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James Millar: House of Lords peer power can have its uses

House of Lords (PA Wire)
House of Lords (PA Wire)

It is slightly more strange to hear them using such words against each other, in the Houses of Parliament, where there’s supposed to be rules on behaviour.

But if the ill-tempered exchanges in the Commons between Prime Minister David Cameron and wannabe Prime Minister Boris Johnson hogged the headlines last week, there was equally heated debate in the House of Lords.

Peers were discussing the Scotland Bill and most of the aggro was blue on blue as Tories lined up to criticise their own side.

Michael Forsyth described a Government amendment as “rubbish”. Advocate General Lord Keen said he wished he could ignore him, catching up with a sentiment many Scots have felt since 1997.

Lord Lang, another former Thatcherite Scottish Secretary, said the whole bill was “shameful”.

And Lord Tebbit lived up to his bovver boy image from Spitting Image, urging one of his fellow peers to “just come to the point”, adding: “He is just waffling.”

But if the anger in the Lords was one thing, anger with the Lords is of a different magnitude.

The SNP’s spokeswoman on the Lords is Kirsty Blackman.

With no SNP representation in the upper chamber she’s like a sort of Rumplestiltskin character impotently stamping her feet at the latest democratic outrage offered up by the unelected chamber.

And there is plenty of stamping to be done. Last week she decried the Lords as “gilt-clad”. She could have easily called it guilt-free.

The upper house has just formally passed new rules that mean a peer that gets caught out doing bad things, like shamed Lord Sewel did last year, will not be subject to any investigation by parliament if they jump ship and resign first.

To be fair former First Minister Jack McConnell did challenge this as “astonishing” but he proved a lone voice.

When it comes to the Lords the PM is as shameless as his peers.

It was claimed last week that he will create around 40 new members to reward those that back him in the EU referendum.

The SNP keep pointing out the Chinese National People’s Congress in Beijing is the only parliament bigger than the Lords – and it’s marginally more democratic.

But if creating new peers wasn’t bad enough, Cameron’s also steamrollering through plans to reduce the number of elected representatives in parliament.

The Lib Dems kyboshed a boundary review that would cut the number of MPs to 600 in the last parliament.

In return, Cameron essentially crushed them for their insolence and he’s now going to get his way anyway.

With six Scottish seats for the chop another Blackman outburst ensued. She entirely reasonably pointed out that it’s “ludicrous” for the PM to claim he’s saving money by reducing the size of the Commons while inflating the undemocratic Lords and repeated a call to scrap the upper chamber.

Except one thing stands in the way of the boundary review bothering the SNP – the Lords.

Peers will have to endorse the plan for it to pass and while David Cameron remains the only Tory PM in history to lack a majority in the upper chamber it’s easy to see why he’s keen to appoint more peers from his own party.

It’s also why he’s withholding action on the Strathclyde Review he commissioned into constraining the peers power after the Lords embarrassed him over tax credit cuts.

He’ll likely encourage the upper chamber to back the boundary review or face permanent neutering.

If Tory peers want something to describe as shameful and rubbish they needn’t look further than their own leader’s plans for the Lords.

It’ll be interesting to see if his own side speak out as they come to fruition.


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