Bill Carmichael: Scandal shows we’re peerless at sleaze

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Now that’s what I call a proper scandal – a member of the House of Lords, chairman of the conduct committee no less, allegedly snorting cocaine off the breast of a prostitute with a rolled up £5 note.

Marvellous – and of course quintessentially British. And remember, if the sour faced puritans of the Hacked Off crowd had their way and newspapers had to be licensed by the government, you’d never have the pleasure of reading such entertaining filth again.

Is there a “public interest”? You bet there is! Before his resignation in the wake of the allegations Lord Sewel was paid £84,525 a year of public money to ensure peers upheld honourable and decent standards of behaviour. Exposing hypocrisy among the rich and powerful is what newspapers should be about.

And best of all it has given us all a good old giggle. As a friend said to me: “A £5 note! That’s austerity for you.”

But when we’ve finished laughing there is an important point to be made about the state of our democracy.

The House of Lords is a mess – an anti-democratic relic that should have been properly reformed decades ago.

Members are appointed, rather than elected, except for the 92 hereditary peers there by accident of birth, and senior Church of England clergy who have an automatic right to a seat.

Defenders of the current House of Lords argue that peers bring wisdom and expertise to parliamentary proceedings and the standard of debate is higher than in the House of Commons at the other end of the Palace of Westminster.

There may be an element of truth in that, but the Lords is also packed with failed party hacks and mediocre placemen – or as Lord Sewel admitted candidly to his lady companions, the place is full of “thieves, rogues and b*****ds”.

In recent years there have been a string of scandals involving expenses fiddling and influence peddling and peers have demonstrated repeatedly that they can behave just as disgracefully as members of the House of Commons. The only difference is, unlike MPs, we can’t vote them out of office. Sewel for example was a Blair-era Labour crony who couldn’t even win a seat in the Scottish Parliament and had to rely on his political connections to fix him up with a nice little House of Lords sinecure.

Worse of all is the sheer size of the thing. There are currently 783 active members of the House of Lords and David Cameron will soon announce a new tranche of members. By the end of this parliament the bloated chamber could boast more than 1,000 members.

The upper chamber in the US Congress has just 100 senators, making laws for a population that is five times the size of the UK’s.

Do we really need all these greedy little piggies, claiming their £300 a day expenses and keeping the whores and drug dealers of Westminster in business?

No, of course not – we could easily make do with an upper chamber about a tenth of the current size, preferably elected by popular vote. It works perfectly well in other democratic countries, so why not here?

We have been trying to modernise the House of Lords to make it a properly accountable, democratic chamber ever since the then Liberal government introduced the Parliament Act in 1911, and since then repeated moves at 
reform by Labour and Conservative governments have been thwarted or left incomplete.

After more than 100 years of trying, isn’t it about time that we finished the job properly?

Roar of the crowd

The Twitter mob jumped aboard the outrage bus again this week – this time in pursuit of an American dentist who shot and killed Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, during a hunting trip.

Walter Palmer has since faced demonstrations outside his surgery in Minnesota and has been forced to go into hiding after receiving death threats.

This is one of those First World problems that upsets affluent Westerners who haven’t got anything more important to worry about.

There are lots of things that should make you angry about Zimbabwe other than the death of a lion – not least the way socialist despot Robert Mugabe has reduced the country from Africa’s breadbasket to a basket case economy mired in poverty and squalor.