Peers pocketing thousands of pounds in allowances without ever contributing to House of Lords debates

Some have been pocketing an average of more than £4,000 a month

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Indy Politics

Hundreds of thousands of pounds in tax-free allowances were paid out during 2015 to peers who went through the entire year without ever contributing to debates in the House of Lords chamber, an analysis by The Independent has found.

The public record reveals that 117 men and women who are still listed as member of the House of Lords – one in seven of the total – never spoke in the main Lords chamber in the past year.

They included at least 49 who signed the register and claimed the £300 daily attendance allowance, with some pocketing an average of more than £4,000 a month.

Although they may have taken part in committees or other work of the House, the low level of their involvement in debates will add to calls for a radical overhaul of the upper chamber.

The findings come at a time when David Cameron is planning to limit the powers of peers who actually do the work of scrutinising legislation, following his annoyance at them holding up the Government’s plan to cut tax credits.

While the Prime Minister also plans to cut down the number of MPs in the more active House of Commons, the Lords has been allowed to swell to 822 members – making it one of the world’s largest legislative bodies.

The Aberdeen North MP Kirsty Blackman, spokeswoman on the House of Lords for the SNP – which does not take any seats in the Lords on principle – said: “This is not the way to run a modern democracy. It’s not the way the country should be run. We have got all these people who are stuck there forever.”

The £300-a-day tax free allowance is supposed to be claimed only by peers who take part in the work of the House of Lords, and not by those who simply turn up to use its facilities, such as the free parking and subsidised bars and dining rooms.

The records for the first half of 2015 show that dozens of peers visited the Lords but did not claim. Some of those who did not speak in the chamber participate in other ways, either helping to organise House of Lords business or sitting on committees.

Others claim that age and infirmity makes it hard for them to participate, but argue that their past service entitles them to continue their membership.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn, an 86-year-old former Labour councillor, was one of the first peers ever to have his membership suspended after he was caught in a newspaper sting in 2009 apparently agreeing to be paid to ask questions. He pleaded then that he was “easily confused”. During six months in 2015 he claimed £29,100 in tax free allowances, though he did not speak in the chamber and according to the official record he has not sat on a committee since 2001. 

He said: “I have spoken to ministers behind the scenes during the year. I have attended quite regularly. I have voted quite regularly. 

“I’m doing what I was asked to do when I went in the Lords 38 years ago, and that is speak on those things I hope I could contribute to and give advice to ministers.” 

He added: “Sometimes empty vessels make more sound.”

Lord Borrie, the 84-year-old former head of the Advertising Standards Authority, claimed £21,300 in six months, though he did not speak in the main chamber all year, and is not listed as having been on a Lords committee for four years.

He said that illness kept him away from the Lords during the second half of the year. He added: “I have been speaking less, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything.

“I have been keeping up with new legislation, especially matters that interest me – the competition field, civil rights and so on. I would like to return to the House of Lords in the near future, but I am also contemplating retirement.”

Lord Davies of Coity, the 80-year-old former head of the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, claimed £14,700 in six months, plus more than £7,000 towards the cost of travelling to and from his home in Cheshire. He served on the Lords ecclesiastical committee for 11 years, until March 2015.

He said: “I don’t suppose I did speak. I didn’t do it much because I have been there 20 years and whether I will go again I don’t know. I have done a lot of speaking over the years. I haven’t been at all since September because I have got a bad back.”

During the past year, several well known peers including Lord Ashcroft and the late Baron (Geoffrey) Howe made use of legislation passed in 2014 which for the first time enables members to retire from the House of Lords.

Retirement is purely voluntary. There is no upper age limit for membership. Until his death, aged 96, just over week ago, Lord Ezra, the former chairman of the National Coal Board, was the oldest serving peer. He signed the attendance register in June, though did not claim the £300 a day allowance.

Two dozen peers, including two members of the Sainsbury family, did not sign the register at all during the first half of 2015. In local government, a councillor who fails to show up for six months is automatically disqualified, but that rule does not apply to peers.

Deserving of office? Rarely heard peers in the House of Lords

Lord Hanningfield

The ex-Tory peer is the most notorious abuser of Lords’ privileges, jailed in 2011 for fiddling his expenses, and suspended in 2014 for  claiming an allowance after doing no work.  After his suspension ended in May, he received £3,600 in allowances in three months.

Lord Taylor of Warwick

After serving a prison sentence in 2011 for fiddling his expenses, Lord Taylor defied a public plea from a fellow Tory peer, Michael Dobbs, not to return to the Lords. He asked many written questions, but very rarely speaks, though he broke an almost two-year silence just before Christmas. In the first half of 2015, he claimed £22,200 attendance allowance.

Baroness Falkender

In June 1974, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson awarded his political secretary, then known as Marcia Williams, a life peerage. She has never made a speech in the Lords chamber in 41 years, but attends sometimes. In May, she claimed a £300 attendance allowance.

Lord Carrington

The 96-year-old former Foreign Secretary is the longest-serving member of the Lords, having inherited a seat in 1941. He is no longer active, and does not claim the daily allowance, but signed the register in February and in June.

Lord Snowdon

The former photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones became the Earl of Snowdon when he married the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret,  in 1960. They were divorced in 1978, but he remains a member of the House of Lords, though he last spoke there in 2000.

Lord Archer

The thriller writer, Jeffrey Archer, has not spoken in the Lords since his prison sentence for perjury in 2001, but still qualifies as a member. He signed the attendance register in May, but did not claim the allowance.

Crosby Honour criticised by Tory MP

A Tory MP has condemned David Cameron’s decision to hand his election strategist Lynton Crosby a knighthood for “political service”. 

Mark Garnier, MP for Wyre Forest, accepted that the Australian had done an “extraordinarily good job” in guiding the Conservatives to an unexpected election triumph in May, but said that he sympathised with those criticising the decision to award him in the New Year’s Honours list.

Mr Crosby, dubbed the “Wizard of Oz”, was brought into Downing Street by Mr Cameron in 2012 after helping Boris Johnson win successive mayoral elections in London and managing victories in his homeland. Mr Garnier, an opponent of handing out honours to politicians, told Radio 4’s Today: “Is it right to give a knighthood to a political campaigner? I’m probably sympathetic with those people who think it is a bad idea.”