Lords’ Expenses: A Gordian Knot

The sordid tale of Lord Sewel has led to media scrutiny of peers who allegedly abuse the Lords’ expenses system. Journalists and pundits have been quick to point the finger at peers who claim expenses even though they don’t vote, but the issue of peers’ remuneration is something of a Gordian Knot, and it’s unlikely to be cut any time soon.

Members of the House of Lords don’t receive a salary unless they hold office in the House (e.g., the Lord Speaker). This is a holdover from the days when all parliamentary service was voluntary. MPs first received a salary in 1911, but peers didn’t receive any money for their parliamentary work until 1957. Today, peers can claim a tax-free allowance of £300 for each day they attend the House of Lords. Those who live outside of London can also claim reimbursement for their travel expenses.

All one has to do to claim the attendance allowance is ‘clock in’ with the clerks at the Table, which has led to accusations that some peers simply show up, stay for 15 minutes, then leave after pocketing £300. The Electoral Reform Society (which campaigns for a fully elected House of Lords) published a pamphlet claiming that, in the last Parliament, “£360,000 was claimed by 62 peers for years they did not vote even once.”

The implication is that these peers swindled the taxpayer, but using votes as the litmus test of a peer’s parliamentary worth is problematic. It doesn’t take into account the other ways that a peer can contribute to the House, such as speaking in debates, asking questions of Ministers, or serving on committees. Also, there are peers who speak regularly but rarely vote, and it’s wrong to dismiss their contributions to Parliament out of hand just because they don’t trudge through the division lobby. On the flip side, I’m sure there are peers who only show up when the division bell rings, and I’m not sure I’d call them ideal parliamentarians!

It’s important to remember that peers are not necessarily professional politicians. Many of them are men and women who have been appointed because their day job gives them unique experience that can aid the legislative process. This may mean they have less time for Parliament, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if they can bring valuable insights to Westminster.

A system that lets you receive money for clocking in may seem like a skiver’s paradise, but it’s hard to envision an alternative that’s workable within the confines of the present system. You could demand that peers stay for the entire sitting in order to qualify for their £300, but peers could always spend the whole time playing Angry Birds on their phones. You could insist that peers take part in a certain number of debates/ask a certain number of Ministerial questions, but that that could lead to prolonged, repetitious debates. As flawed as the current system is, it’s probably the lesser of all the evils.

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