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Landale online: House of Lords reform - the small print

Category: Politics

Published: 20th May 2011 11:51:36

This week the government unveiled its long-awaited plans for a wholly or largely elected House of Lords.

The headlines from the White Paper and draft bill on Lords reform have all been about difficult decisions postponed and the scale of cross-party opposition.

But after a closer reading of the detail, here are a few other conclusions that may have escaped notice:

The 800-odd peers in the Lords currently cost the Exchequer just over £17m each year in allowances and expenses. The government plans to cut the number of peers to 300 and pay them a salary. They say the salary would be less than an MP's, but more than an MSP or Welsh Assembly Member, so roughly £60,000 a year. Three hundred of those salaries would cost about £18m - so roughly the same as now. But, and here's the rub, the government also plans to pay salaries to existing peers who stay on as the new elected members are phased in. One option is for all those peers to remain in the Lords until 2025 when they would all depart in one big bang as the last elected members arrive. To quote the White Paper: "This could result in a chamber of nearly 1,000 members, unless this is reduced through resignation or retirement as well as death." So 1,000 salaries would cost £60m a year. And then, of course, there are the pensions that the government says these members should have, pensions that would "mirror those available for members of the House of Commons". The most recent figures show that the MPs' pensions scheme costs the Exchequer £13,520m a year. The bottom line is that the extra costs of reform would be substantial.

There are currently 38 committees in the House of Lords, most of them select committees alongside a clutch of sub-committees and joint committees. In all, there are 413 seats on these committees. The excellent House of Lords information team have counted that 274 peers sit on committees. Even allowing for the fact that the elected members will be professional politicians being paid a salary, it means that most members will have to sit on a committee of some sort. Can they be compelled to do this? Possibly not. This could mean that some members might be absurdly overworked, tied to the committee corridor rather than legislating in the chamber. It might also mean fewer committees which many would see as a pity because it is in these rooms that some of the Lords' best scrutiny and revision work is done.

For the first time, the House would have the power to expel a member permanently. Currently, the Lords can suspend a peer only for the rest of a parliament. The government also says it will consider giving the Lords - just as they are doing for the Commons - the power to recall members who have engaged in serious wrongdoing.

Sir Ian Kennedy, the head of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, has made no secret of his desire to expand his empire and has long had his eye on the Lords. The government proposes that Ipsa should set and pay the salaries of members of the Lords. It would also administer and regulate their expenses. I imagine Ipsa would ask for a larger budget to deal with all that.

In the short term, there will be many additional transitional members who would not leave in their entirety until 2025. We should also not forget the 12 Church of England bishops, nor the members appointed by the prime minister of the day to sit in the Lords as ministers. Gordon Brown appointed nine of these so-called GOATs (part of his "government of all the talents") and Tony Blair appointed five. Thus far, David Cameron has appointed Lord Sassoon and Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint. The White Paper says the prime minister should be able to appoint "a limited number of people to serve as ministers", but they would be members of the Lords "only for the duration of their appointment".

The White Paper says that elections for the Lords will take place on the same day that MPs are elected to the Commons in a general election. But it adds: "If there is an election to the House of Commons within two years of the previous election to the House of Lords, then there would be no House of Lords election at that time. As members' terms would be non-renewable, the government considers it would be unfair to cut them unexpectedly short." Now, the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill is designed to make it the norm that parliaments last five years. It is revealing that in this White Paper ministers feel the need to prepare for the fact that might not happen.

If the government decides that 20% of the Lords should be appointed, then the White Paper says they will be appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. At the moment, Her Majesty does this by issuing letters patent to create a new peer. Well, the new members will not be peers - except for existing peers who get elected - and a new way of issuing a writ of summons for them will have to be invented. One for the anoraks perhaps.

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BBC News, 2011. Landale online: House of Lords reform - the small print [Online] (Updated 20th May 2011)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/155361/Landale-online-House-of-Lords-reform-the-small-print [Accessed 23rd Aug 2014]

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