Too little, too late?

The Sunday Times is reporting that the UK’s Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, is to bring forward legislation to allow the removal of convicted criminals from the House of Lords. And this is news? I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it shocking that both Jeffrey Archer and Conrad Black have retained their seats in the Upper House, despite being convicted of serious criminal offences and then jailed. About bloody time.

As someone who believed it is intrinsically undemocratic for a largely unelected chamber to impact the passing of legislation from an elected House of Commons, I find this particularly galling.

PEERS who avoid tax or have criminal convictions – such as Lord Archer and Lord Black – are to be expelled from the House of Lords in the wake of the lords for hire scandal.

The reforms are being drawn up by Jack Straw, the justice secretary, in an attempt to restore the Lords’ battered reputation after last weekend’s revelations in The Sunday Times. He plans to enact the legislation necessary to expel them before the general election, which has to be held by May next year.

Peers who are “non-domiciled” or “non-resident” for tax purposes – there are thought to be at least seven – will lose their seats, as will those who have been convicted of a serious criminal offence.

There is now also cross-party agreement on ridding the Lords of members who avoid paying tax. Nonresidents are people who live abroad to avoid paying tax and nondomiciles are people who are resident in the UK but were born abroad and are therefore “domiciled” abroad for tax purposes.

Lord Ashcroft, the billionaire Tory donor, has repeatedly refused to confirm his tax status, while Lord Laidlaw, the Conservatives’ biggest donor, lives in Monaco and is widely reported to be a tax exile.

Lord Paul, the steel magnate and billionaire Labour donor, and Baroness Gardner, the Australian Conservative peer, are both openly non-domiciled. Lord Foster, the architect who is a cross-bencher, lives in Switzerland. His staff refuse to answer questions about his tax status.

In a further effort to clean up the upper house, Straw is ready to put the Lords Appointments Commission onto a statutory basis for the first time, giving it powers to eject peers who break undertakings made when they accept peerages.

Sources close to Straw say he is expected to use a Commons bill on constitutional renewal, already in the pipeline, to make the changes, which have Tory and Liberal Democrat backing. These changes would be retrospective. A private member’s bill on nondoms and nonresidents, drawn up by Matthew Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat peer, and going through the Lords, is likely to be used as a template.

This (most recent) debacle clearly illustrates the need for serious reform of the House of Lords, increased direct elections to the chamber by the general public and increased transparency on just who is making these decisions and who they are representing (when it’s patently not the British public). For too long, the Lords has been a sort of dumping ground for failed (read: unseated by the public) politicians and has been used as a backdoor by the Labour Government in particular to get unelected individuals around the cabinet table: the return of Peter Mandleson is just one example of this.

The antiquated (as opposed to simply old) nature of the Lords is best illustrated by the presence of Church of England Bishops – 26 in all. Why is one strand of one religion represented in the Lords, at the expense of all other faiths? More importantly,  for people like myself who don’t believe in God, why is any religion formally represented in the Lords at all?

The Lords needs to be brought – kicking and screaming if necessary – into the 21st century. Straw’s legislation is a small step in the right direction, but simply not enough.

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