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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