Norfolk and Suffolk Lords say they earn their keep by holding the government to account
- Credit: PA
Their roles are the subject of great debate – but who are the region's representatives in the House of Lords, what do they do and how much do they claim? In day three of our series The Price of Democracy, Annabelle Dickson investigates.
Peers from the region today insisted they provide good value by improving legislation and holding the government to account in return for the thousands of pounds they cost the taxpayer in allowances.
Our investigation has found that more than 1,700 days of work were provided in 2014/15 by the 16 backbench members of the House of Lords with links to the region, costing the taxpayer £464,000.
Unlike MPs, members of the House of Lords do not receive a salary unless they are a minister.
They are entitled to a £300 daily or £150 half-daily attendance allowance which must cover everything from accommodation to staff and stationery. They can separately claim travel costs from their home.
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The level of claims vary among peers, with some choosing not to claim at all.
The House of Lords is the second chamber of parliament and its role is to scrutinise laws, check and challenge the decisions made in the House of Commons as well as be a forum of independent expertise.
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However, there has been much debate on potential reform of the chamber, amid claims it is non-democratic and members are not chosen by the public.
Most of the Lords we spoke to defended the role they carried out, but backed some form of reform.
Norfolk-based former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman, who collected £34,050 in allowances for the 121 days she attended last year, said: 'Voting and speaking records are obviously useful indicators of a peer's contribution, but by no means tell the whole story.'
Among a raft of other activities she highlighted the numerous specialist committees where peers' expertise was given and their membership of All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG), which look at particular issues.
'I believe the work of the House as a whole in terms of improving legislation, holding the government to account, and expert inquiries represent value for money – although there is always room for improvement,' she added.
Lord Howarth of Newport, a former MP who now lives in Norwich, said the number of votes and speeches was a 'crude and inadequate measure of value for money'.
'The quality of a peer's speeches, questions and committee work are more important, but also more difficult to evaluate,' he said.
His work outside the chamber includes chairing the APPG on Architecture and Planning, before the role was taken by an MP, and he has more recently prioritised his work on the APPG on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, which he founded.
Baroness Shephard, a former Conservative cabinet minister and South-West Norfolk MP who has been in the Lords since 2005, said she had decided at the start of the last parliament in 2010 to concentrate on select committee work.
She has looked in detail at reform of the House of Lords and was part of the Health and Social Care Committee, which worked with former health minister Norman Lamb to get the government to look seriously at amalgamating health and social services budgets at a local level.
She has also scrutinised the Mental Capacity Act and was part of an ad-hoc select committee on affordable child care which led to a government pledge to double the amount of free child care.
While Baroness Hollis, a Labour peer and former Norwich City council leader, spoke in 23 debates, she made 55 contributions during the last session of parliament.
She said that a figure showing the number of individual debates did not reflect the heavy lifting on legislation and the long hours working on a bill that some peers might have done.
She said that she may move several amendments in a day making half a dozen speeches, often of 1500 words at a time, on each contribution.
She also highlighted some of the important work of the Lords saying she had intervened to challenge the government on the 'bedroom tax' and the withdrawal of legal aid to people on benefits, and also to highlight the need for a living wage.
Since parliament returned in May she said she had worked as a figurehead for 30 medium-sized cities, including Norwich, to amend devolution legislation which she said would allow the city and county to bid for the resources and powers they need.
'I would add that for two months I gave up almost all of my weekends to research and write speeches on the Bill. 60 to 70 hour weeks – on end,' she said.
'Some months I break even, other times I don't. Over the year I make no 'profit' out of this, but nor should I as this is public service, and I am very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to make a difference,' she added.
Former social worker Baroness Howarth of Breckland, who was a key figure in the growth of the charity Childline, is secretary to the APPG for Children and the Housing and Elderly Group. She also worked as a member of the European Union Select Committee, something she said involved a considerable amount of paperwork outside the recorded attendance at the committee meetings. The crossbencher said she would only vote on issues where she had both understanding and a position to take, rather than vote according to a whip.
'I give my time and energy because I care about the work and believe I can have some impact on the legislation in the areas where I have expertise,' she said.
Fellow crossbench peer Lord Dannatt said he prioritised defence and security issues. 'One is pretty busy for £300 a day actually. The fact that someone might put their head in and out of the chamber is not indication that they are just walking in and walking out,' he said.
Baroness Murphy, who has been an independent peer for 11 years, said she has been very active attending almost every day, working on mainly health, social welfare and welfare reform bills.
But the 68-year-old said she done considerably less in the last two years and had mainly contributed outside the chamber to All Party Parliamentary Groups on mental health, dementia and strokes and on a campaign to change the government's approach to drug policy.
The crossbencher said: 'I made a vow a long time ago that I would not vote unless I understood what I was voting for and had listened to the debate – and make no apology for that.'
The Bishop of Norwich, who is one of 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords, has been a member of the communications select committee, a job which he said has required meetings almost every Tuesday for at least three hours.
He said: 'Unlike some other peers, I do have a very full-time day job, so opportunities to participate on the floor of the House are probably less.'
Conservative peer Lord Deben has been chairman of the Climate Change Select Committee, which advises parliament and government. He said East Anglia was very dependent on Britain's membership of the EU so ensuring that those concerns are researched and discussed was another part of his work.
Earl Cathcart served as a Conservative Party Whip in the last parliament and until this summer was a member of the executive of a backbench committee of Conservative Peers executive.
Baroness Rawlings is a member of select committees including on one looking at housing and general development. Lord MacGregor, a former Norfolk MP and cabinet minister, is chairman of the backbench Conservative peers – the Association of Conservative Peers.
He represents the views of all backbench peers to the government.
Lord Howard of Rising is active in local government and charities.
Viscount Ullswater, of north Suffolk, is a member of four select committees including Freedom of Information, privileges and conduct, selection and European Union Energy and Environment.
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS
Most peers do not receive a salary, but are instead allowed to receive allowances and travel expenses to fulfil their parliamentary duties.
Those who are not paid a salary can claim a flat rate attendance allowance of £150 or £300 for each sitting day they attend the House.
They must physically turn up to the House of Lords to make the claim. Apart from travel costs, they cannot claim any other expenses and from this they must pay for any accommodation in London, office costs, including stationery and also the salaries of any staff to support their work.
Ministers in the House of Lords receive a salary and are not allowed to claim the allowances based on attendance.