Leading article: The demeaning of British democracy

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The Independent Online

Lord Foster has pointed out that he is not a nom-domiciled UK resident and has never sought "non-dom" status, his letter setting out his position is here.

The scandal of the non-domiciled peers of the realm continues to grow. Following the example of Lord Laidlaw, Lord McAlpine, Lord Bagri and Baroness Dunn, Baron Foster of Thames Bank has become the latest peer to surrender his seat on the red benches in order to preserve his tax breaks. It also turns out that all these individuals will continue to be able to use their noble titles.

The previous government's Constitutional Reform and Governance Act merely required all non- domiciled peers to give up their membership of the House of Lords. The same loophole that allowed the hereditary peers (removed from the upper house in 1999) to continue using their titles apparently applies. Thus these five individuals will be able to travel the world presenting themselves as peers of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. It is easy to see how this could be an advantage for someone like Lord Foster as he seeks lucrative commissions for his architectural practice. And since all these peers spend much of their time abroad already, their lives will probably change little as a result of their decision to put tax efficiency before country.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has suggested that these peers should voluntarily give up their titles. We suspect that this is a vain hope. If these peers are shameless enough to value their tax privileges above their legislative responsibilities, it is hard to see them suffering an attack of conscience as they cling on to the baubles of office. One suspects that the former Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, who in 1909 described the House of Lords as "500 men accidentally chosen from among the ranks of the unemployed" would not be surprised by such cynical behaviour.

But perhaps the scandal will be only temporary. The coalition Government's programme made a commitment to reform the Lords. And last month the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced the establishment of a cross-party committee tasked with producing a draft bill by December setting out plans for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber. Such a reform would, presumably, also close the loophole that enables these five individuals to continue to style themselves as peers of the realm.

We are now running up against the inadequacies of the last attempt at Lords reform in 1999. Labour's overhaul might have cleared out most of the useless hereditary peers, but it left many of the more useless life peers sitting comfortably. Non-domiciled UK residents tend to spend large periods of time outside the country. These were always part-time legislators. And the problem goes much wider than non-doms. It is true that there are some impressive and conscientious crossbenchers in the upper house. And in recent years the Lords has, at times, been a useful brake on the populism of the Commons, particularly on anti-terror legislation. But the upper house is also packed with former trade unionists and senescent party functionaries. The second chamber, as presently constituted, does our democracy no credit.

Mr Clegg told Parliament last month that "people have been talking about Lords reform for over a century. The time for talk is over". We hope the Deputy Prime Minister is right. But there is a reason that Lords reform keeps getting kicked into the long grass. Governments usually decide that the effort is not worth the reward. If Mr Clegg is serious about succeeding where so many of his predecessors failed he needs to be relentless in driving the process forward. At least these five shameless peers have given Mr Clegg an opportunity to swing public opinion decisively behind reform.