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A Scandal At The Heart Of Westminster

22/09/2017 13:50
POOL New / Reuters

Don't you just hate it when do-nothing couch potatoes claim thousands of pounds of tax-payers' money, simply because they think they have somehow deserved it?

Doesn't it make you sick when benefits scroungers milk the system for all they're worth, pocketing tens of thousands of pounds each when schools, hospitals, police and fire services are hit with year after year of budget cuts?

Thank goodness people like that are kept far away from the levers of political power - just imagine how they'd move heaven and earth to protect their privileges if they were given half a chance.

Except, of course, that they are in fact slap bang at the centre of political power, because they are members of the House of Lords, which means that they help decide which laws govern our nation - and can block any attempt to cut back on their privileges.

Here's a quote from Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, which has just published a report in which he says: 'We're witnessing an "expenses free-for-all" in the Mother of All Parliaments, with expenses claims soaring by 20% in just two years.

'The figures are stark. 115 Lords - one in seven of the total - failed to speak at all in the 2016/17 session, yet still claimed an average of £11,091 each, while 18 peers failed to vote while claiming £93,162. And most peers (58%) now claim more than the average full-time Brit's take-home pay - for what is essentially a part-time role.'

Now, it's important to be fair about this. Some peers do extremely good work in committees and elsewhere, even if they rarely speak or vote in the chamber itself. According to a spokesman for the House of Lords: 'This research ignores members' contributions including amending legislation, asking the government written questions and serving on select committees - more than 320 members served on committees in the last session of parliament - as well as parliamentary work away from the chamber.'

Which is - sort of - fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far. Members of the House of Lords can claim £300 per day - that's up to £6,000 a month if they clock in every weekday - just by turning up and signing in. Some are reported to keep the taxi running outside while they do so.

If something similar existed anywhere else in the world, it would be called a travesty of democracy. The House of Lords currently has 798 members (the House of Commons has 650 members, which is itself far too many), and unbelievably, there are still ninety members (the 'hereditary peers') who are there because of who their forebears were - think of them, if you like, as tribal chiefs. Twenty-five are there because they are bishops of the Church of England.

You will not be surprised to learn that only a quarter of the members are women - and the median age of all members of the House of Lords, according to the latest available figures, is 69.

These are the people who sit in our parliament. They make our laws, they approve government legislation (although occasionally, they refuse to approve, so watch what happens when they start voting against some of Mrs May's Brexit plans) - and in my view, given that not a single one of them has been elected, they lack any form of legitimacy.

Many parliamentary democracies have a second chamber, usually as a way of checking, revising and amending laws that are passed by a lower chamber. Nothing necessarily wrong with that - although New Zealand, Denmark, and Sweden have all abolished their second chambers and seem to manage pretty well with just one. (A referendum in Ireland four years ago to get rid of their upper house was only narrowly defeated.)

I think we do need a second chamber, and I think its members should be directly elected, with no party affiliation, for a single term of ten years. There should be the same number as there are in the House of Commons, they should be paid a salary and they should be expected to work full-time.

Surely, it's time to move beyond this absurd notion that passing laws is something that gentlemen (and a smattering of gentlewomen) can do in their spare time, in between running their businesses and wining and dining in their clubs.

In the words of Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society: 'From lobby-fodder Lords only turning up to claim and vote, to couch-potato peers rarely turning up at all, the situation in the second chamber is a scandal.'

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