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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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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.