We’ve all seen this week splashed across the media the cringe making and ignominious downfall of the buffoonish Peer Lord Sewel, now retired from the House of Lords in disgrace, for his (alleged) penchant for ladies’ underwear, recreational narcotics and women of dubious virtue.
It feels like a comedy romp, a sort of “Carry on Coronets” but it really does prompt some important and serious questions. Despite his hypocritical behaviour and conduct, Lord Sewel has belatedly done the right thing in resigning his (unelected) seat in the Lords.
David Cameron is certainly in tune with the British public in his view that House of Lords reform is not a big legislative priority. After all, various politicians have been kicking around proposals for some kind of reform of the upper house of our bicameral (two-part) Parliament since the Parliament Act of 1911 was passed – legislation which then put the upper chamber in its place as the inferior of the two Chambers in terms of authority and democratic legitimacy.
For my part, I didn’t meet any of my constituents whilst campaigning in the recent General Election who even mentioned House of Lords reform and certainly none upon whose vote it weighed as an issue. I actually voted against reforms in the last Parliament, not just because I’m a Conservative but also because the plans were ill thought out and impractical.
I now wonder if we can any longer defend leaving the Lords as it is – unelected, unaccountable, unrepresentative out of touch and the largest law making body in the world without any democratic mandate, other than the Peoples’ Congress of China, with nearly 800 members? After all, the Lords is part of our Constitutional architecture – its members make laws, scrutinise and delay Government legislation, interpret laws, hold the Queen’s Ministers to account. It certainly isn’t a joke – some kind of Downton Abbey theme park – but a place where talented, knowledgeable and serious people contribute to British political life, in a largely positive way.
That said, like the Monarchy, although unelected, it nevertheless relies on the tacit consent of the people to maintain its legitimate role as a revising and scrutinising Chamber. Scandal, dubious behaviour, lack of democratic accountability and antediluvian practices (like “signing in” for a per diem payment of £300 a day perhaps?) will merely reduce that authority and prestige.
It’s clear the House of Lords cannot remain as it is in a modern and mature (and less deferential) country like the UK and that we maybe need to move to a smaller more accountable chamber – perhaps of (say) 400 Peers – half elected and half appointed.
I don’t know what the answer is but it’s certainly time we had a debate before the whole edifice is washed away by righteous indignation.