If there’s one thing that’s certain about politics in these volatile times, it’s that MPs aren’t exactly flavour of the month. In fact, they’re ranked below bankers and estate agents when it comes to trust. But they are democratic exemplars compared with their counterparts in the Lords.
Virtually without exception MPs fulfil long constituency hours, combine committee duties with speaking and voting on the floor of the House – while sacrificing privacy through via the constant social media and newspaper scrambles.
There is no doubt of the hours MPs put in compared to the Churchillian annual constituency visit of the mid-20th century, with the days of living mostly outside one’s constituency a distant era. Many Peers too are diligent – genuinely working and treating is as main employment (or combining with voluntary or paid work).
Sadly though, this is totally eclipsed by those who do not contribute at all. Not our words, but former speaker Baroness D’Souza, speaking in the BBC’s new Meet the Lords series: “there are many, many, many who contribute absolutely nothing, but who claim the full allowance.”
It’s a sad fact that scandals in the House of Lords undermine all our politics – including the hard work that MPs do. Why? Because people see Parliament and formal politics as one institution – often combining local and national. MPs will be aware that many constituents think they are council leaders, or vice versa.
So it does all our politics a disservice when some unelected Lords behave in ways that damage faith in democracy – such as the revelations that a Peer left a taxi waiting outside Parliament while he went inside to register for his daily £300 allowance – and then return to hop in his taxi.
One factor that enables this is size – with over 800 peers, there is space for many to be absent, or unwatched. It’s an extraordinary way to run an institution. But tackling the Lords’ size alone does not cut it. In other institutions, representatives are too few to cover the work – the Welsh Assembly being a key example.
The bloated nature of the Lords however literally relies on many not turning up, as there is no room for all to be in the chamber at once. But they are free to claim their tax free allowance without having to prove they have done any work.
Would it not be simpler to have a few hundred accountable Peers, paid to turn up every day, to hold the government to account and to be judged on their failings or successes by the public? At the moment, the public have no chance of kicking out Peers who milk the system those Baroness D’Souza has exposed.
When defending themselves, backers of the Lords point to the ‘code of conduct’ and behind-the-scenes work. The best way to ensure this though is to hold them to the light – a smaller upper chamber chosen by the ballot box rather than the cheque book.
That the Lords will be reformed is certain – 800-plus peers is simply not a sustainable situation. And what will prompt real reform is anyone’s guess. But the type of behaviour exposed by Meet The Lords is not a good look for any government whose job is to fulfil the people’s wish to take back control.
So where reason has failed, maybe emotion will win. Anger and disgust will have been common reaction to the revelations that Peers can – and do – turn up, claim their allowance and go home again. Pretty soon, the calls for change will become irresistible.
Perhaps though, those calls will be coming from MPs, when they realise this: all politics is brought down by the embarrassing behaviour of those ermine-clad appointees. Britain’s out-dated, bloated second chamber is the albatross around the neck of British democracy. It’s time to cut it loose.