Alf Young: Slim plan needed for bloated Lords

The upper chamber at Westminster is being stockpiled with more and more life peers. Picture: Getty

The upper chamber at Westminster is being stockpiled with more and more life peers. Picture: Getty

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THIRTY new peers sent to the House of Lords this week swells the other place’s active ranks to 785.

Still some way behind the National People’s Congress of China, but ahead of both the European Parliament and the North Korea Supreme People’s Assembly in size. Throw in the House of Commons, not to mention the devolved legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and the UK now comfortably boasts the most populous legislatures in the world, bar China.

Add, on top, the 46 peers who are on leave of absence, the one LibDem baroness currently disqualified by dint of being an elected MEP, the nine senior judges (three in Scotland) who cannot sit in the Lords because they hold senior judicial offices, and five other peers, including the Scot Lord Laidlaw and the architect Lord Foster, who are permanently disqualified because they refuse to be domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and the bloated state of Britain’s upper house becomes even clearer.

There is a convincing constitutional case for having a second chamber. One that can bring a fresh, challenging eye to the complex business of law making and revise legislation promoted elsewhere. One that can apply a measured brake to untrammelled unicameral power. Were Scotland to vote for independence, I would want to see a second chamber in Edinburgh too. But that burgeoning chamber on the Thames is not the answer, either there or here.

Howls of protest about another slate of “would-be mayors, Newsnight regulars and party donors” about to take ermine, as one London paper had it yesterday, are understandable. But prospects of radical Lords reform are dead and buried for the rest of this Westminster parliament. And difficult to resuscitate thereafter, unless the thorny question of how politics is to be sensibly funded across the UK is finally addressed. So the instinct, on all sides, to go on stuffing the place with superannuated politicians, wealthy backers, party apparatchiks and apologists is almost certain to produce more lists like this one.

In its 2010 agreement, the present Westminster coalition pledged to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. In the interim, we were told, “Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”

Now root and branch reform has hit the buffers, again, that interim pledge of parties playing the numbers game is all that’s left. This week’s additions push the Tory bloc in the Lords ahead of Labour by just one peer. But while those taking the Labour whip broadly mirror its share of the 2010 vote, the coalition still has only 44 per cent of peers, while together the Tories and LibDems account for 59 per cent of the last general election vote.

Ukip, with two peers already, both Tory converts, and a third to come, if the former press baron Lord Stevens of Ludgate fulfils his promise to join, is noisily pointing out that, with nearly a million votes in 2010, it deserves 21 more, if the coalition really means what its agreement says. Though Plaid Cymru has two peers, the SNP doesn’t send anyone to the Lords. Might that change if next year’s referendum produces a No vote?

All in all, we are in the baronial equivalent of an arms race, with parties trying to stockpile more and more life peers at that end of the Palace of Westminster in a game of mutually assured political convenience. The problem is, while it’s all too easy to create more and more of them, it seems almost impossible to decommission any of them this side of the grave.

What do they have to do, other than become an MEP or refuse to pay their taxes here, to get their marching orders? Earlier this week Chris Huhne’s former wife, Vicky Pryce, was summarily stripped, by order of the Queen, of being a Member of the Civil Division of the Third Class, or Companion, of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Pryce, a former civil servant, had been foolish enough to take speeding points for her husband. She served a jail sentence for perverting the course of justice.

But sitting in the House of Lords today are Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare and Lord Watson of Invergowrie, convicted of perjury and fire-raising respectively. Also there, though currently on leave of absence, is Lord Black of Crossharbour, the Canadian-born former newspaper publisher who served a prison sentence in the United States for mail fraud and obstruction of justice.

Last year, Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood, after RBS, the bank he ran, came perilously close to collapse and was rescued by taxpayers. But still sitting in the Lords today is Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, who chaired the board of HBOS, the Bank of Scotland grouping that faced the same near-death experience as the Royal.

Might the only early prospect of a slimmed-down Lords be a Yes vote for Scottish independence next year? What would become of all those former Scottish politicians now gracing the red benches, soon to be joined by Annabel Goldie and Jeremy Purvis? Since their very titles speak of where they came from – Cardowan, Coatdyke, Port Ellen, Drumlean, Tankerness – would the rest of the UK simply vote to expel them?

It may not be as simple as that. After all, they were all appointed by the Queen. And then there is the rump of elected hereditary peers, including some, like the 5th Viscount Colville of Culross, whose family roots run back to Culloden and beyond, but who was educated at Rugby School and is a television producer in London.

What does the SNP’s ambition to retain the monarchy in an independent Scotland mean for all that historic pattern of fuedal patronage, let alone what’s to happen to the Scottish life peers of recent generations? Perhaps, the next time he’s at Balmoral or on duty as a member of the Privy Council, Alex Salmond might have a word with Her Majesty about it and tell us what he plans.

I do believe a second chamber is good for government. But I want a second chamber, whether at Westminster or in Edinburgh, that is fit for purpose in terms of both size and composition. If the main legislative chamber is to be the forum where party politics battles things out, the revising chamber needs a membership that reflects how the vast majority of people live their lives, unaligned but with a rich, diverse array of expertise, insights and understanding.

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