Jan '13 - 6:04pm

    Of course we do not believe that the Lords should not exist. We believe that they should be reformed into a democratic Upper House. Meanwhile they are what we have.

    I was pleased to support Eric in the lobby along with a fair number of LD colleagues. The ludicrous thing abhout the proposal is that Black Rod (the senior administrative official in the House) will have to adjudicate if there is a query over what constitutes a press conference. So if an all-party group (for instance) launches an inquiry or a report and books a room for the purpose, and invites lots of parliamentarisna dna staff, and people from outside campaigning or specialist bodies, and residents of Barnoldswick (or anywhere else) – some of whom happen to be journalists and take notes and write it up – would that be allowed? Or do such meetings have to specifically exclude journalists.

    It’s pompous, bureaucratic nonsense.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Greaves 20th Jan '13 - 6:06pm

    And once again you illustrate a Lords story with a silly picture of people dressed up. (I think these people are the old Law Lords, now transformed into the Supreme Court and removed across Parliament Square. VBut why let the facts get in the way of a silly picture?)

    Tony Greaves

  • Richard Dean 21st Jan '13 - 2:52am

    Well Lord Tony, you would say that wouldn’t you? :-) Some people do actually think that “abolishing” the Lords does actually mean that the Lords will no longer exist after abolition. But then, do LibDems really mean what they say?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 21st Jan '13 - 9:45am

    Although the House of Lords may be to some an unnecessary vestige of bygone days, with its strange traditions, before we destroy what exists, we need to seriously think about what should replace it, for a second house is desperately needed to act as a checking mechanism for the Commons.

    At the current time, Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats is attempting to save the hard fought for equalities legislation, that is under threat as a result of proposals in the Enterprise & Regulatory Bill. Members of the Commons, missed these changes when the Bill was first introduced, and it is the Lords who have realised the seriousness of proposals., and are seeking to redress the problems.

    Personally I am all in favour of loading the House of Lords with Liberal Democrat Peers who are all committed to reforming it, and making it truly accountable to the electorate, democratic and reflective of society. The titles, gowns, and the ceremony, may all be rather silly in the twenty first century, but the need for a second house remains extremely necessary.

  • Richard Dean 21st Jan '13 - 11:29am

    Does the need for finding and correcting errors made by the Commons justify a full second chamber? Could this not be done in part by beefing up the Parliamentary Drafting Service; in part by smaller, temporary or ad hoc Advisory or Checking Committees; in part by external groups interested in the topic at hand; and in part through the simple experience of implementation?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 22nd Jan '13 - 10:39am

    “Does the need for finding and correcting errors made by the Commons justify a full second chamber?”

    Richard, as I have previously pointed out, the challenge to the Coalition’s proposals to emasculate the equalities legislation has come from the Lords, not from within the Commons, so yes, a second chamber is required, for clearly we cannot trust the Commons alone to act as its own checking mechanism.

    As for external ‘interest’ groups championing causes, I can assure you that this is already being done, but again they often find a far more sympathetic ear in the Lords, than they do the Commons, perhaps because there exists considerably more independence amongst our peers, who are not so easily brow beaten by the party whips? For me this demonstrates why we need the best possible people in the Lords, who have the skill and ability to speak up, even against their own Party at times.

    Part of the problem with the credibility of the upper house as it currently stands, is the perceived entrance criteria, which does not necessarily appear to be on ones ability, to assist and further aid in the development of our society and democracy, but rather to some it appears as cronyism.

    For me, a reformed upper house, is the nature way for in a democrat society, for history has shown us, that those desiring totalitarianism firstly rid themselves of such luxuries in order to remain unchecked.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jan '13 - 3:16pm

    I wonder whether it s correct to argue for a second chamber solely on the basis that it would help on a particular item of legislation. Wouldn’t the other mechanisms I have suggested would do that, while avoiding the serious charge of un-democratic governance? Surely the justification for a long-term arrangement needs to be long-term too?

    The ostensible reason for the latest failure to reform the Lords was that elections confer legitimacy which will then lead to a more serious challenge to the Commons than at present. So it looks like the only way forward is true abolition. There are many useful Lords who might be employed as Advisers, of course. But would it be democratic?

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