POWER, PATRONAGE AND MONEY comment from Lord Tyler

Radio 4’s top headline this morning was ‘Calls are growing for reform of the House of Lords’. It’s not often that happens. Neither reformers nor reactionaries may relish the means of this meteoric rise to the top of the news agenda, but we have to face the simple fact that the public do not believe that the House of Lords can be left as it is.

Today’s leader article in The Times sums up neatly the difficulty the House faces, and reflects the dilemma brought out by so many of my contributions to my blog, and the tenor of many readers’ comments there. The Times argues, “The power of the House of Lords is entirely dependent on its credibility. In the absence of the democratic mandate that comes from election, the legitimacy of the Lords relies on it serving its purpose well and with unimpeachable integrity.” So much discussion here has taken the tone that the House does its job well, so why change it? Yet recent events give the starkest evidence yet that seats for life – with no accountability whatever – have a tendency to erode the integrity of those who enjoy them. Even if the vast majority of Peers are beyond reproach, the actions of a few have the potential to undermine confidence in the institution as a whole.

One of the most useful features of the Lords is that the Government of the day – of any party – does not have a majority in the Lords, and is never likely to in the future. It is easier to get legislation changed here than in the Commons. Also, Peers have far more opportunities to debate and decide changes than MPs, because the business of the Commons is so rigorously controlled by the Government Whips. So those who wish to influence new laws, whether they are charities, pressure groups or big private companies, will naturally want to persuade Peers to help them. While the House remains answerable and accountable to nobody, with Life Peers appointed by the Prime Minister and the remaining Hereditaries a relic of past appointments, this patronage is a recipe for constitutional confusion, for potential corruption and for ongoing accusations of foul play, whether founded or not.

So roll on reform say I – yesterday I asked whatever happened to Gordon Brown’s “Constitutional Renewal” programme ….. and the Minister told me to be patient. The Times concludes “the Upper House is exactly the place that anyone should target if they wish to circumvent democracy with money.” None of us should have any patience with that.

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