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Lord Bew: strip peers over 75 of daily allowance

Published 02/08/2015

Lord Sewel has resigned from the House of Lords
Lord Sewel has resigned from the House of Lords

Peers aged 75 or older should be stripped of their right to a £300 daily allowance for attending the House of Lords, the chair of Westminster's sleaze watchdog has said.

Pressure to reform Parliament's Upper House has increased since the resignation of Lord Sewel in the wake of drug and prostitution allegations, as well as reports that some peers are claiming allowances without contributing to debates.

The controversy is expected to be fuelled further by the imminent appointment by David Cameron of a significant number of new Conservative peers, in a move which he has indicated is designed to redress the political balance in the Lords but which will further swell the ranks of the 790-strong assembly.

Senior Labour peer Lord Soley has called for rule changes to allow Lords to be suspended immediately when scandals break.

In a letter to Lord Speaker Baroness D'Souza, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party said Sewel's much-delayed resignation showed the need for a method of "imposing a quick suspension of a member" as well as a general rule against bringing the House into disrepute.

The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, said peers aged 75 or over should lose their daily allowance. While his proposals would mean older Lords retaining their titles and their right to travel expenses if they wish to speak in the Chamber, it would end a system under which they can "clock in" to claim the allowance without having to show they have carried out any parliamentary work.

Following reports that 20 "silent peers" had been paid a total of £1.6 million in the last five years while taking little part in debates, Lord Bew told the Sunday Telegraph: "If it is true that people are not contributing and just taking their money and behaving in a totally non-instrumental fashion, then this should solve the problem.

"The public would have a cheaper House of Lords but also preserve what is of value to the public.

"This is the moment for reform. If the House just sits there and does nothing and just allows itself to swell... then it will become more expensive and the case for the House of Lords actually deteriorates."

Lord Bew, who stressed that the proposal was his alone and not a recommendation from the Standards Committee, said there was "no question" that the Sewel affair would be seen by the public as "the re-emergence of sleaze in Parliament".

Lord Sewel, who was deputy speaker of the Lords and chaired a committee which oversees peers' conduct, resisted pressure to quit for several days after the publication of film apparently showing him taking cocaine with prostitutes - quitting only after police had raided his London flat as part of a drug investigation.

In his letter, Lord Soley said the affair had highlighted the inability of the Upper House to act when a peer is caught misbehaving.

He told the Speaker: " The damage done to the reputation of the Lords could have been less if we had been able to suspend Lord Sewel as soon as the story broke. That change can and should be made. It is what any other organisation would have done."

Lord Soley added: "We should also bring in a more general rule of 'bringing the House into disrepute'. This has been considered and rejected in the past.

"I think we should now review that decision."

Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil challenged Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and the four candidates for the Labour leadership to pledge that their parties will not take up any new seats in the Lords until there is legislation to reform or abolish the Upper House.

Mr MacNeil said: "The public are growing more and more concerned with the cost of Parliament and David Cameron plans on expanding the House of Lords to over 1,000 members. This will do nothing for public finances or public confidence.

"Those who believe that our representatives should be democratically elected should not be adding to their contingent in the unelected House."

He added: "The SNP do not take up seats in the House of Lords because we do not see unelected legislators as a form of democratic governance.

"It is clear that the place is now beyond reform and should be reconstituted on firm democratic principles. Both Labour and the Lib Dems claim to be parties that champion this cause. Now they have a concrete opportunity to show that they are prepared to act on it."

The former chairman of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Labour MP Graham Allen, said Parliament should "seize the opportunity" offered by the Sewel scandal to move to a democratic Second Chamber. He urged Labour leadership candidates to back his call.

Mr Allen told Sky News: "The Lords is illegitimate, it is not elected, and - with the crisis that we have in our democracy, where people hold politics in contempt - this is an opportunity to say we need to have a Second Chamber that is elected, so that the people of the United Kingdom as a whole can decide who is in that Second Chamber."

He added: "We have a modern democracy in some parts, but I am afraid other parts of our democracy are very antiquated - they certainly wouldn't fly in many other Western democracies. I think the sloth with which the Lords have been able to act demonstrates that.

"There should be immediate capability of the House of Lords to get rid of someone who has clearly transgressed in the way that Lord Sewel appears to have transgressed."

Mr Allen said members of a reformed Upper House should be "paid properly", rather than receiving a £300 daily allowance.

"Giving people a few quid for showing up at the odd meeting is not the way to run a democracy," he said. "You need professional, well-trained people with integrity who ultimately can always be held to account at the ballot box."

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