Opinion from Lord Digby Jones

Reform for the House of Lords?

Published Wednesday 5 August, 2015

I know some will find it difficult to believe, but Peers of the Realm do not spend their languid days kitted out in questionable lingerie, quaffing champagne and snorting cocaine off the nether regions of ladies of negotiable availability.

Whatever you may have gathered from the nefarious pursuits of Lord Sewell and their lurid revelation in the National and (sadly) international media, his are activities which are very much the exception not the rule. (Mind you, we could do without the remark evidently overheard at one watering-hole where Peers of a certain age and inclination gather:- "How disgraceful! Brings us all into disrepute; using only a five pound note! What IS the World coming to?!)

What this scandal has brought (again) into sharp focus is the current make-up of the House of Lords, its usefulness, its justification, its relevance and whether any different ways of delivering Second-Chamber-Oversight are possible and achievable.

There are over 850 members of the Upper House. They act very much like the Nation's Non-executive Director. We advise, revise and delay would-be legislation and kick up a stink every-so-often but we would never overrule the House of Commons; we have no democratic mandate and no locus democratically to represent the people. (An interesting observation en passant is that I am struggling to see where the democratic connection is between an SNP MP as part of 56 MPs elected on 5% of the popular vote and hell-bent on destroying the UK, and a member of the Electorate in, say, Cornwall (Norway is nearer Aberdeen than is Bodmin!) who voted UKIP alongside 12.5% of the Electorate and who sees just one member of her or his Party in the Commons).  

We are there to scrutinise the work of the Commons. We have all done something with our lives. With the exception of front-bench representatives on both sides, politics is not our career; in some cases, is no longer; in others, never was. Go into the Public Gallery on any day and you will see informed debates being conducted without the bear-garden, juvenile heckling of that Place with Green Benches by experts in their field; former military, police, security services, diplomats, businesswomen and businessmen, sportsmen and women, leaders of all religious faiths, trade unionists, environmentalists, transport experts, educationalists, medical experts.......the list goes on. There are five former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, four former Chancellors of the Exchequer, three former Home Secretaries, two former Deputy Prime Ministers.......and there we are, Floella Benjamin, Alan Sugar, Robert Winston and me, all auditioning to be the Partridge in the Pear Tree!

When the Noble Peers and Baronesses argue and debate, at least they know what they are talking about! Far be it from a humble Baron to observe that that might not always be the case down the corridor!

And all this is excellent value for money! The much-derided Daily Allowance of £300 is only paid for physically turning up in the Chamber or in Committee; all the other work (ambassadorial (but not of the kind with which Lord Sewell is all too familiar!), representative, entertaining, educational, media, and taking up causes and issues on behalf of individuals and causes is all for free. You get your second-class train fare reimbursed upon production of a receipt and that's it. No subsistence allowance, no help with secretarial costs, no reimbursement of intra-London travel costs; that is what the £300 is for. 

But things MUST change......and now! It is too big by far; it is losing its street-cred with the General Public, its very right to exist is being, often and not manically, called into question. Something must be done.....and quickly!

The Prime Minister has said that Reform is out of the question until, at least, 2020; after the next General Election. He is wrong!