Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hogwarts for peers?

The British House of Lords is rarely a topic of serious political discussion except when it comes to reforms. It's probably worth the few minutes it takes to read Stephen Castle's report in The New York Times.

Growth Spurt Creates Alarm Over the House of (Many) Lords
Well-attended Lords session
It seems unlikely that the members of the House of Lords would refer to their assembly as the world’s greatest deliberative body, as United States senators do, or used to anyway. The British are more given to self-deprecation. But there is a superlative that does apply, one that Britain’s politicians have been trying to shed: the world’s largest legislative body outside China, and growing.

An explosion of numbers is causing alarm in the assembly’s richly decorated, red-carpeted corridors, occupied by members who these days are less likely to be aristocrats with country estates than political hacks or ex-ministers.

After the latest influx this summer, the House of Lords has 836 members… 781 have the right to revise or delay legislation, question ministers and take part in debates…

Because the Lords can delay or amend legislation… governments tend to add new members, or peers, to create a majority. The prime minister can alter the political balance by nominating more candidates than other party leaders. (Nominees go through an appointments panel before being appointed by the queen.)

“If we get larger and larger, we look really stupid and the case for reform becomes greater and greater,” said George Foulkes, a peer and former minister from the opposition Labour Party who wants to restrict numbers to 450…

Other concerns, he said, include cramped office space, limited travel budgets for official trips, restricted speaking time and occasional difficulties cramming into a chamber built for 500.

“People complain that you can’t book a table in the restaurant,” said John Monks, a Labour peer from Manchester, referring to the Lords’ grand dining hall with waiter service. Mr. Monks, who was once the country’s top trade union boss, says he happily eats in the self-service cafeteria.

It is little wonder people like it here. The House of Lords provides a public platform without the inconvenience of elections. The position is unsalaried, but peers can claim up to 300 pounds a day, nearly $500, tax free for attending (while holding other jobs). They get a title, a desk in a historic palace, free parking in central London and access to the Bishops’ Bar, a members-only, wood-paneled establishment…

[W]hatever government is in power finds the House of Lords to be an enormous convenience, whether for political payoffs or for the publicity value of appointing a particularly popular or deserving commoner. In the absence of measures to restrain its growth, the numbers are going to grow.

“We are on the path to escalation,” added Olly Grender, a new peer and former spin doctor for the Liberal Democrats. “It is pretty obvious that it must be possible to run a revising chamber without having more than 700 people to do it.”…

But he described his first impression, when he arrived and was shown his official coat peg at the entrance, as a “Hogwarts moment,” reminiscent of the Harry Potter series. “It’s the only place I come where I am younger than the average age,” added Mr. Monks, 68.

'Half of Lords' clock in to claim expenses
Half the members of the House of Lords clock in and out of Parliament for a few minutes a day in order to claim a £300 daily attendance allowance, a former Conservative peer has said.

Lord Hanningfield made the claim when challenged to explain his own attendance record.

The Daily Mirror alleges on 11 of 19 occasions he attended the Lords in July he spent less than 40 minutes there...
He said he spent half of the £300 daily fee on expenses and so did not really make any profit. He was a full-time peer who needed the money to pay his electricity bills and buy food, he said...
Lord Hanningfield, a former leader of Essex County Council, claimed £5,700 in total for his 19 days of attendance during July and the Mirror reports his shortest attendance that month was 21 minutes...

There are currently 779 "eligible" members of the House of Lords. More than 40 other peers have taken a "leave of absence" for health or professional reasons, meaning they cannot attend.

In 2011, Lord Hanningfield served nine weeks of a nine-month sentence for parliamentary expenses fraud totalling nearly £14,000...

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