Britain’s Hoary, Elephantine Second Chamber

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Much-needed constitutional provisions:

1. The state condemns all privilege and situation that tends to fracture the equality of citizens, between whom differences beyond those resulting from their talents or virtues should not exist;
2. No entity of the state may give recognition to or confer titles of nobility, nor hereditary distinctions.

If democracy is, in the words of U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”, then the House of Lords, in which patronage and heredity confer seats, has no place in it. It is a medieval relic from a time when superiority was conferred by birth and, as a second chamber, has neither legitimacy nor public confidence. Being totally unelected, unaccountable and unrepresentative of Britain, its very existence flies in the face of democratic principles which this country claims to uphold. The granting of legislative powers to the unelected confers power undemocratically and, as revealed below, is open to abuse by those with the means to buy a title.

That the House of Lords is an anachronism is clearly evidenced by the fact that under the House of Lords Act 1999, while 666 hereditary peers were removed, lords were, nevertheless, permitted to elect 90 hereditary peers to remain members of the reformed second chamber. To ensure the anomalous hereditary element survives, when one of these peers dies or takes voluntary retirement, a byelection is held in which sitting hereditary peers in the same party grouping as the departing peer, vote to elect a hereditary peer to a seat.

Elephantine

To replace the hereditary peers the prime minister was afforded the power to appoint life peers. Currently, there is no limit on the number of life peers, no set retirement age and no set period of tenure. Thus, in August, David Cameron duly appointed 45 new peers to the second chamber (including 26 Conservatives, one of which was a former MP who had claimed parliamentary expenses to clean his moat, and another a City banker who donated millions to the Tory party), bringing the number of members to 826. Only the National People’s Congress in China is a bigger legislative chamber, and Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso are the only two other countries to have a second chamber larger than the first.

Male and Hoary

Despite its elephantine proportions, the Lords is, nevertheless, grossly unrepresentative of the UK as a whole. It has a disproportionate number of members from London and the South East, four times as many members are over ninety as under forty, over half are over seventy, and under a fifth are women.

Money over Merit or Mandate

Because seventy per cent of current peers are appointed on a party political basis and dutifully vote according to the party whip, there is much public concern about the buying of seats. In 2006, Lord Levy and Downing Street’s political adviser, Ruth Turner, were arrested as two of several key figures suspected of promising honours in return for securing multimillion pound loans for the Labour Party. Tony Blair was interviewed twice as a witness in relation to the affair in December and January, 2007,  and, thus, became the first prime minister to be questioned by police in the course of an investigation.

Oxford University’s research paper entitled “Is There a Market for Peerages? Can Donations Buy You a British Peerage? A Study in the Link Between Party Political Funding and Peerage Nominations, 2005-14”, declares that statistically it can be said that the “relationship between donations and nominations [for peerages] has been found to be significant”. The researchers examined Lords nominations between 2005 and 2014 and all donations since 2001. They found that 97.9% of all the donations (£33.83m) coming from nominees to the Lords (donations from the individuals’ companies, spouses or children were included) were cumulatively donated by just 92 so-called “others” and of those, 27 had donated 95% of the total. These findings were wholly in keeping with the contention that lifetime appointments to Britain’s upper house are in effect being sold. If this is the case, the academics argue, the ‘average price’ per party is £220,000 for the Conservatives, £333,000 for the Liberal Democrats and £464,000 for Labour. Clearly, the Tories offer the best deal!

Some individual donations by donors (including sums given by them, their families, unions or companies) who were made peers are, by party, as follows:

Conservative

Lord Farmer – £7,362,388

Lord Fink – £3,220,007

Lord Bamford – £2,722,007

Lord Magan – £1,490,800

Lord Glendonbrook – £1,110,00

Lord Edmiston – £377,717

Liberal Democrats

Lord Vergee – £1,406,476

Lord Palumbo of Southwark – £1,083,294

Lord Strasburger – £882,226

Baroness Parminter – £564,790

Lord Loomba – £361,597

Labour

Baroness Drake – £4,970,523

Lord Morris of Handsworth – £1,579,042

Lord Haughey – £1,501,776

Since 2010, while the number of political appointments to the Lords increased dramatically, just eight independent experts were nominated as peers. This abuse of ‘democracy’ is a national disgrace.

Pensioners’ stipend

Now to the costs of this farcical, dysfunction in our putative democracy: According to the latest House of Lords annual report, net operating costs for the Lords were £94.4 million for 2014/15, £20.7 million of which was attributed to members’ allowances and expenses. However, research shows that a total of £1,262,670 of this was claimed by peers who did not speak and that thirty peers, from 2010 to 2015, claimed more than £750,000 between them without speaking at all in debates (that’s £5,000 per peer per annum). The rule is that members who can show that they have carried out “appropriate parliamentary work” in Westminster are entitled to claim a tax-free daily allowance of £300, or £150 if they are away from Westminster on official visits. At approximately 133 days in a parliamentary year (about half that of a normal working year), each peer has the potential to earn about £40,000 for little more than turning up and often sleeping on the benches – not bad for what are mostly retirees. In addition, a number of peers use the House of Lords dining rooms as a private club to wine and dine business clients, despite this being prohibited. Furthermore, many of the British electorate perceive of the Lords as a lucrative retirement club for MPs.

In fairness, it has to be said, that the Lords does, on occasions, constrain the excesses of Government. After the chamber’s reform in 1999 the Blair and Brown governments suffered more than 450 defeats in the Lords. Many involved challenges on civil liberties matters, such as trial by jury and detention of terrorist suspects without charge. Although Lords defeats can be overturned, research by University College London shows that almost half of Lords defeats are ultimately accepted for whatever reason. Perhaps the fear of ministers is that an elected chamber would be an even better brake on their immoderation.

Opinion polls show that 69 per cent of the British electorate support an elected second chamber, making it an urgent necessity on two democratic counts: (i) it will help give expression to the will of the British people, (ii) which the majority of British people want!

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