LORDY LORDY!

One of the most arresting pieces of information to emerge from the Sewel affair was that, in his own words, he had not technically breached the new rules governing standards of conduct in the Upper House (co author, one Lord Sewel).   It seems only high treason or confinement for more than a year at her Majesty's pleasure can be guaranteed to remove you from Britain's burgeoning, unelected chamber.

Getting into the "best club in London" is not especially complicated, especially if you've chucked a handsome sum into party election coffers, if you've carelessly lost your seat as an MP, or if you're needed to make up the departmental numbers (See the Scotland Office and Andrew now Lord Dunlop,  under secretary of State to the solitary Scottish Tory David Mundell). 

Peerages also serve as long service medals for party apparatchiks and grandees as any recent and upcoming list of newbies will readily confirm. And, in fairness, sometimes in recognition of some who are particularly distinguished in their own field.

But it seems shedding ermine is markedly less common.  Apparently John Sewel was minded to take a discreet leave of absence whilst the notoriously slow wheels of Lords investigatory wheels turned, a process which some assumed would take at least a year. Three days of lurid headlines and the public denunciation of colleagues and friends evidently concentrated his mind.

In truth, sordid as this tale might be, it's not the real scandal engulfing the Lords.  The scandal is that we are 15 years into the 21st century with a revising second chamber whose members are either appointed, hereditary or  serving bishops in one particular faith.  A chamber moreover which becomes ever more bloated as premiers play catch up in a bid to preserve their majority.  David Cameron, even before this year imminent list, created well over a hundred new peers in his first term taking the current numbers to well over 800 - not only a farcical figure in its own right, but vastly more than the all elected Commons.

Lords reform is an issue which has already celebrated its centenary with nothing much in the way of improvement outside of the hereditaries being restricted to 92 -though, gawd help - us when they die off there are by elections for replacements.  That they should be there by right at all is disgraceful let alone participating in a self perpetuating dynasty.  As iniquitous is the fact that a sizeable chunk of the  house now comprises former party MP's,  two thirds of the 2005-2-14 intake come under that heading.  So much for the oft repeated conceit that the Lords has a special non Commons ethos and the widest possible range of external life experience.

In truth the upper house does contain many admirable, wise and experienced figures, but the idea that we could only harvest that wisdom by appointment is self serving nonsense. As is often reported, less than half the total number are regular attenders who turn up to pick up their £300 daily allowance.  As if the fact that  people were happy to take the title but eschew any participation was something to be proud of.  Perhaps they're content to attract misplaced obsequiousness and a better class of invitation.

The Lords also contains many people who were violently opposed to  the House of Lords but who underwent a Damascene conversion to its usefulness the moment a whiff of mothballed ermine was wafted in their direction. They will tell you earnestly that of course it's an anachronism, but what a valuable, nay essential, job it does of holding the Commons to account.  That  indeed is a vital function of a healthy democracy - it just doesn't need to be done by people largely appointed by the folks it purports to scrutinise.

Neither should the Commons take much pride in their own role in this continuing farce.  Faced with 5 different options to revise and reform they managed to vote for none of them. Perhaps too many of them harboured hopes of future ennoblement.  Our House of Lords is certainly unique - but not in a good way. No modern democracy tries to function with a revising chamber comprising only  appointees and only the Chinese Congress boasts more members.

I suspect it may be easy to be seduced by all the flummery, not to mention the perks.  Two computers and a palm held one, all your travel and office costs, subsidised and rather good meals and fine wines. (It is rumoured that the Lords recently rejected a bid by Commons catering to put in a joint order for champagne because their Lord and Ladyships suspected inferior quality would result.) There is also scope for what we might charitably call a liberal interpretation of expenses.  

There are peers who shameless cite their holiday home as their permanent resident despite living in London, thus ensuring free travel back and forth for vacations as well as work. And there are, too numerous to mention, all manner of clubs and societies the cost of whose foreign travel in the name of fraternity, research etc is also picked up by the luckless taxpayer.

I know a fair number of the people who work in the Lords for the 130 days a year it sits.  Indeed a handful of them are personal friends whom I have known for a long number of years since well before they took ermine as they say.  We have agreed to differ on this matter, since they feel much of the criticism their fellow peers attract is ill informed and unjustified.   

Yet even if there were never the merest hint of personal misconduct, even if every single member was utterly and squeaky clean, I still find the arrangement an affront to modern democracy. Indeed to any kind of democracy.