Belfast Telegraph

Laird's getting his money's worth in quest for answers

By Tom Moseley

He might be out on his ear if the Government ever gets round to reforming the House of Lords. But, in the meantime, Lord Laird is getting his money's worth.

The former Ulster Unionist MP tables six questions every day - the maximum allowed - and thinks his total number has now passed 15,000.

That might be an exaggeration, but based on Lords' records, he's probably passed 12,000, putting him head and shoulders above his nearest rival as the chief questioner, and he is thought to have topped the table for the last 10 years.

To put his efforts in context, he accounted for almost a third of the written responses in Thursday's Hansard. There are more than 800 members of the House of Lords.

The target of many of his inquiries is the Northern Ireland Office - he's convinced staff there have a nickname for him, though he wouldn't tell me what it was. When we spoke he was proud of his efforts.

"I'm trying to help the Northern Ireland Office with their policy of transparency," he says, not entirely seriously.

"The only problem is, they don't seem to see it that way."

His questions range from persistent probing about officials' pay to the sort of detailed inquiry that will take hours to answer.

Civil servants have estimated the cost of each written question at £149 - meaning our man's investigations have cost the taxpayer in the region of £2m.

Still, he insists: "If you compare the money I've saved the Government with the amount it's cost, I come out dramatically in favour."

The role of the upper chamber was back in the spotlight last week, with ministers muttering about unelected bishops defeating their Bills and 'Sir' Fred Goodwin losing his knighthood while jailed peers cannot be expelled.

It's against the backdrop of Nick Clegg's attempts to transform the House of Lords, which are currently being debated by a parliamentary committee.

Among the proposals is creating a Lords that is at least 80% elected. One interesting suggestion would see a chamber split evenly between the UK's constituent countries.

That would mean a rapid increase in the number of Northern Ireland-born peers, currently standing around the 25-mark.

Finding a consensus will be tricky but ridding us of the scandal of 92 hereditary peers who survive would be a start.

It's not yet known how much of the Lords would become elected under the changes.

But staff at the Northern Ireland Office might breathe a sigh of relief if they were to claim the place of Baron Laird of Artigarvan.

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