There’s a ‘something for nothing’ culture in the Lords. It’s time for reform

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Posted on the 21st September 2017

Emma Levin reflects on our recent House of Lords research

While their role is supposedly to scrutinise government, it is the House of Lords that should be coming under increased scrutiny, following revelations today.

Just a month after over 30 million people voted for the MPs that would represent their views in Parliament for the next five years, a second ‘election’ was held that put the farcical nature of the House of Lords into context. In a hereditary Peer by-election in which only 27 votes were cast, Baron Vaux of Harrowden received the support of 16 of his fellow aristocrats and thereby won a seat at the centre of the British political system for the rest of his life.

But now we know that the rot goes much deeper than the farce of hereditary Peer by-elections. With the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the Upper House set to release their report on cutting down the Lords next month, the Electoral Reform Society has published extensive research on how peers have behaved in the 2016/17 session – and the findings are stark.

The analysis shows the consequences of a completely unaccountable second chamber –corroborating a claim made by Baroness D’Souza as part of the BBC’s recent ‘Meet the Lords’ series: “There are many, many, many [Peers] who contribute absolutely nothing but who claim the full allowance.”

Between April 2016 and March 2017, at a time of significant strain on public services and stagnating wages, the average Peer claimed over £22,000 tax-free in expenses: a rise of over 20% from the same period in 2014/15.

455 Peers in the 16/17 session claimed more in expenses than the median take home pay for full-time British workers – for what is essentially a part time job (the House sat for just 141 days in 2016/17).

This is a cost many would justify if these Peers were making a reasonable contribution to the business of Parliament. But here’s where the scandal becomes clear.

Of the peers eligible for the entirety of the 2016/17 session, 109 made no spoken contribution. Of these, 87 peers did not sit on any committees and 91 did not table any written questions in 2016/17.

When we look at these three primary scrutiny functions, there are 72 peers who have not spoken in the chamber, tabled a written question or served on a committee in the whole of 2016/17. This represents nearly one in ten peers.

Many of these Peers represent a continuation of the “something for nothing” culture many had hoped the justified anger over the 2009 expenses scandal and the reforms that followed would remove.

Although plans to reduce the size of the Lords are a small step in the right direction, ultimately it is the lack of accountability that enables Peers to take advantage of the system.

At a time of great historical importance for British politics, it is vital we have a second chamber up to the job. Tinkering around the edges is not enough. It is time for real reform.

Emma Levin is a research placement student from the University of Nottingham who worked this project

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