The Big Question: Is the House of Lords corrupt, and is it time it was reformed?
Wednesday 28 January 2009
Why are we asking this now?
Journalists posing as lobbyists approached members of the House of Lords offering them money if they would help change the law for the benefit of a fictitious Chinese businessman wanting to expand into the UK. Four are accused of agreeing to help, for fees ranging from £24,000 to £120,000. A committee of the House of Lords will look into the allegations, and will ask the Sunday Times, the newspaper that published the story last weekend, to supply recordings of the conversations, and will ask the four peers to explain themselves. But even if the committee finds they have done wrong, it is not at all clear what happens next.
Did the four peers break House of Lords rules?
All four have denied doing anything wrong, although two of them – Lord Taylor and Lord Snape – had pre-emptively apologised in case they have done anything to bring Parliament into disrepute. The reactions from other peers, including the Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Royall, suggest a suspicion that they may have done wrong.
What rule, if any, did they break?
Saying that they might have broken the rules assumes that there are rules to break. Eight years ago, there were none, but in 2001, under pressure from the Labour government, the Lords drew up a Code of Conduct, which came into effect in March 2002. For the first time, it was laid down that peers should be selfless and honest in the conduct of their duties. Rule 4c states that peers "must never accept any financial inducement as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence". Rule 4d, the "no paid advocacy" rule, says they "must not vote on any bill or motion, or ask any question in the House or a committee, or promote any matter, in return for payment or any other material benefit".
Why shouldn't a peer have outside business interests?
No one is paid a salary just for being a member of the House of Lords, although they are entitled to claim allowances amounting to £335.50 a day each time they put in an appearance. So it is expected that many will have outside jobs; one of the virtues of the upper house is that it brings people with outside experience into public life. They are all expected to make a full declaration of "relevant" interests in the Register, though unlike MPs, they do not have to indicate how much they are earning, unless it is for lobbying or parliamentary consultancy. However, what they are not supposed to do is use their position to advance their business interests in secret.
Could they be stripped of their peerages?
Traditionally, a peerage was a birthright, and therefore could never be taken away. A peer might be executed for treason, but he was still a peer as he mounted the scaffold. An exception was introduced during the First World War. The Royal Family was of German descent, and there were aristocrats with English titles who were German citizens, and supported the Kaiser. Consequently parliament passed the Titles Deprivation Act in 1917, enabling the King to set up a committee of the Privy Council which stripped four aristocrats of their titles, including one of Queen Victoria's grandsons, because they had fought for the Germans. There is no other way of separating a lord from his title.
Can't they at least be removed from the House of Lords?
Since 2002, holding a peerage and being a member of the House of Lords are not necessarily one and the same. Most hereditary peers have lost their seats in the Lords, but continue to use their hereditary titles. Those that are in the Lords, whether they are hereditary or life peers, cannot be removed. The worst that can happen is that it can be privately communicated to one of them that he or she is not welcome in the club any more and should stay away.
Why can't an offender be induced to resign?
No one can resign from the House of Lords, even if they want to. A local councillor who fails to turn up to a council or committee meeting for six months is automatically disqualified, but a peer who stays away from the House of Lords for years on end is still a peer. The most they can do is take "leave of absence". While on "leave of absence" a peer is not entitled to attendance allowances, and has to give a month's notice before coming back. Cathy Ashton took leave of absence when Gordon Brown appointed her EC Commissioner in place of Lord Mandelson. Viscount Cranborne, a descendant of Elizabeth I's greatest minister, Robert Cecil, was so affronted by the introduction of the Register of Lords Interests in 2001 that he has been on leave of absence since 2001.
If these are Labour peers, why can't Gordon Brown deal with them ?
Any MP or peer who belongs to a political party and is judged to have brought it into disrepute can have the party whip removed. That is a serious threat for an MP, because it usually means being out of the Commons permanently after the next election – though George Galloway proved to be an exception. For a peer, it means nothing except, perhaps, hurt feelings.
Are peers above the law?
The law applies to a member of the House of Lords as it does to anyone else: it just does not affect their status. An MP who goes bankrupt, or insane, or is convicted and sentenced to a prison term of six months or more is automatically barred from remaining an MP, but no matter how mad, broke or bad a peer is, he is still a peer. Jeffrey Archer, who served two years of a four year prison sentence for perjury is still Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare. Tactfully, he has stayed away from the House of Lords since his release, but there is nothing to stop him going back.
Should the rules be changed?
The reactions from all political parties since Sunday's revelations suggest that the rules are almost certain to change. The solution that would probably cause least controversy would be for the House of Lords to give itself the power to suspend an offender, banning that person from using Parliament's facilities or claiming attendance allowance for a stated period. This happens frequently enough in the Commons; two weeks ago, the Labour MP John McDonnell was suspended for five days for his protest over the planned third Heathrow runway; but no such formal power exists in the Lords. Legislation that could lead to a peer being stripped of a title, or permanently removed from the Lords would be more controversial.
Shouldn't the Lords be elected anyway?
That is another argument, fraught with complications. The majority view in the Commons is that the Lords should be partly elected and partly appointed, but getting a majority of MPs to agree the right mix has so far proved impossible. And don't expect hundreds of hereditary or life peers to vote themselves out of a job, unless the Commons makes up its mind first.
Does the House of Lords need to be brought into line?
* It is unfair that Lords can get away with conduct that would get MPs or councillors disqualified
* If people want titles that invite respect they should behave in a way that deserves respect
* Public bodies must be free from corruption – and the House of Lords is no exception
* Being a peer is not a salaried position but a courtesy that acknowledges past service
* The strength of the Lords is its informality and absence of rules. Imposing them would fundamentally change the institution's character
* If you want to be able to sack peers, make them elected, not appointed
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