The Lords are more representative than the scoundrels down the corridor
THE controversy over alleged corruption in the House of Lords has provided an excuse for MPs to parade their hypocrisy, clapped-out modernisers to revive the canard of "Lords reform" and commentators to display their consummate ignorance of everything to do with the institution of the peerage.
Clearly, the allegations against the four peers must be investigated and, if well founded, punished. Otherwise, the issue is fogged in spin and stupidity. This is not House of Lords sleaze, any more than l'affaire Jonathan Aitken was described as Commons sleaze: it is Labour sleaze. It is typical of Labour, having ejected hundreds of hereditary peers of impeccable character and replaced them with its own nominees, when the latter sully the reputation of the Upper House to condemn the institution instead of the perpetrators. Sleaze allegations in the Lords are rare: can the same be said of the sanctimonious Commons?
Last week, while MPs were ranting like Pharisees, the Commons Standards Committee, after a year's deliberation, finally required Derek Conway to apologise to the House and repay 3,757 out of 35,744 he had paid his eldest son; this came a year after he had been suspended from the Commons and forced to repay money given to his youngest son. The same week, Peter Hain at last apologised to the House, more than a year after he resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary over donations to his deputy leadership campaign. Just an average week on the slime-green benches.
The surprising thing is that, despite the prolific intrusion of Government nominees – many of whom, to their credit, go native in the dignified atmosphere of the upper chamber – the House of Lords remains more representative of the electorate on many issues than the scoundrels down the corridor for whom the public has voted. It is the most potent argument against an elected Upper House.
What drivel has been talked and written on this subject over the past week. Offending peers should be stripped of their titles by an Act of Attainder, was one popular on dit. Attainder was statutorily abolished in 1879. The House of Lords needs clearly defined rules, was another taproom opinion. It already has them.
The House of Lords Code of Conduct, clause 4, states that: "Members of the House (c) must never accept any financial inducement as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence; (d) must not vote on any bill or motion, or ask any question in the House or a committee, or promote any matter, in return for payment or any other material benefit." Is that supposed to be too woolly?
The Lords needs powers to discipline its members, was another parrot-cry. Under the doctrine of "exclusive cognisance" it already has authority to reprimand, fine, or imprison even beyond the prorogation of Parliament any member it finds in contempt. What more powers do the commentators want – the death penalty? The only restriction is that it cannot suspend a member permanently, but it could renew sanctions indefinitely.
Egalitarian Scots were most vocal last week in denouncing the unelected Lords – on the same day when two unelected members of the Holyrood butt an' ben ("A man's a man for a' that") derailed the 33bn Scottish Budget. The only constructive reform of the Lords would be to reinstate the hereditaries and reduce to a trickle the inflow of nonentities with life peerages.
Since an hereditary peerage no longer confers a seat in Parliament, such creations should continue, but revert to the personal gift of the sovereign, like the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle. It would be illuminating to compare the calibre of the nominees: life peers from the Prime Minister, hereditaries from the Queen.
On a Scottish footnote: two officers of state were retained among the surviving hereditary peers: the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain. To these should be added the Lord High Constable of Scotland (as of right rather than by election), if the spirit of the Treaty of Union is to be honoured. Furthermore, although the last peerage attainders for Jacobitism were reversed by Queen Victoria, those peerage and baronetcy titles created by the Stuart kings in exile remain unrecognised.
The 30th Countess of Mar (an elected hereditary peer), for example, is also the titular 9th Duchess of Mar. In Spain, the equivalent titles created by the Carlist claimants have been officially recognised by the government: there is even a Ministry of Justice online form for claiming them – one of the more romantic curiosities of the internet. As a matter of Scottish heritage and reconciliation, these ancient Jacobite titles should be acknowledged.