Monday, 2 February 2009

How would you feel about going to the Lords?

Seeing the painful exposure of a Peter Truscott has made me think that possibly I once had a lucky escape.

Reading today  that Peter Snape has been knocked about for moving amendments to bills about buses is hardly surprising: Peter has been fanatical about buses before the rest of us could pay a full fare. The man has got a length of railway track where the rest of us have a spine.

Way back in the dog days before loosing my seat in the European Parliament a senior colleague in the European Parliamentary Labour took me aside and asked "How would you feel about going to the Lords?".

My response was immediate and direct - at that time of my life, I was just 50: insulted.

Labour was trying to get a quart into a pint jug. The newly elected Labour government had done some sort of deal with the Liberal Democrats and agreed to a system of proportional representation for the elections to the European Parliament.

Now I wasn't certain whether the individual concerned was just making conversation or actively seeking my response with a view to being ennobled, but several of my colleagues made the leap within the next six months.

One of the reasons why I was wary of getting involved with the Lords is that I believed then that it lacked legitimacy: with nearly 700 hereditary peers I felt it was ill-suited to be a viable part of the constitution of a modern democracy. Neither was I then - and still am not - happy about the existence of the bench of Bishops from the Church of Blunderland.

Now I have met exceptionally good members of the Lords from both of these groups - the late Brook Forrester springs to mind, as does John Oliver, the former Bishop of Hereford, both of whom I worked with on a number of initiatives.

Time has now moved on and the hereditary Lords will soon be extinct. The Bishops remain but perhaps we can live with them as increasingly there are representatives from other religious groups, including two Methodists (though I was told way back in the mid eighties by George Thomas that we were really only "entitled" to one, and that was Donald Soper).

But my other reservation about the Lords was the lolly. I had a young family to support and couldn't see how I could possibly provide for them on the basis of a daily attendance allowance that today amounts to £330 a day for 120 days each year - an income of under £40,000 before the expense of running two homes. As a top up to a pension it would be wonderful, but as a main income, a disaster.

The temptation in such a position to respond to offers of work as a "consultant" must be overwhelming. I can well understand how some members of the Lords now find themselves in the spotlight and it was one that I did not want to resort to.

Let me say a word about lobbyists. At the moment they are being cast as the bad boys and girls - tempting these innocent parliamentarians with offers they find hard to refuse.

Not so, a good lobbyist knows their stuff, knows the legislative process and the detail of a bill going through the respective legislature. It is quite common for them to approach members of the Commons, the Lords and the European Parliament with ready drafted amendments from their legal support staff.

My attitude when approached by lobbyists was simple: what's in it for my constituency? That must be the absolute acid test. For this reason I took amendments and tabled them in the European Parliament. These had been drafted by trades unions, the farmers organisations, even one body representing the wc manufacturers. No money passed hands and I was always careful not to be compromised.

There was one occasion when I felt that I was being treated too well. An oil company invited me to spend a day on an oil rig in the North Sea. The evening before I found myself booked into a luxury hotel (it really was luxurious) and offered one of the finest dinners I have ever set eyes on. I thought the hospitality was little lavish but I was their guest.

As we were on the second round of the port the managing director started lobbying us, very blatantly about, sections of the proposed Working Time Directive. I then realised that the reason I was there was not to learn about the oil industry but to be lobbied about the WTD.

My own trades union had a very strong view on the WTD, one that I shared. The following morning, I insisted on paying the cost of the room myself and found myself nearly £500 out of pocket.

Now had the oil company came to see me in my office I would have happily discussed the issue with them. Big companies used to do that: as a legislator I needed to know what was happening especially if it had a beneficial or detrimental impact on my patch.

The weakness with the Lords is that not only are their members underpaid and therefore expected to have outside interests, but that they don't have any form of constituency with whom to relate.

I look forward to an elected second chamber.

6 comments:

Paul Martin said...

I'm up for it. I'll go and kick ass on the ermine benches.

I can't say the tapes by Lords Truscott or Taylor endeared me to either of them.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I was trying to engender a little understanding!
David

iangoodson said...

We don't need an elected second house or any more of your prejudice about the CofE. Methodism isn't any better, just less public.

We need a second chamber of 'elders'. An extension of the Bench of Bishops to other groups in society.

The point of an unelected House is that it is free from party political considerations and the pressures of a constituency. It is quite possible to devise a system of accountability to basic ethics.

We need a second chamber that possesses the wisdom to review the excesses of the elected chamber.

The current problems all spring from the appointees of your party. Strangely, the children of privilege seem to have more understanding of 'noblesse oblige'.

Anonymous said...

Ian, regard Jeffrey Archer and Conrad Black as part of the "curent problem" - both members of another party! You'll note that as the press trawl through this story all sorts of people are coming out of the woodword.

The point I'm hoping to make is that a constituency actually does provide a counterbalance.
David

iangoodson said...

The two Tory peers are not part of the current problem. They have not been accused of cash for laws. There is a very good case that Conrad Black has been imprisoned as a result of the US prosecutorial deals (bribery and intimidation, in essence). Much of the case aginst him has already been thrown out and an appeal is in process on the rest. It is quite likely that he is innocent. Jeffrey Archer was given an excessive sentence for political reasons and has since used his experience to good effect whne commenting on Prison issues in the Lords and elsewhere. Bringing them up is a smokescreen designed to deflect attention away from the bribery and corruption of Labour peers.

Consituencies, with the exception of those with narrow majorities, do not provide accountability merely a safe haven. As you well know, it takes a great deal of work to change a safe seat and once done it becomes a home for party appointees.

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