Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Lord Laird scandal adds to clamour for House of Lords reform

Lord Laird
Lord Laird

The Committee for Privileges and Conduct dates back to the early-17th Century. Its job is to regulate the behaviour of the House of Lords and, unfortunately, it has never been as busy as it is now.

The committee considers issues "which affect the privileges of the House, or of its members", but, in recent years, it has spent more time investigating numerous breaches of conduct.

Since May, it has published 10 reports on the undignified actions of various peers, most of them the result of newspaper investigations that show members of the Upper House willing to enter into all sorts of questionable commercial arrangements. Such is the scale of misbehaviour that five reports were published on Monday alone.

The committee's 10th report of this session concerns Ulster Unionist Lord Laird (below). It makes for unedifying reading.

Lord Laird referred himself to the Commissioner for Standards after Sunday Times journalists, pretending to work for a South Korean solar energy investor, caught him on tape offering parliamentary services in return for payment.

When the commissioner ruled against him and recommended suspension, he appealed to the committee. With almost admirable self-belief, Lord Laird claimed there was no evidence that payment was mentioned and said the commissioner was "prejudiced" against him.

As you would expect from the Lords, their committee consists of many notable persons. They include former Archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames, two former Lord Chancellors, former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke and Baroness Scotland, who has served as Attorney General for both England and Wales and Northern Ireland.

The eminence of the committee makes their judgment on Lord Laird all the more stark.

"The commissioner correctly found that Lord Laird attempted to negotiate an agreement with the undercover Sunday Times journalists, which would have involved him providing parliamentary services in return for payment or other reward," the grandees concluded. Lord Laird is to be suspended from the House of Lords for four months.

In many ways, these sorry, small and insignificant scandals demonstrate the best and worst of the Lords.

On the one hand, many lifetimes of public service and expertise are represented by the committee. On the other, some peers bring embarrassment to the House and opprobrium on the political system.

Tory MPs who blocked reform of the Lords earlier in this parliament did so because they thought an elected upper House would challenge the Commons.

The Lords do, indeed, challenge the lower House – but only in terms of sleaze.

There is still time to sweep a broom through the Lords. The solution has already been worked out by David Steel, the former Liberal leader.

His Bill, which peers approved in 2012, cuts the membership of the House, which currently stands at 779, and forces the resignation of any peers who fail to attend, or are convicted of crimes.

Hopefully, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will take heed and bring it to the Commons. Steel's Bill empowers the vast majority of good peers to get rid of colleagues who bring shame on politics.

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