Thursday 25 April 2019 was a sunny spring day in Westminster. Environmental activists from the Extinction Rebellion movement were glueing themselves together in a chain in front of the Treasury and blocking roads across central London. Inside the Palace of Westminster, however, the old order was in stubborn flow. The Lord Baron Palmer, an aristocrat and hereditary peer, was regaling his colleagues with a description of an exceptionally good breakfast. “My best memory of all was, after a very early start, we had the best breakfast I have ever had in the Fishmongers’ Hall having been to Billingsgate Market,” he told the House of Lords chamber, reminiscing about an apparently happy time spent on a fisheries sub-committee in 2007-10.
The anecdote featured in his only contribution to a debate from April 2019 onwards. Prior to that, he had spoken only twice before in 2019 – once to suggest recolonising Zimbabwe. He did not sit on any Lords select committees, and voted in only six of the 51 listed divisions from April 2019 to February 2020.
Nevertheless Adrian Bailie Nottage Palmer – one of 92 hereditary peers in the upper chamber – signed in 108 times out of the 113 sitting days in that period. He collected £30,361 in attendance fees – peers can claim a flat rate of £323 a day – and a further £8,967 in travel expenses to get to and from the House. For speaking just 518 words in one debate, it is a decent fee for even the greatest orator, at £76 a word. (Even so, in a 2009 debate on salaries, Palmer called the then proposed payment limit of £200 a day “derisory” and “an utter insult”.)
His lordship is not alone. According to New Statesman analysis of official expenses data for the 2019-20 financial year, running from April 2019 to February 2020, two other hereditary peers – the Earl of Shrewsbury, and Lord Astor of Hever – claimed more than £30,000 for speaking in four or fewer debates, sitting on no committees and voting less than half the time, despite attending 100 days or more in the same period.
Two additional hereditary peers – the Earl of Liverpool and Lord Rotherwick – claimed attendance expenses despite taking part in no debates, sitting on no committees and voting less than half the time.
The average hereditary peer claimed £20,604 (including travel expenses) for speaking in ten or fewer debates over the 113-day period, submitting six or fewer written questions, and voting 22 times out of the 51 possible votes. Roughly half sat on a committee.
Life peers also appear guilty of expensive inaction. Our data analysis found on average that they claimed £20,935 from April 2019 to February 2020, contributed to 12 debates, produced seven written questions and voted 23 times. Fewer than half sat on a committee.
Three life peers claimed more than £29,000 in attendance fees and travel expenses for attending no debates, sitting on no committees and voting in less than half the listed divisions in that period, despite signing in for more than 90 days: Lord Paul, Lord Hameed, Lord MacKenzie of Culkein. (Parliamentary data does not reveal an individual’s circumstances, however, and the New Statesman has contacted all peers named in this report to provide context.)
“There are plenty of ways of making a contribution other than speaking in the chamber, and not everyone can serve on a select committee – too many peers and too few opportunities,” says Alan Haworth, a Labour life peer who served on a joint bill committee in 2019 and votes the majority of the time, but did not speak in a debate during the period we analysed. “It is quite true that I don’t make a big habit of speaking in the chamber,” he says. “Lots of members are too fond of hearing their own voices, and I am a bit more restrained. I speak when I have something to say.”
Haworth, who lives in the Scottish Highlands, says travel expenses skew higher for peers who live a long way from London than the disproportionate number of those who live in the south-east or East Anglia (55 per cent, according to the Electoral Reform Society). Yet the cost and slack shown by our data reveal a broken institution.
Lord Palmer, 68, lives on the Manderston House estate in Berwickshire, Scotland, a grand 109-room Edwardian family pile. Its architect in the early 1900s was told the construction budget for the building “didn’t matter”. Palmer became a member of the House of Lords when his uncle died and he inherited the barony in 1990.
Despite being the pinnacle of undemocratic representation in parliament, 92 hereditary peers survived the Blair-era reforms of the 1999 House of Lords Act, which cut more than 600 titled members. These 92, elected from among themselves, were retained on a supposedly temporary basis until further stages of reform, which never arrived. Those not chosen were placed on the Register of Hereditary Peers, from which current Lords can select a new hereditary peer when somebody dies or retires. This by-election system for vacant posts means that the only elected positions in the Lords are in fact hereditary.
Of the current 800 members, most are life peers – political appointments intended to bring a range of expertise to the process of legislative scrutiny. In reality, nearly four in ten Lords had previously worked in politics, according to Electoral Reform Society analysis. There are also 26 bishops in the Lords; New Statesman data analysis shows they sat for only 20 days, spoke in eight debates, and voted four times, on average.
The Conservatives hold 30 per cent of peerages. The second largest grouping are crossbenchers, at 24 per cent. Labour hold 23 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats 12 per cent.
The cost of running the Lords in 2018-19 was £117.4m, up from £99m in 2017-18, according to the Institute for Government. A large part of this increase was a 27 per cent rise in peers’ allowances to £23.4m, caused chiefly by the House sitting on more days.
Remuneration in the House is simple: sign in, receive £323 a day. Peers can choose to claim half the rate, or forego it entirely. The allowance rose from £313 in April this year, just as Covid-19 moved towards its peak, though in May it was announced that it would be capped at £162 while business is conducted remotely. It has since been reported that those on committees will receive the full day rate from September, even for virtual proceedings. In normal times, those living outside Greater London can, and do, claim for attendance-related travel.
Between April last year and this February, a total of 140 peers – not including those who retired – took part in no debates. While some were no doubt doing valuable work on committees, the majority had no such responsibilities. Neither could they reasonably claim to have participated by listening and voting rather than speaking: on average, those 140 peers voted ten times out of a possible 51. For 48 of the 140, there is no record of them voting at all.
Already the biggest parliamentary chamber of any democracy, and the world’s second largest after the Chinese People’s Congress, the House of Lords will swell to 830 members with the creation of 36 new peerages announced by Boris Johnson on 31 July. The Prime Minister’s elevation of friends, supporters and Brexit provocateurs – including his brother Jo Johnson, Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev, former cricketer Ian Botham, and libertarian Brexiteer and former Revolutionary Communist Party agitator Claire Fox – are among the second-highest number of new peers created in over two decades. These new peers are likely to cost taxpayers £1.1m a year, according to Electoral Reform Society analysis.
Johnson is, of course, not the first prime minister to pack the upper chamber with a motley crew of stooges and sympathisers. Yet his leadership, steered by chief aide Dominic Cummings, is supposed to be about “levelling up” and challenging the status quo – not bolstering it.
“He seems to have ticked almost every box in terms of cronyism,” says Dr Hannah White, an expert on parliament at the Institute for Government. “But lots of other governments have done the same.”
Yet Johnson has manipulated the system so shamelessly that even senior Tory members are shocked. The Lord Speaker Norman Fowler, a veteran of Margaret Thatcher’s government, accused Johnson of encouraging “passengers” in the Lords who “don’t make much effort”.
“Most of us in the House of Lords are unimpressed with it and it is not necessary,” Fowler told the BBC on 1 August. “We have very important duties to carry out in terms of the governance of this country but we don’t need 830 people to do it.”
Outrage at Johnson’s list could even tug at the fraying thread of Lords reform. “There needs to be urgent action to constrain the prime minister’s appointment power – it is one of the last vestiges of absolute prerogative power that lies in his hands,” says Professor Meg Russell, director of the Constitution Unit at University College London (UCL) and a specialist on second chambers.
Despite nearly halving the House’s size when he cut hereditary peerages, Tony Blair began filling the Lords with Labour figures – 203 “Tony’s Cronies” in his first term alone – to rebalance the historically Conservative chamber. “When Blair took over, it was after Thatcher appointed huge numbers of peers and Labour was greatly disadvantaged,” says Russell. “This tit-for-tat is why you need a rational agreement on what the party share should be, based on some sort of electoral logic.”
On 1 May 2018, the Daily Mail’s front page railed against a “HOUSE OF UNELECTED WRECKERS”. Peers had just defeated the government for the seventh time on Brexit, passing a cross-party amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill allowing MPs a “meaningful vote”.The Sun called peers “a cancer eating away at our democracy”, and Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg MP tweeted the hashtag: “#PeersagainstthePeople”.
The House of Lords flexed its scrutinising muscle during the Article 50 and Withdrawal Bill wrangling of 2017-18. The measured tone of some of its experts contrasted with rows across the corridor in the Commons. “We have wonderful debates, because they know what they’re talking about,” the former Speaker and cross-bench peer Betty Boothroyd told the New Statesman in July 2019.
Left-liberal opposition has gathered momentum in the Lords since 2015. For the first time in history, the chamber had enough Labour appointees from the New Labour years, and Lib Dem appointees from the period of the coalition government, to pursue a more progressive agenda.
Its defeat of George Osborne’s proposal to cut tax credits in 2015 infuriated the government – even provoking the abortive Strathclyde Review into curbing peers’ powers. Since then, the Lords has also fought on behalf of social housing residents, refugee children, trade unions and disability benefit claimants. In 2017, the Mirror described it as “an outdated, anarchic, unrepresentative institution we’d be lost without”.
“Labour historically has been hostile to the House of Lords, and yet it is now the chamber at Westminster where it has the best chance of influencing policy,” says Russell. This is in spite of Conservative domination of the upper house. In the past decade, Labour peers have declined by 32, and Conservative peers have grown by 72. When Labour was last in office, it had a lead of 22 peers, compared with the present Conservative lead of 82.
In the weeks before Boris Johnson announced the UK’s official coronavirus lockdown on 23 March, members of the House of Lords had begun gingerly elbowing each other in greeting instead of shaking hands. The majority of members are over 70 and are vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19. As the pandemic hastens workplace modernisation and forces parliament into the technological age, our oldest and most archaic institution is also the most exposed to the disease.
The UK constitution is heading for a grand reckoning – shaken to its crumbling rafters by Brexit gridlocks, the looming prospect of Scottish independence and the end of the Union, and an inevitable border in the Irish Sea. Will the House of Lords also reach breaking point?
Boris Johnson is unlikely to prioritise Lords reform, yet he may be forced to. “I doubt this government is going to do it as an end in itself; I think it would have to be the answer to a different question – the answer to ‘levelling up’ or keeping the union together,” says Hannah White.
To appease the Scottish government without granting a second independence referendum if the SNP win a majority in the 2021 Holyrood elections, White said, one option could be to propose a new “second chamber of regions and nations” – something similar to Germany’s federal Bundesrat. But second chamber reform, so often on the agenda of bicameral democracies – including Australia, Canada and France – seldom succeeds.
“We think ‘funny old House of Lords’, made up in this bizarre way that nobody else has, and therefore we think is illegitimate and terrible,” says Professor Russell of UCL’s constitution unit. “But actually these debates are quite common across the world, and difficult to resolve. There are always people who benefit from the system who will defend the system.”
This House must fall? It seems not yet, at least.
This article appears in the 12 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall