Given the furore over parliamentary expenses just a few short years ago, one might have expected all glitches in the system to have been ironed out. Not so, it seems. In the Commons, the Prime Minister is threatening to dissolve the independent body set up to adjudicate on MPs’ pay because its conclusions seem too generous. And now, in the upper house, Lord Hanningfield – jailed after the last scandal for £28,000 of false claims– is accused of “clocking in” to claim the second chamber’s £300 daily attendance allowance while spending barely any time there.
The charges do not look good. A month-long newspaper investigation found that the majority of the peer’s visits to Parliament lasted less than 40 minutes. Lord Hanningfield has robustly defended himself, however. Not only is the practice common, he says; it is also necessary, providing the money to fund the business of being a peer – “entertaining, meeting people, employing people”. He does have a point. After all, lords do not receive a salary, and there are costs associated with doing the job.
Either way, what Lord Hanningfield has not done is broken any rules – raising the obvious question as to whether the latest scandal should prompt an overhaul. The answer is yes and no. The abolition of the allowance is only a good idea until it comes to choosing an alternative. One possibility would be to monitor peers’ attendance times, forcing them to clock in and then clock out again. But such a system merely encourages the unprincipled to exploit the situation in a different way. As does a flat-rate salary.
Better, then, to focus on creating a second chamber that is altogether less of a club and more of a responsibility. And it is here that the usual list of much-needed House of Lords reforms comes in. First, of course, there is the stain on democracy that is the inherited peerage. Those with criminal convictions or who never turn up should also forfeit their places. As should the 25 bishops who are there by dint of a spiritual calling recognised by an ever-smaller section of society. Those that remain have the travails of Lord Hanningfield, and the prospect of being called publicly to account for their claims, to focus their minds.