Revealed: The true cost of Britain’s silent peers

Jon Narcross, former Communications Officer

Posted on the 17th August 2020

There are many perks to being a member of the House of Lords. While many peers do work hard, it seems one of the perks is being able to claim expenses for doing very little.

New research from the New Statesman has found that unelected peers are guilty of ‘expensive inaction’ by claiming thousands of pounds of taxpayers money to attend the Lords whilst barely contributing to votes or debates in the chamber.

Analysis by the outlet – which builds on ERS research conducted in 2017 – found that on average life peers claimed £20,935 from April 2019 to February 2020, while contributing to an average of just 12 debates and seven written questions. Despite claiming over £20,000 in allowances for attending the parliament, the average life peer voted just 23 times.

The figures for hereditary peers – of which there are still over 90, shockingly – are similar. The average unelected aristocrat claims £20,604 over the 113-day period while speaking in an average of 10 or fewer debates, submitting six or fewer written questions, and voting just 22 times.

Meanwhile, 140 eligible peers took part in no debates at all during this period, while voting less than 20% of divisions. For a third of the 140, there is no record of them voting at all. In total, 120 out of nearly 800 unelected Lords voted five times or fewer in this time period.

Sadly, these statistics come as no surprise. In the 2016/17 session, the ERS found that 115 Lords – one in seven of the total – failed to speak at all, despite claiming an average of £11,091 each, while 18 peers failed to vote but still claimed £93,162.

These new figures suggest the problem of ‘silent peers’ is only getting worse. The ERS has long highlighted the something-for-nothing culture in Britain’s upper house that leaves unelected Lords able to do as much or as little as they like – free from democratic scrutiny of voters who are unable to kick them out.

Our supposed revising chamber is sinking with dead weight, and zero accountability – giving a bad name to those peers who the public might support.

These figures suggest that Britain’s super-sized second chamber needs to be made far leaner, with dedicated scrutineers replacing the current expenses free-for-all.

As it stands, the House of Lords is the biggest parliamentary chamber of any democracy and the world’s second-largest after the Chinese People’s Congress. This year the Lords will swell to over 800 members with the creation of 36 new peerages announced by Boris Johnson on 31 July.

The PM’s latest appointments have not come without controversy. The elevation of friends, supporters and political cronies – including his brother Jo Johnson, Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev, former cricketer Ian Botham, and ex-Brexit Party MEP Claire Fox – are among the second-highest number of new peers created in over twenty years. Crucially, the move undoes all but undo the progress made to slim down the chamber to a more manageable size.

The ERS estimates that these new peers alone are likely to cost taxpayers an additional £1.1m a year. Worse still, there could be more to come later this year, according to reports in Private Eye.

At a time when there is plenty to scrutinise – ostensibly the upper chamber’s role – the time for piecemeal reform is long over. Voters deserve a revising chamber that is fit for purpose.

We cannot again sit through another round of Lords appointees and see the already bloated chamber continue to be stuffed with political cronies and party donors. We need action now.

Let’s move to a slimmed-down, elected chamber for the nations and regions. With proportional representation and a clear remit, we can get the scrutiny body we need. Only once we’ve done that can we finally get this house in order.

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