We are in the throes of a full-blown financial crisis; the most severe, we hardly need to be told, since the Great Depression. And among the key players shaping the Government's response – to judge by the furore that regularly surrounds them – are the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, and the financial services Secretary to the Treasury, Lord Myners. Taking a lower profile have been the business ministers, Lady ("green shoots") Vadera and the recently appointed Lord (Mervyn) Davies.
Distinguished though these individuals might be, they have one conspicuous feature in common: not one of them has been elected. Lord Mandelson, you might even say, was dis-elected, by dint of twice resigning from the Cabinet under duress.
The Prime Minister's argument is that the Government needs the very best people it can get. My argument is that for any government to have so many senior ministers with padded berths in the Lords is nothing short of a national scandal.
This is not a comment on their competence or otherwise. I care little for the legal minutiae of Sir Fred Goodwin's severance negotiations when he left the impoverished Royal Bank of Scotland. But someone in the Government surely should have done – as someone should also have kept tabs on executive bonuses and pay at other banks kept alive by the charity of taxpayers.
Nor do I have any particular axe to grind over the Royal Mail, beyond lamenting how far a once-admired institution has fallen and observing that a concentrated dose of firm management might usefully have been applied long ago. It does seem strange, though, that the Business Secretary should be so loudly cheer-leading for one last fling of part-privatisation, when his Treasury colleagues' efforts to safeguard the nation's banking system point so clearly the opposite way.
No, dubious, even negligent, though these decisions might be, what I object to is the principle. Where, quite simply, is the accountability? Already tangled in the thickets of agencies and quangos propagated by this government, the lines of responsibility are overdue for pruning. But to use peerages as a means of co-opting specialists, or favourites, into government is the subversion, no less, of our constitution.
True, non-Britons often find our constitution peculiar. Not only is it not written down, as most of theirs are, but our ministers can be – indeed must be – legislators. In the US, France and many other countries, the executive and the legislature are kept separate. MPs must resign their seats before accepting a ministerial post. Much of the legislature's job is to hold the executive to account; this is how their checks and balances work.
Our system is different. MPs are responsible to their constituents, who can periodically vote them out. The accountability of ministers derives from their legitimacy as elected representatives. This is why senior ministerial appointments are not subject to ratification by the legislature.
Elevation to the Lords has long been a way for Prime Ministers to recognise loyal service, and there is a contribution such people can make. I would even say that the broader the range of experience represented in the upper chamber, the better. Faced with a largely consensual House of Commons, the House of Lords has provided much-needed opposition on, for instance, civil liberties.
Most governments of recent times have had a few junior ministers in the Lords, most of whom worked diligently and without controversy. But if peers are created for the explicit purpose of bringing certain expertise or certain individuals into government, the conventional line of accountability by election is bypassed.
When, as with Lords Mandelson and Myners, these individuals are in the front-line of the Government's political defences, and responsible for policies and decisions of high sensitivity, the question of accountability goes unanswered. Peers do not have to face either re-election or re-selection; they do not have to defend themselves in the hurly-burly of the Commons. But nor do they have to face US-style confirmation.
Devolution, the increased might of the judiciary and the growing sway of parliamentary select committees all suggest that Britain may be moving towards a more US-style constitutional order. But we are not there yet. So long as we straddle this awkward constitutional hybrid, the accountability of our Lord and Lady ministers will, disgracefully, fall through the gap.Reuse content