[Image: yahoo.co.uk. After leaving Labour this year, Lord Alan Sugar is actually a model example of what a peer should be: independent, discerning and fluffy]
The House of Lords is the latest victim of Cameron’s determined democracy depletion. Luckily for him, not a lot of people actually know what the House of Lords does, so this issue won’t make it to the front page any time soon. Hands up, I didn’t remember exactly what the House of Lords were for either. I was happily living under the assumption that they were just more old rich people like Alan Sugar, but with less successful catchphrases (so far). My memory of what a Lord (or peer) could do was so smothered in a fudgy layer of dust that I had to throw it away and make a new one. Care to join me?
So: the House of Lords is supposed to be an affable bunch of independent experts without political affiliations, designed to give valuable criticism to new bills. I now picture them as earnest tweed-swathed professors peering over their reading glasses, examining laws for any practical issues but also tutting at the odd grammatical error and underlining in red. Their expertise shouldn’t be in politics, but in medicine or environmental science for example, so they can fill in the details of new bills with all their hard-earned wisdom and knowledge. The Lords must be independent, because otherwise they’ll vote however their party tells them to, rather than from their own unique perspective. Peers are there to hold the government to account, and give them a metaphorical clip round the ear if need be. The House of Lords can definitely be a useful part of the process in terms of polishing up a new bill to get it ready for action, if the right people were appointed for the right reasons. All sounds cushty then, right?
Not quite. The number of political peers is rising like damp, and this is gloomy news indeed. Political peers tend to vote in party blocs, undermining the need for them to be clever or even conscious autonomous beings. In fact, you could probably save money on expenses by launching a new wave of Lord-simulating robots. Here’s a fun fact: between 1999 and 2009, Tory peers voted against the Labour government in 97% of votes, and between 2010 and 2015, Labour peers voted against the Tory government in 99% of votes. A large chunk of this House is being used as a stick to hit other parties with, under the orders of party whips. It seems that peers are being appointed not because they’re able to constructively challenge the government, but because they’re obedient. Who’s a good Lord, hmm? Peer want a cracker?
Over the past 5 years, the Prime Minister has appointed 236 new peers, and only 8 of them have been non-political.
The House of Lords has wilted to merely an echo in the room, rather than part of the conversation. Yet again, with this year’s new influx of peers it seems Mr Cameron has been indulging in a spot of Pin the Lordship on the Patron. One of the new peers is Kate Fall, the Prime Minister’s Deputy Chief of Staff and old buddy from Oxford. Shucks, it’s difficult to see how she’s independent or an expert. That’s a shame, considering that those are the two main requirements. Another new peer is millionaire Tory party donor James Lupton, who is living evidence that money can buy you political power. I doubt he’ll be challenging any of the government’s actions, seeing as he voluntarily funds the government’s actions. My personal favourite of the new peers is disgraced expenses-cheating ex-MP Douglas Hogg, who used taxpayer’s money to clean out his moat. He’s a jammy one, isn’t he? He gets a slap on the wrist for bad manners (but a secret gold star for his swagger).
Why would you appoint such dodgy characters? They must be just really nice guys to have around. Really warm, friendly and charismatic, always asking after your family, remembers your kids’ names. Just all round great guys. Not sure they’d be great peers though. The House of Lords needs to be full of bright sparks that might oppose bills for reasons that aren’t political, otherwise they’re not adding anything. If you’re a Labour peer and you always votes against Tory bills, then you may as well not even bother reading them. That isn’t scrutiny. Peers’ votes need to be informed by their expertise so it can nourish new bills or policies. The most valuable power that the House of Lords has is informed scrutiny, and Cameron is siphoning off the fuel for this power by replacing experts with Yes Men. He’s not the first Prime Minister to do so, but he is the first to appoint political peers on this scale.
Here’s the problem: this is stifling opposition and proper debate, and could lead to new laws being rushed through that only benefit a small slice of society (like David Cameron’s mates), and disadvantage the rest.
The Prime Minister should be stripped of the power to pick new peers and sent to his room to think about what he’s done. Choosing peers should be left to an independent advisory board, a politically neutral commission that recommends clever folk to be nominated. Luckily this already exists, and it’s appropriately named the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Phew! That was straight forward. Appointing new Lords should be left entirely to these guys, so this House can regain the dignity it once had in challenging new laws to be better. I want more peers who’ll throw in the odd passive aggressive question mark in the margin of a bill, and less Lords skipping to the end and drawing a big tick and a smiley face, pretty please.
Now, if the world would just bend to my every will, that’d be smashing, thanks.