‘Crime Lords’ was how the Daily Mirror’s headline dubbed them. A report showing that over a hundred peers pocketed expenses of over a million pounds without speaking in the chamber and that half of their lordships cost the taxpayer £7m whilst contributing to debates only seven times or less has once again put Lords reform on the agenda. But we have been here many times before without much change happening. So what should be done? And how confident should we be that anything will be?
The report the Mirror was citing in its front-page splash on Thursday comes from the Electoral Reform Society. Studying the period between June 2016 and April 2017, the ERS discovered that 115 peers (roughly one in seven of the total number) had not spoken at all in debates yet had claimed expenses, largely for simply attending the Lords, at an average of £11,091 per peer. Expenses of over £4m were claimed by the 277 peers who had spoken five times or less in the period, and the 394 peers who had spoken seven times or less had cost around £7m. The three hundred most active peers accounted for barely half of the total expenses bill.
Darren Hughes, the chief executive of the ERS, said: ‘There are a worrying number of couch potato peers and lobby fodder lords at a time when there is plenty to scrutinise, ostensibly the upper chamber’s role. These figures are a damning indictment of the House of Lords. There appears to be a growing ‘something for nothing’ culture in our upper house, with tidy sums being claimed by those who barely contribute.’ Peers are entitled to claim £300 simply for turning up.
The ERS did not publish the full list of the 115 peers it claimed had not spoken at all during the period but it did name eight peers who claimed more than the median pay while voting on fewer than ten occasions. These included Baroness Flather, a crossbencher and former Tory peer, who claimed £37,932, who didn’t vote on a single occasion, though she spoke twenty-one times. Lord (Digby) Jones, the former head of the Confederation of British Industry, who was made a minister under Gordon Brown, claimed £15,000, though he neither spoke nor asked any written questions nor sat on a select committee over the period. And Lord Paul, the steel magnate who was temporarily suspended for an expenses violation in 2009, claimed £38,100 in return for which he spoke twice and voted seven times.
However, the ERS’s methodology has been criticised because of its concentration on voting and speaking in the chamber as measures of a peer’s contribution to the working of the House. A spokesman for the Lords said: ‘The society’s calculations are undermined by their narrow focus on spoken contributions. Speaking in the chamber is only one of the ways members hold the government to account and this research ignores members’ contributions including amending legislation, asking the government written questions and serving on select committees – more than 320 members served on committees in the last session of parliament – as well as parliamentary work away from the chamber. It is inaccurate to describe a House that tabled 5,608 amendments to legislation, asked government 7,395 written questions and published 170 committee reports in 2016-17 as a ‘part-time’ House. The Lords is an active and effective revising chamber.’
Lord Jones said he used his membership ‘to learn and meet people’. ‘I see the Lords as a non-executive director of the country,’ he said, adding that he would speak in future ‘if I have something to say that others aren’t saying.’
Lord Paul said: ‘We are paid on the basis of attendance. Can you imagine if 800 people spoke every day? What would the House of Lords look like? It would be chaotic. … If I have a strong opinion about something, I vote. The House of Lords themselves have clarified that people are paid on the basis of attendance. Otherwise, they should pay per speech or per vote.’
Nonetheless, many peers themselves are aware that their less active colleagues and the sheer number of peers give the House a bad reputation. Lord Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrat peers, responding to the report, said: ‘Whilst the vast majority of peers provide good value for money to the taxpayer, these figures show that there are exceptions. It’s clear the House of Lords is in need of radical reform.’
Almost all peers agree that there are far too many of them. At 798 peers, the chamber is substantially larger than the elected Commons, which has 650 MPs and many believe that should be reduced to 600. Compared with other countries’ legislatures it is second in size only to the Chinese Congress. John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons, suggested recently that the number of peers could be halved without any detrimental effect on the working of Parliament. There is no significant resistance in the Lords to reducing its own numbers and a committee is already sitting (again) to examine ways of doing it. But previous suggested solutions have not achieved consensus.
The problem with reform of numbers, however, is that it’s hard to approach the question without opening up the much more contentious issue of whether peers should continue to be appointed. Many critics (including the ERS) argue that it is outrageous that a country that claims to be democratic should have a legislative assembly that is appointed rather than elected. But even many of those who accept that the Lords needs radical reform are wary of its becoming an elected chamber, even in part.
They argue that an elected Lords would have democratic justification for challenging the Commons in much more fundamental ways than it does at the moment. Such sceptics say that supremacy of the Commons must not be compromised and that the best solution, given the need for a scrutinising second chamber to stop the Commons becoming an elected dictatorship, is for a smaller Lords to continue to be appointed and to have continued limits on its ability to hold up the Commons.
These arguments have been going on for decades with very limited results. It is possible that the Lords themselves may come up with an agreed formula to reduce their size, address the issue of whether they should be appointed or elected, settle the limit of their powers and even deal with the ‘something for nothing’ charge the ERS has levelled against them. But no one should hold their breath. And few think that this is the Parliament that will nail the problems for good. That’s because the Tory government has lost its majority in the Commons and because Brexit would seem likely to consume all political energy in the foreseeable future.
But if the Lords is eventually to be reformed, how do you think it should be done?
Let us know your views.