A story last week showed the House of Lords for what it really is: a lobbyist’s paradise.
As revealed by The Times, a series of peers have financial interest in Russia. Some of these have “requested government assistance for Russian associates” from the security minister.
This is of serious concern, particularly in light of revelations this year which have shown the Kremlin’s willingness to proactively influence matters overseas in a bid to further its own interests.
Peers behaving in such a way are not necessarily breaking any rules. There are glaring loopholes in the House of Lords’ code of conduct which mean that work on behalf of a third party does not necessarily have to be declared.
Given that we are talking about an institution at the very heart of Westminster – one of the two debating chambers which decides on legislation affecting every individual and community in the UK – it is vital these rules are tightened as a matter of urgency.
But the problem goes much deeper than lax rules – the Lords by its nature is ripe for unscrupulous interference.
Crucially, there is a severe lack of accountability. Were a peer to act in a way which you found to be undeserving of a place in the Lords, there is nothing you can do to remove them from office.
In the House of Commons, MPs are accountable to their electors – the people they represent – at least once every five years. That is representative democracy.
But in the Lords, peers can legislate for life – appointed until their death or retirement. And more than one in ten Lords are ‘hereditary peers’, who can only sit there because of their aristocratic titles. This, in the 21st century.
Most people could not tell you the names of more than one or two Lords – and yet they have a great influence over some of the biggest political decisions of our time. It’s perfect territory for corporate lobbyists and foreign states.
As if the House of Lords did not already look like a private members’ club, another investigation by The Times in January revealed that peers can continue to use the House of Lords’ subsidised dining rooms even after they retire.
That means not only do unelected Lords have immediate access to the halls of power, but around 80 ex-Lords do too. Each can bring up to six guests per day – brushing shoulders with ministers in the Parliamentary restaurants and bars.
Sadly, peers have exploited this. Our report The High Cost of Small Change found that 33 peers had claimed nearly half a million pounds between them while failing to speak, table a written question or serve on a committee in the previous 12 months.
A total of 109 peers failed to speak at all in the 2016/17 session. sixty-three of those claimed expenses – claiming a total of £1,095,701.
The lack of rules around lobbying is one problem. But it is the lack of accountability that means voters are unable to kick out those who abuse their power: yet another reason why this archaic chamber needs dramatic reform, so it resembles something like a 21st century democratic legislature.