Bill Jamieson: Time to get House of Lords in order

Sewel's disgrace should serve as a timely warning to David Cameron that he must reform House of Lords. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Sewel's disgrace should serve as a timely warning to David Cameron that he must reform House of Lords. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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EMBARRASSMENT of Lord Sewel scandal should sting PM to transform second chamber, writes Bill Jamieson

Will the Lord Sewel affair prove a limited scandal of self-destruction? Or the start of an avalanche that could bury the UK’s second chamber as we know it?

The reverberations have already started to fade with Sewel’s tardy decision to resign. Indeed, the sight of uniformed police arriving at his flat with sniffer dogs and a battering ram already looks a melodramatic display of police over-reaction. And some of those quick to demand his instant expulsion now insist that this was an isolated case and no cause to embark on major dismantling of a vital revising chamber.

Prime Minister David Cameron says he intends to press ahead with plans to appoint more Tory peers, bringing total membership of the Lords to more than 1,000. He has also signalled that there is no point in trying to introduce reforms again, previous attempts having failed lamentably.

The SNP has lost no time in reiterating its detestation of the Lords and called again for it to be scrapped. Pete Wishart, the SNP leader of the Commons, declared that the Lords “has never been held in such contempt by the Scottish people who see it as nothing other than a repository for the cronies and donors of the UK parties”.

He added: “With its Lords, Ladies, Baronets and Earls it can only be described as the most absurd and ridiculous legislature anywhere in the world.”

What will have inflamed public attitudes this week is Sewel’s own evident contempt for his fellow peers as he snorted powder with prostitutes. The language he used is unrepeatable and the scorn expressed over the free-loading behaviour of fellow members in accommodation and attendance expenses astonishing for one charged with putting in place new rules of behaviour.

Thus to the charge of hypocrisy in his own personal conduct should be added the charge of a greater hypocrisy over the very institution he was charged to protect and defend.

Now come revelations of members cashing in on taxpayer-funded expenses. Press reports yesterday highlighted a peer who claims £300 a day to walk just 200 yards to work. Dozens of peers do the same despite living in and around Westminster. The total costs of Lords expenses in 2013-14 was £21.4 million, shelled out tax-free, with allowances seemingly immune from the cutbacks and constraints now being enforced on millions less well rewarded across large areas of public service.

In this poisoned atmosphere, public dissatisfaction over the role and purpose of the Lords could curdle into outright contempt. Calls for reform can only grow louder and more persistent.

Here Mr Cameron is caught in a dangerous trap, of more institutional resistance to radical reform. This resistance, stretching back over many decades, seems embedded in the very stonework of Westminster. But failure to take timely and effective action of the type championed in other areas by reforming Tory administrations of the past risks stoking up resentment like a pile of unattended fireworks in the basement. The resulting explosion could destroy the institution wholesale in a pyrotechnics of pent-up public anger.

The second trap is arguably more fearful for the administration. Any move to embark on reform now, with current legislative pressure for more powers for the Scottish Parliament and wider devolution across the UK, leads directly and with inexorable momentum into a wider reform of the British constitution and the UK as we know it.

Are we to continue to have a unitary state or a federal constitution? Should we have a second chamber as now, continuing with prime ministerial appointees, or one representative of the nations and regions of the UK?

Even if these issues are resolved, and we opt for a federal second house, how is the imbalance between the constituent parts of the UK to be dealt with? And should it be a chamber of appointees or a directly elected assembly? One with powers limited and prescribed or one able to amend the finance bills of the Commons?

Little wonder the Prime Minister has recoiled from opening this Pandora’s Box while the Scotland Bill is still making its way through the Commons. But the calls for a second chamber more appropriate to the conditions and preferences of 21st century life are set to grow, and with them pressure for a directly elected chamber rather than one stuffed, as critics see it, with government placemen, lobbyists and those that the Prime Minister of the day wishes to dispose of. Hurt and mutinous feelings are bought off with the balm of a seat in the Lords and all its perks and trappings.

It is easy to fall into line with the populist cries of reform and demands, as Pete Wishart has it, for “the abolition of the whole chamber and the creation of a fit-for-purpose 21st century democratic House free of 17th century forelock-tugging and deference”.

But critics might do well to consider why this arcane institution has lasted for as long, and the drawbacks and pitfalls of alternatives before rushing to embrace radical reform. The faults and shortcomings of the new could prove worse than those of the old.

The Lords as constituted enables expertise and experience to be brought to bear from outside what is now disparagingly referred to as “the Westminster political bubble”. It benefits from the presence of academics, experts and business people whose skills lie elsewhere than in fighting elections. In this way it can be seen as more representative of the nation as a whole and can act as a bulwark against elective dictatorship and the tyranny of the majority.

The Upper House performs a critical function in revising and amending legislation. This helps to make law more just, thoughtful and durable.

And patronage, while open to abuse, enables those for whom time and political circumstance has altered their standing in the Commons to continue to make a contribution to legislation in the Second Chamber.

Set against this, an elected second house would simply replicate the characteristics of the first while setting in motion a constitutional war as to which was the more legitimate “voice of the people”. And a federal “solution” would need to be tempered to ensure that the smaller nations and regions of the UK were not entombed in permanent minority status.

Sorting all this out will require the wisdom of Solomon and a patience beyond saints. But the Prime Minister should not shirk from modest, practical reforms that can go some way to assuage public ire and can be put into place within the lifetime of this parliament.

He could lower the retirement age to 70, encourage early retirement, tighten rules for member expulsion, and bring numbers down to a more manageable level – 600 might be a useful starting target. To do nothing is to take a greater risk: the ultimate resort to an extreme that any informed democracy would wish to avoid.