Only democratic reform can tackle sleaze in the House of Lords
Author: James Graham
Published on Jun 23, 2012
I’m no longer a member of any political party, but in a past life I was not only a Liberal Democrat but a member of its Federal Executive, the body in charge of party strategy and organisational matters.
In the early 2000s, the Lib Dems were in the midst of a furious internal row regarding lobbying. Donnachadh McCarthy, another former party activist who eventually became deputy chair of the Federal Executive, was waging a campaign to stop members of the House of Lords from being both paid lobbyists and taking the Liberal Democrat whip. After years of wrangling, attempts to get the Lords Parliamentary Party to back down and accept a decision made by the party’s conference (which officially set the party’s policy) broke down entirely, leading Mr McCarthy to resign the party.
Donnachadh McCarthy wasn’t always an easy person to support, although I agreed with him on this. Nonetheless it was clear we faced an implacable opposition. Like many, I eventually felt this was a fight that couldn’t be won, so I’m ashamed to admit I folded. One of the arguments which helped dissuade me was the line that working peers are essentially unpaid and that if they couldn’t work they would have no other income. If I knew what I know now, that working peers can claim £300 a day tax free - on top of travel expenses - I might have been rather less sympathetic. I was hoodwinked at a time before parliamentary expenses received the scrutiny they fortunately do now.
This experience made me realise quite how reactionary and self-interested members of the House of Lords could be, and that the heart of this problem lies in the fact that they are appointed, not elected. This incident, remember, happened just a few years after the “cash for questions” scandal that engulfed the Conservative government in the mid-90s and lead a whole series of reforms to sort out the behaviour of MPs and the transparency of political parties. Throughout this period the House of Lords itself was largely untouched and unwilling to voluntarily reform itself.
Years later, the cash for influence scandal erupted in which Lords Snape, Truscott and Taylor were suspended for being caught promising to change legislation in return for payment (note: suspended, not thrown out). That was in 2009. Yet it has taken a startling three years before the Lords’ own Privileges and Conduct Committee has at last accepted that it is only right that the public should know the names of peers’ business clients - and this has still to be accepted by the second chamber itself. You read that right: we still do not have a right to know who most of our parliamentarians even work for.
It cannot be coincidental that the Privileges and Conduct Committee are only finally taking action because it looks as if the government might be serious about democratic reform of the House of Lords. That too should be borne in mind when Lord Steel boasts that most peers support his timid reform bill - after he agreed remove the clauses to get rid of the remaining hereditary peers and introduce a more independent appointments commission (i.e. the substance of the bill).
There are many good, hard working peers, but far too many of them are primarily interested in status, wealth and remuneration. That the threat of election is the only thing that can convince them of the need to get their own house in order tells me all I need to know about the importance of replacing them with parliamentarians who have been elected by the public.
James Graham is the Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy.