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Black Rod's weakness

Observations on the second chamber

On 30 April, having neatly folded his black tights, popped his white frills in the wash, spit-polished his gold chain and presumably burned his ill-fitting schoolboy shorts, Sir Michael Willcocks retired from his role as that obscure parliamentary superhero, the Black Rod. His replacement will step into his buckled shoes to find his powers halved, thanks to the new department of facilities, which takes responsibility for works, accommodation, facilities and “refreshment services”.

So while Carl Woodall, the first director general of facilities, ensures that the bishops have enough Irn-Bru, Sir Freddie Viggers, the new Black Rod, will be responsible solely for security and order. Though he still gets to dress ridiculously all year round.

But what Black Rod cannot do is impose sanctions on peers who, like those shamed by the Sunday Times this year, are willing to offer amendments for cash. Nor can the director of facilities, the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the Lords. Nor, of course, can the electorate.

There is an archaic system of self-regulation in the Lords, apparently based on the belief that gentlemen with titles will always know how to behave themselves. Even the Lord Speaker, perched on her woolsack, is powerless to interrupt during debates in the Chamber.

The prospect of a properly reformed House of Lords is getting no closer. So it seems strange to be pulling the attack teeth out of one of its few officials not also a member of the Chamber.

While the Commons is scrutinised and condemned for its suspect expenses culture, the Lords has become a ticking bomb. Peers are paid only through an elaborate expenses system with insufficiently rigorous checks – that same reliance upon the honour of gentlemen.

It seems self-evident that the Lords should be regulated by an impartial disciplinary body; preferably one that does not fear reprisals from any government it chooses not to support. The peers put in charge of investigating their own have found two, Lords Taylor and Truscott, guilty of misconduct. But the subcommittee reports to another committee, also made up of peers. Their recommendations must then be put to the vote of the whole House. At the end of this extended process of self-criticism, the worst that can happen to peers found guilty of taking bribes to change the law is that they may be suspended. For one year. It’s time to call the dentist. Someone in our second chamber needs a new set of teeth.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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David Cameron's speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.