Reforming the Lords

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, for this all too short debate about what we affectionately refer to as “the other place”, although it would be hard to imagine or conceive of another place like it in the world.

The House of Lords must now be about the most bizarre, absurd and ridiculous political institution anywhere in the world. Bloated, ermine coated and never been voted, it is now an affront to every sense and notion of democracy. There are now some 847 souls inhabiting the place, which makes it the largest political legislature anywhere in the world, save the National People’s Congress of China. Like the Chinese politburo, it is a stranger to democracy, but, unlike that, it cannot even claim to have a constituency or represent anyone whatever.lords

Who are these curious, strange people who inhabit this gold-plated, red-upholstered Narnia? The vast majority are appointed: some by an independent appointments authority, but the vast majority by the Prime Minister from lists drawn up by the three establishment Westminster parties. No other legislature in the world is composed quite like that, other than Lesotho in southern Africa.

Peers are not all appointed: 86 hereditary peers have a role in our democracy because of birth right. They can scrutinise, initiate and consider our legislation because they are the first son of a family that won a decisive battle in the middle ages. This is not an episode of “Game of Thrones”, but the fifth-largest economy in the western world.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I agree with much that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he feel that it is any less desirable for there to be the first-born son of a family who have had an hereditary peerage for six or seven generations than it is for there to be to be a large-scale donor to a political party or a superannuated council leader? That seems to be how most of the people in that House have earned their places over the past 15 years.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I have a few choice words to say about the appointees to the House of Lords. If he bears with me, I will come to those very points.

We have the hereditaries, but to make the place even more bizarre and surreal, 26 places are reserved for bishops—but not just any ordinary bishops: they have to be Church of England bishops. The House of Lords is the only legislature in the world that reserves places for clerics other than the Islamic republic of Iran.

We cannot get rid of these people; they are not allowed to retire and they are not accountable to any constituency or electorate. The only way to get rid of them is through not the public of Great Britain, but the grim reaper. One of the few House of Lords reforms there have been in this Parliament is to allow these people to retire, but only one has come forward—so we made inducements to try to get them to retire. They can now use House of Lords facilities if they choose to retire, but they still will not do it.

This is a ridiculous and absurd institution. The average age of Members of the House of Lords is now 70. How much does this political circus cost? Last year, it was almost £100 million. Our friends in the House of Lords do not come cheap—of course, they should not. They can claim £300 a day just for turning up to work. If that is too much trouble for them, they can claim £150 a day for working from home. The average peer—if there is such a thing—now costs a cool £28,000.

Some of them do work hard. We have lots of examples of hard-working peers who turn up diligently, day after day, to put in the work, but all too many of them do practically nothing for the money they are given by the taxpayer. I do not want to pick on my Scottish peer colleagues, but I had a cursory glance at the activity list of some of them who notionally, I believe, look after Scottish interests in the House of Lords. Again, although some are diligent, hard-working individuals, all too many do practically nothing for this taxpayer largesse.

Mark Field: In this debate, it is important that we look beyond House of Lords composition. The hon. Gentleman refers to Scottish interests being looked after by Scottish peers, but that is not their purpose. They do not have a constituency interest; they are there to scrutinise legislation. Will he go into a little detail about some of the worthy work done by a significant number of peers—perhaps not all 800 or so, but certainly several hundred of them—who play that important role even though they have no representative interests?

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I beg for patience once again, because I am trying to paint some background on the activities of the House of Lords and the nature of its Chamber. I do want to come on to that point, but it is important that the taxpayers of the country understand the type of service that they get for the £100 million paid annually to sustain these people. Some of them work hard, as he said, but some do next to nothing.

It is right and proper that we should look at these people, because we cannot get rid of them or do anything about them. They are not accountable to any constituency. Just as the hon. Gentleman and I, as parliamentarians, are scrutinised, it is right that we should look at the activities of our colleagues and friends in the House of Lords to assess whether we get value for money.

That brings me back to the Scottish peers. They do not represent any constituency, but when Scottish colleagues and I turn up to events—I see that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) is here—we always see Scottish Lords in attendance, and again and again they tell us that our interests are looked after in the House of Lords on that basis. However, what we find is that Baroness Adams of Craigielea has claimed an eye-watering £50,000 but spoken in only two debates and never asked a written question since entering the Lords in 2005. Lord Kirkham has cost us £49,239, but spoken in no debates and asked no written questions. Further down the list, there is our noble Friend Lord Elder who has cost us £50,000, spoken in two debates and asked no questions. He did, though, as a good public servant, serve on the refreshments committee between 2008 and 2013.

That brings me to the impeccable, cultured tastes of their lordships. In the past four years, they have got through some 17,000 bottles of fine champagne, which cost more than £260,000.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the advice in “Erskine May” on reference to Members of the House of Lords. It says:

“It is considered undesirable that any member of the House of Lords should be mentioned by name, or otherwise identified, for the purpose of criticism of a personal…nature.”

It is, of course, in order for the hon. Gentleman to talk about what those Members do, how they are appointed and so on, but he is probably straying into inadvisable territory.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful, Mr Howarth, and I promise not to do it again.

On champagne, it seems that the House of Lords rejected the vulgar variety served in the House of Commons; according to a former Clerk,

“the Lords feared that the quality of champagne would not be as good if they chose a joint service”

with the House of Commons. That was reported to the House of Commons Governance Committee. The astonished Chair, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), said,

“Did you make that up?”

The former Clerk assured him that he did not.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that the champagne in the House of Lords is not free? It is paid for.

Pete Wishart: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman clarified that: the champagne is not free—but by God it seems that our friends in the House of Lords certainly like to quaff a good number of bottles of it over the course of a year.

It would be wrong and remiss of me, however, to claim that the House of Lords was totally undemocratic. That is not the case and I would not like to mislead this House in that respect. The Lords do have elections, when the earls, the dukes, the ladies, the lords and the barons—the hereditary peers of the realm—get together and have one of their now regular by-elections to decide which among their number should continue to rule over us. It must be the weirdest constituency in the world—the most privileged and aristocratic electorate to be found anywhere.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is waxing lyrical in his diatribe against the House of Lords and many of his sentiments will be shared across the nation. Perhaps he is coming on to this in his speech, but does he agree about the need for a more democratised revising Chamber or would he dismiss it entirely?

Pete Wishart: I am not a unicameralist, believe it or not; a nation as complex and large as the United Kingdom needs a functioning supervisory Chamber. I will come on to suggest—I hope the hon. Gentleman bears with me—how we might make progress. This debate is about House of Lords reform, which I promise him I will come to.

What is unacceptable, however, and what the British people should put up with no longer, is that circus down in the other place, with the ridiculous spectacle of lords, ladies, deference, forelock-tugging and the rest of it. We need a properly equipped legislature designed for the 21st century—not one designed for the middle ages, something out of the 14th century. I will come to that and to the clear principles that I wish to establish.

Mark Field: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman one last time; I have been generous to him. I want to hear his speech.

Mark Field: The hon. Gentleman has been extremely generous. He referred to the anachronistic election procedure for hereditary peers, but does he not recognise that that whole mechanism was put in place to ensure that the piecemeal reforms of 1999 were not the end of the matter? The sort of reforms that he and I would both support are perhaps more wholesale, but they require having the anachronistic hereditary element. Let us get rid of the entirety of what we have at the moment—sweep the whole thing away—but without the anachronism, there would probably be a reluctance to do the sort of radical reform that he and I would support.

Pete Wishart: As a result of the House of Lords Act 1999, the vast majority of the hereditaries were removed, but we are still left with 86 or so, which has always been considered unfinished business. Action has been a long time coming; they are still there—we still have people who have a role in our democracy due to birthright. That is unacceptable. We are all democrats in this House. We cannot allow people to have a role in our democracy because they are the first son of their family.

We might laugh, and it is easy to poke fun at an institution that is so singularly absurd and bizarre, but there is a sinister role in the activities of the House of Lords. It is sinister and open to abuse because it is an appointed Chamber. We do not bother with the whole exercise of letting the public decide and construct the Chamber down the road; instead, we leave it up to politicians—and the temptation for politicians is to stuff it full of their friends, cronies and placemen.

If we need an elderly Member of Parliament to move on for a dynamic, thrusting, new young Member, give the old one a place in the House of Lords. That dynamic, thrusting young Member might lose his seat—I am looking at the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), although he did not take a place in the Lords—so let us cushion the blow and let him continue with his political career by giving him a place in the House of Lords. All too commonly we find that that is how the House of Lords is being used and abused. It is a place for cronies, placemen and time-servers. That is not good enough.

Even that is not what bothers me in particular. The thing that concerns me most, and which should concern everyone in this House, are the donors—people who have a place in our democracy, in the second Chamber of Parliament, whose only qualification seems to be that they are able to give substantial and significant sums to one of the three main establishment Westminster parties. Those are the people who trouble me and who should trouble the rest of the United Kingdom, because lots of people appointed by the political parties seem to have no ability other than to manufacture large sums of cash to sustain those political parties. That is not good enough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who I was hoping could be with us this morning, tested that issue to its legal limit in the previous Parliament. He looked at the situation in the House of Lords, saw connections with the highest levels of the then Labour Government and said, “There is something wrong here.” He then asked the Metropolitan police to investigate, and we had one of the most dramatic political police operations of recent years—the “cash for honours” investigation.

We saw a sitting Prime Minister, Tony Blair, being questioned by police and the arrest of his chief fundraiser and other members of his staff. Charges were dropped—none were brought—not because there was no case to answer or because a clean bill of health was presented, but because no evidence was found. The Crown Prosecution Service felt that it could not proceed with the case. We can all make up our minds about the type of influence that can be exerted on the CPS and the Metropolitan police to drop such a dynamic case. However, the situation was never given a clean bill of health and outstanding issues remain on donations to parties.

All we have to do is to look at the list of appointments to the House of Lords, such as that from last year. Those recently ennobled made a total contribution of £7 million to the three establishment Westminster parties. After cash for honours and something as dramatic as that police investigation, we might have thought that that place would be beyond approach, that the Lords would have cleaned up their act and that there would be no suggestion, or even a whiff, of any type of abuse or wrongdoing. Not a bit of it! It would seem that they cannot change those ermine spots. Since then, we have had peers banged up in jail for abuse of expenses, cash for influence, cash for amendments and even some cash for honours.

The three biggest donors to the Liberal party—there are no Liberals here, so I am sorry if I am picking on them, Mr Howarth—[Interruption.] Sorry, the Deputy Leader of the House is here. This is something he might to pick up on. The three biggest donors to the Liberals, who just so happen to provide two fifths of the party’s donations, were given peerages by the Deputy Prime Minister. That forced a peer who has now departed, Lord Oakeshott, to concede that cash for honours was still very much alive and that, in his own words,

“my efforts to expose and end cash for peerages in all parties, including our own, and help get the Lords elected have failed.”

The House of Lords, because of its nature, because it is an appointed body and because it does not bother to go through the whole process of elections to be accountable to constituencies is rife with such abuse and activity. The British public deserve better. They deserve a scrutinising Chamber that is beyond reproach, that is democratically decided and that they can get rid of if they are unhappy with its activities.

Our political institutions have never been held in such contempt by the British public. We see that day in, day out. Trust and confidence in the Westminster establishment, the Westminster elite who run this place, has never been lower and that establishment has never been held in such low esteem by the British public. I suggest that when the public observe an undemocratic, ermine-ridden House like the one down the road, it compounds their strong sense of alienation from the whole process of Government.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I should tell the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that I am going to a Committee sitting shortly, so I will not be able to hear the end of the debate. I agree with practically everything the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that any revising Chamber that remains should be 100% elected by proportional representation, so that it will also be a powerful check and balance on an over-mighty Government elected, as at present, by the undemocratic first-past-the-post system?

Pete Wishart: I know the hon. Gentleman’s record on these issues. He has been a big advocate of House of Lords reform, and I congratulate him on his efforts. I agree with him. I disagree, however, with the Labour party’s position on the issue. I debated it on television last night, in advance of this debate, and the Labour position—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman buys into it; we might hear about it from the shadow Minister—is like a secondary mandate, whereby the institutions of the United Kingdom somehow decide among themselves who should inhabit the second Chamber. I am interested to hear more—the shadow Minister is shaking his head, and we will hear from him exactly what the Labour party’s plan is—but that was suggested in the House of Lords when I watched a debate on it. I am sure that the shadow Minister has his plan, but the second Chamber should be elected, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith suggested. There is no substitute for democracy. We live in a democratic country, culture and society, so of course our Houses have to be elected.

Things have to change; they cannot go on as they are. We have tried to reform and democratise the place, but every effort over the past 20 years has failed. This might be hard for its 850-odd Members—likely to be 1,000 in the next Parliament—but it is now time to concede that the whole place is unreformable. It is time to rip the whole thing up and start again. That is the only way we can get reform.

As I have said, I believe that we need a second Chamber. We are a large and complex democracy, with asymmetrical devolution to all parts of the United Kingdom. I am open to any suggestion or plan for progress, but I do not think that it is for me, an oiky Nat Back Bencher, to suggest to the great and the good of the Westminster establishment parties the sort of model for reform that should be adopted. That is not my job—I will leave it to the great minds we see assembled on the Front Benches today to try to determine a way through. I am going to suggest several principles that I believe have to underpin a brand-new institution as we go forward.

The first principle, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith said, is that the revising Chamber must be exclusively democratic. We can no longer go forward with an appointed institution, and we certainly cannot have an institution with Members who are there only because of their family. That cannot go on—it has to be based on democratic principles.

Let me tell hon. Members something embarrassing about this situation. I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a task that I take very seriously because the foundation does fantastic work. I go around the world to speak in emerging democracies, to encourage good governance and support multi-party democracy as much as I possibly can. How can we give that message when we have the embarrassment of that undemocratic institution down the road? How dare we try to suggest to developing nations—countries that are struggling with democratic principles—that they emulate the United Kingdom? Are we asking them to get Lords or jump around like Santa Claus in their red cloaks? That embarrasses this nation. It is an embarrassment to me and to anybody else who does that work on behalf of this country around the world. The first principle, then, is that the revising Chamber must be absolutely democratic. That should go without saying.

The second principle is that its membership must be in proportion to the main Chamber. It is preposterous that we have a second Chamber of such a size, with 847 Members, soon probably to be 1,000. Its size must be in proportion to the main Chamber. I suggest that it should be a quarter to a third of its current size—anything between 200 and 250 Members should be sufficient for the task required of it.

That brings me to my third principle, which is also important: the role of the new Chamber should be clearly defined. My view is that that role should be exclusively scrutiny and supervision. I am unhappy when I see Bills initiated in an undemocratic House. During this Parliament, we have considered quite a few Bills that were initiated in the House of Lords and I am not happy about that. I do not think it right—elected Members should initiate legislation and design and shape it. Please, yes, let the other Chamber scrutinise and have a look at it, tell us when we have it wrong and improve it if necessary, but the second Chamber should be supervisory.

One reason why House of Lords reform failed a couple of years ago was the spurious fear of Conservative Members who suggested that any elected Chamber would be a challenge to the supremacy of the main elected House—as if that would be a bad thing and that a little bit of a challenge would not actually help the elected Members of the House of Commons. Myself and the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith are Members for Scottish constituencies and share constituents with MSPs—we even share constituencies with list MSPs. That spurs me on to make sure I do better, and I am sure that it is the same for the hard-working hon. Gentleman. The nonsense about having competition for the main House is spurious, but if we clearly define the roles and functions of distinctive and separate Houses, it would lay that issue to bed.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. When it comes to Lords reform, as he says, many Members of the House of Commons profess themselves to be very precious about the democratic integrity and authority of the House. However, they do not seem to be as precious about that when it comes not just to allowing Bills to be initiated in the Lords, but to allowing that the key amendments to Bills be passed there; even when there is a will for those amendments in the Commons, it consistently defers to the House of Lords to produce them.

Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is increasing use of the House of Lords as a Chamber that puts through Government amendments. He and I—and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field)—sat through five days of proceedings on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. I have always thought that I was elected by the people of Perth and North Perthshire to scrutinise and try to improve legislation, but we were told that that was going to be done in the House of Lords, and the Bill would come back to us amended. The use of the House of Lords for the Government amendment of Bills is inappropriate and has to end. If we properly align our two different Chambers and make sure they are properly distinct, those sorts of issues would end.

My last principle is one I mentioned in response to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell): get shot of the deference and the 13th century institutions, which are something like “Game of Thrones”. This is the 21st century, for goodness’ sake. We need our democracy and its institutions to reflect the age that we live in. Forelock tugging, curtseying and having lords, ladies, barons, dukes and earls is all nonsense—get rid of it. It is absolutely absurd and ridiculous. Let us have a modern functioning democratic Chamber that looks and feels like the community and society that we serve. If we can get that, we will be making real progress.

Those are my principles for how we should establish a new and democratic Chamber to look after legislation. As I said, it is not up to an oiky Back-Bench MP to try to suggest the model, although I am attracted to the idea of using the European electoral regions as a basis for an election by proportional representation, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith suggested, for the 200 or 250 Members we require.

I have been on my feet for half an hour, so I will finish. We are coming up to an election, and every time we do, manifestos are stuffed full of promises to reform the Lords. We have had it all before. The Labour party is the great reformer this time around. I listened carefully to the Leader of the Opposition setting out his stall in that respect a few short weeks ago. Do it this time. Just do it! Labour had 13 years in power. Although it made some progress when it got rid of the hereditaries, more is required.

I must say to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby that Labour has not been particularly good in its relationship with the House of Lords: it was the Labour party that oversaw cash for honours. If he has concerns about the House of Lords, particularly its bloated nature, the first thing that the hon. Gentleman might want to do is stop putting people in it. Just stop it! There is no need to make a bloated House even bigger. The Conservatives have different issues with and attitudes towards the House of Lords, so they will probably continue to put people in it, but the Labour party needs to stop stuffing that place full with more cronies and donors. That is the first thing that the Labour party should do demonstrate that this time it is serious about House of Lords reform.

I hope that, in the next Parliament, we can at last to make some real progress in ending this farce. It is a circus. It is not fit for purpose. It is anachronistic. It is ridiculous, absurd and bizarre. We need to ensure that it can do a proper job of scrutinising the activities of this House. Let us get rid of the whole shooting match and start again; let us put in place something that is fit for purpose and that the whole nation can be proud of.

2 thoughts on “Reforming the Lords

  1. Linda Rowan

    Listened to your speech with much head-nodding, many chuckles, and a great sense of pride that ‘one of ours’ is standing up to them.

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