Martyn McLaughlin: Peer review is no way to rein in corruption – we need law

THERE is a wearisome irony in the fact that the House of Lords, a body that has long prided itself on the scrutiny of legislation, appears exempt from the laws of the land.

The justification by the Metropolitan Police not to conduct a bribery inquiry into peers who allegedly made clear their willingness to amend legislation on behalf of paying lobbyists was succinct.

The application of criminal law to members of the second house, reasoned the force, was "far from clear". In any case, it pointed out, gathering evidence would be difficult in the context of parliamentary privilege, which grants members a considerable degree of freedom from civil and criminal liability.

Firstly, this emphasis on the sanctity of parliamentary privilege does not explain why the Met has seen fit to raid the offices of two MPs.

Secondly, it offers yet further wearisome demonstration of the arcane and confused laws surrounding this issue.

As things stand, the only action that will be taken over the recent allegation is an investigation by Baroness Prashar's subcommittee. Should it find any party guilty, its punishment extends only to "naming and shaming" those involved. No peer can be suspended or expelled.

It is no accident that the legislation that purports to prevent corruption among MPs and peers is of their own design. Take, for instance, the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, which supposedly exists to curb bribery, that states that an "agent" cannot "corruptly" acquire gifts or money as an inducement. Alas, the term, "agent," does not apply to a peer, given that they do not necessarily answer to another person or body.

The even older and increasingly righteous sounding Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889 does not apply either. Incredibly, it applies only to councils and municipal authorities.

Even the common-law offence of bribery, where the person bribed must be a "public officer" who "discharges any duty in the discharge of which the public are interested, more clearly so if he is paid out of a fund provided by the public" may not come into play. Despite a healthy expenses allowance, they are not salaried from the public pocket.

If the people's representatives are eager to reverse the growing public cynicism towards them, they must act swiftly and decisively to address these antiquated anomalies, which can be traced back as far as the Magna Carta.

The work of the House of Lords, despite what its detractors might say, is a vital democratic tool, and it is vital our legislators be able to speak freely without fear of prosecution. Laws, however, are not mere principles. Increasingly, the shield of parliamentary privilege designed for protection is being used for deflection.

Cross my palm with a maxed-out credit card

CLOSE your eyes. Fate tells me you will meet a tall, strong man. He is wearing a black leather jacket. Concentrate. His name, something like Bill. No, not Bill. Biff? No, no. I see it! Bailiff!

Call records from the directory enquiries service, 118118, show that last year, requests for information on palmists and clairvoyants surged 161 per cent.

Despite nurturing a keen journalistic scepticism, I have never harboured ill-will towards the sizeable spiritualism industry. Many of its practitioners admit it is an entertainment form offering reassurance and atonement, and the legerdemain is an artform.

However, when it willingly targets those in strife or penury, accusations of exploitation become harder to shake off.

One Glasgow psychic is even offering a "New Credit Crunch e-mail Reading". For 30, she will answer three questions with "tender loving care". It is one of the few professions which is surely recession-proof.

&#149 A FRIEND and I have started a good– natured competition to outdo one another with incredible statements culled from Wikipedia – an invaluable resource, but one that cannot always be relied upon for accuracy.

I thought he had trumped me with "the Macarena song is cited by many as being the beginning of the downfall of modern civilisation" and "decapitation is invariably fatal".

I, however, found a beauty. "Nick Hancock has a twin brother. I know this, because I approached him in a Stoke-on-Trent restaurant for an autograph, only to be greeted with the words: 'I'm not Nick Hancock, I'm his f****** brother.'"