Tory non-doms ditch the Lords but keep their titles. Shame on them

Good riddance, I say, to all slackers and tax avoiders.

The deadline by which members of the House of Lords had to become fully UK-resident for tax purposes passed last night.

Guess how many peers chose to quit the Lords rather than sacrifice their cherished non-domiciled tax status? Five. Lords Foster, Bagri, Laidlaw and McAlpine and Baroness Dunn. Most of them spend very little time in the UK, and even less time turning up to vote or speak in the upper chamber.

Three things worth noting:

1) Despite the fuss that the Tories tried to kick up over the multimillionaire Labour peer (and former deputy speaker of the Lords) Lord Paul, none of the five leaving the Lords is a Labour (or Lib Dem) peer. (Lord Paul also confirmed to me in an interview four months ago that he would be ending his non-dom status this year.) Three out of five (Bagri, Laidlaw and McAlpine) are Tories (the other two are cross-benchers); Laidlaw was one of the most important Tory donors, contributing £4m to the party's coffers.

2) Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' biggest donor and former deputy party chairman, whose "target seats" strategy failed to secure David Cameron a Commons majority, has confirmed that he is giving up his controversial non-dom status in order to stay on in the Lords.

3) It is "absurd", as Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, observes, that these five scampering peers are able to retain their titles (as lords and baroness). For once, I agree with the Daily Mail headline: "Why in the name of justice are peers who quit the Lords to avoid paying tax not stripped of their titles?"

But let's be honest: the debate over non-doms in the Lords is a distraction from the real issue, which is the upper chamber itself.

While I acknowledge that some life peers do hard work and make good contributions to legislative debates, the House of Lords is, in and of itself, an undemocratic, antediluvian, elitist anachronism.

If Nick Clegg and his Con-Dem coalition allies can, once and for all, rid this country of unelected peers and introduce a wholly elected second chamber, I for one will be eternally grateful to them.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.