It took him three days, but Lord Sewel’s resignation, after first saying he would take a leave of absence pending an investigation into his behaviour, is possibly the only sensible thing he’s done in the last month.
Yet, now that we’ve all had our fun laughing at the ill-fitting orange bra and his “coke-fuelled” views on leading politicians (which as far as I could see was the run of the mill stuff you get on Twitter every day written by thousands of people not on drugs), the attention predictably turns to the wider House of Lords and how, on the spurious grounds that it is quite obviously a cesspit of bad behaviour, freeloading and sleaze, it needs to be reformed.
But has Lord Sewel’s behaviour brought the Lords into disrepute, or just himself? Because proceedings of the Upper House are barely covered in newspapers or TV, we don’t really know what goes on in there, so we fill in the gaps with our own imaginings, which perhaps involve hundreds of mainly old, mainly white, mainly male over-60s clocking in for their £300-a-day attendance allowances, drinking a bottle of claret at lunch and falling asleep in the library or, if they can be bothered to turn up in the chamber, on the red benches.
Tim Farron, the new Liberal Democrat leader whose party tried and failed to reform the Lords when it was in government, yesterday said the Lord Sewel affair was not just about “one bad apple” but a whole system that is “rotten to the core” that allows “unelected, unaccountable people to think they are above the law”.
Yet just because a group of people are unelectable, it doesn’t make them bad.
The majority of members are working peers appointed by political parties on some merit – only 92 have inherited a right to sit in the Lords. In any case, those 92 hereditary peers are elected after a fashion, because when one dies there is a by-election, with all of the 800-plus Lords voting. I do know this is not real democracy, but having an election does ensure some sort of quality control.
The rest of the Lords are bishops and working peers. During the last parliament, a group of 27 Anglican bishops wrote an open letter condemning the Coalition’s welfare policies for fuelling food bank use. Among the working peers, it is true that some of them never speak or even attend debates in the chamber, but many of them do, and carry out a pretty robust job of holding the government to account.
This parliament is the first ever in which a Conservative government has not held a majority in the Lords, which means that, given the official opposition in the Commons is Labour Party in the midst of an existential crisis, the business of holding ministers to account is going on in the Upper House. In fact, the Liberal Democrats currently hold the balance of power in the Lords, which makes Mr Farron’s eagerness to accelerate Lords reform all the more surprising. When the dissolution honours list is announced, whenever it comes, are the Lib Dems going to turn down their allotted peerages? I very much doubt it.
Despite the Salisbury Convention, which states that the Lords may not vote down a governing party’s manifesto, there have been 10 defeats for the government in the Upper Chamber out of 16 votes since the election. The Lords have not breached the convention but have tweaked and scrutinised bad legislation. This is excellent for democracy.
Take the Childcare Bill, which seeks to enshrine the Conservatives’ flagship election pledge of 30 hours a week of free childcare. The Lords have criticised the bill, which is just six clauses long, for being full of holes and a charter of unintended consequences, including potential prison sentences for parents. A joint Labour-Lib Dem amendment to allow 16 and 17-year olds a vote in local government elections was passed by their Lordships. What was that about the Lords being anti-democratic?
As Baroness Smith of Basildon, Labour’s leader in the Lords, says: “The second chamber is a place where governments, away from the intense glare of publicity in the Commons, are more content to engage, listen and make changes to Bills if it improves the legislation.”
Even if Lords reform is a good idea (and I am not sure having an elected second chamber would work, given it would simply mirror the Commons), why is the trigger for this Lord Sewel snorting cocaine with prostitutes? This is one arrogant, stupid man out of more than 800 peers. To suggest that all peers think they are only in parliament to cream off the allowances because of one man’s behaviour is to also brand every peer a lascivious drug-taker. This is clearly not the case.