“The time has come for the peers to go”. This was the call from a variety of critics this week as they responded to the scandal of another peer of the realm being caught with his pants down and his nose in it – literally this time! The twist in the tail was that the aforesaid member of the House of Lords has been responsible for enforcing standards in the Upper chamber.
The scandal surrounding Lord Sewel gave rise to more general condemnation of the House of Lords. Most critics agreed with the view that the House of Lords is too expensive (783 unelected peers cost taxpayers £100 million a year), but also lamented the fact that we can’t get rid of the Upper chamber regardless of what is done by its members.
Probably the quote of the week goes to the journalist and television commentator Kevin Maguire: “Lord Sewel of Orange Bra is a symbol of an utterly corrupt political system. But the prostitute-paying, cocaine-snorting peer inadvertently does democracy a favour by exposing the injustice of the House of Cronies. A medieval anachronism, it is (the House of Lords) an unaccountable palace of patronage.”
In a rare show of unity, all four candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party were unanimous in supporting reform, at the very least, of the House of Lords and, to take reform to its logical conclusion, the abolition of the second chamber in its present form. It would seem to this writer that a “shake-up of the system” is an insufficient response to what is slowly but surely becoming a crisis within one of the British government’s central pillars.
The facts pertaining to the House of Lords render its continuing existence as a severe anomaly to governance in this country. The following are a sample of these anomalies:
* The House of Lords is the second largest legislative chamber in the world (China being at the top and also without democratically elected representation);
* the cost to the exchequer of maintaining this second chamber is an excessive £100m per annum (allowing members to sign-in and sign-out half an hour later and pocket £300 for the privilege of doing so);
* admittance to the House of Lords is by selection (not election), largely owing to prime ministerial patronage, with the result that there is an over-representation of former members of the House of Commons, lawyers and big business donors – chiefly to the Conservative Party (there are few representatives from the trades unions).
The House of Lords is both top-heavy and too heavy, with David Cameron poised to add at least another 50 peers to the assembly (courtesy of the equally outmoded post-election honours list and from which, at the very least, the matter of a peerage should be totally separate).
So too, membership of the second chamber is discriminatory. Apart from the previously-mentioned generally narrow categories of those considered the “good and the great” in British society, bishops of the Church of England have automatic seats in the House.
At a time when the UK markets itself as a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, it is a gross exhibition of religious discrimination to maintain the presence of a state church in the governmental system (at present there are 26 bishops in the House of Lords). The fact that this state church has an unelected monarch as its head is a further indictment of its suitability to participate in secular national governance.
This also takes no account of the equally outrageous and anachronistic title given to the British government of the day as “Her Majesty’s Government”. The British people are citizens of a nation and not the subjects of a monarch – the same monarch who presides as the head of the Church of England!
So too, what is there to suggest that, in a democracy, Anglican bishops are any more worthy of governing than the clergy of other Christian denominations or non-Christian faiths? Indeed, what is it that makes clergy-persons of any religious denomination or faith more worthy of taking part in a non-elected governing body than any other profession or trade?
The time has long gone, or surely should have, where the UK tolerates any theocratic elements in its governing institutions.
A campaigner for the Electoral Reform Society, Darren Hughes, in commenting on the scandal presently occupying the House of Lords (see above), said: “Every year there are stories like this about our Upper House and every time the need for reform becomes more pressing. The idea peers can totally lose the public’s confidence and never be held to account is bewildering to most people. We can only get real accountability through an elected chamber, not through the cosy arrangements that exist now.”
What is surprising is that there is apparently no House of Lords rule stating how the chamber can be brought into disrepute. This is astonishing. Perhaps it is an indication of the hubris of peers and a sign of the cosy comfort that membership of the upper House can bring.
No doubt, there are some members of the House of Lords who regard their membership as an honour and who strive with the utmost effort and honesty to take their responsibilities seriously. Integrity and hard work, however, are qualities to be seen elsewhere than parliament and are not, in themselves, guarantors of appropriate governance in 21st century Britain.
It would seem that the life style of those in the House of Lords is aided and abetted by restaurants, cafes and bars that receive £1.3m a year from the public purse. What is also of note and of concern to many is that, according to figures released last year, the average peer is aged 70, compared to the UK average age of 38 for men and 40 for women. Further, only two peers were under the age of 40, but 29 members are already aged 90. Furthermore, only 25% of the 783 peers are women.
Wisdom is not the prerogative of age or gender.
For many outside of the British parliament, even outside of the UK, the existence of the House of Lords borders on the absurd and the ridiculous. The ermine mimics the pantomime. This being the case, it would appear that reform of the institution is pointless. What is required is its total abolition and replacement with a democratically constituted and elected assembly.
What is appropriate for other modern democracies, for example, Australia, the USA, Canada and many of our European neighbours, is surely appropriate for contemporary Britain. We are no longer the last word in democracy – sad, but all too true.