If anything underlines the need for House of Lords reform it is the revelation that peers who haven’t even spoken in the House for a year have claimed nearly £1.3m in expenses.
The findings, released by the Electoral Reform Society, show that 115 lords failed to speak at all in the 2016-17 session yet still claimed an average £11,091 each. And 18 others didn’t even vote yet claimed £93,162. Now that’s taking the peers.
No wonder the House of Lords is the second-largest chamber in the world with around 800 members, when you get to claim up to £300 per day tax free, plus expenses, for turning up and doing diddly squat. And where most peers claim more than the average full-time take-home pay for just turning up to an essentially part time job.
It’s like a mechanic swanning into the garage at midday with a Marks and Spencer’s luxury range lunch – claimed on expenses – before sitting down to munch contentedly while watching his colleagues graft over a big end (or something). If you’re lucky he might throw in the occasional encouraging comment – if he can be bothered to speak at all – before clocking out at three and getting an expenses-paid taxi home to a pay check for £300. Not a bad day’s work if you can get it. (Actually I’ve seen some mechanics whose working day looked disturbingly similar to that, but you get my point.)
You’d think they’d have some shame (peers, not mechanics) but it only seems to be getting worse, with Lords’ expense claims soaring 20 per cent in the last two years. That’s two years in which the rest of us have had to suffer austerity and public pay freezes.
John Bercow’s point last week that the House of Lords should be cut in half has never been more relevant. Hopefully the results of a committee report on the size of the Lords, published next month, will go some way to doing just that.
But it won’t be far enough. The House of Lords needs to be completely overhauled from top to fat bottom. A democratically elected body is an absolute must but we should go further even than that. We need an upper house that holds the lower to account and properly scrutinises its decisions in a rational, scientific and non-partisan way.
To do that, specific expertise is required across a host of areas which could inform and steer debate. We should have a House of Lords that is made up not of hereditary members, life members or “spiritual” members; it shouldn’t even contain a single politician.
Instead the House should be made up of a group of experts in their fields, covering all the scientific, environmental, social, economic, political, legal and other areas that could possibly be affected by proposed legislation. These new lords would be elected by their peers from within their particular fields of expertise, thus ensuring a legislative body that has real teeth, real knowledge and near-as-dammit objectivity.
In this way new legislation would receive the proper scrutiny it deserves. And not only would our laws benefit but we would have an upper house made up of real professionals – people who actually deserve their place there. We need them to really start earning their bread, even if it is Marks and Spencer’s luxury stone-baked focaccia.