openDemocracyUK

How corrupt is the House of Lords?

The list of scandals is astounding, but many don't make the front page of the Sun on Sunday.

Harry Blain
6 September 2015
"Sleaze" is only part of the story. Flickr/Robert Pittman. Some rights reserved.

"Sleaze" is only part of the story. Flickr/Robert Pittman. Some rights reserved.

Earlier this year, Dr David Whyte posed a pressing question: how corrupt is Britain? Writing for OurKingdom in the lead-up to the General Election, he also laid out his answer:

"Historically, we have constructed corruption as something that is exclusively a problem in developing or economically ‘primitive’ societies, rather than our own. Yet the almost daily reporting of all manner of corruption cases in our most prominent and powerful institutions is beginning to unravel the idea that the British establishment is predicated on civilized values of ‘fairness’, ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’. A seemingly endless conveyor belt of cases has shown no signs of slowing down.  Indeed, if anything, it has accelerated."

And since Whyte’s article in April, the “conveyor belt” has certainly accelerated. Banking scandals have again been exposed, with five of the world’s largest banks being forced to pay fines totalling $5.7bn in May “for charges including manipulating the foreign exchange market” – Barclays alone suffering a $2.4bn hit.

The government has also come under increasing pressure to crack down on corrupt foreign money in London’s property market, facing evidence of huge amounts of money laundering from sources such as the NGO Global Witness and Channel 4’s recent documentary, From Russia with Cash. Indeed, the head of the National Crime Agency has repeatedly stated that London is “a global haven for criminal financial activity.” Many observers look at these reports and then see, for example, the government’s close links with Russian oligarchs, and can’t help but reach similar conclusions to those of Dr Whyte.

“Mired in sleaze”

Then there’s the House of Lords. It has been variously described as “an absurd joke” (Alistair Graham, former head of the Commons’ standards committee), “a relic that can no longer be afforded in a modern democracy” (SNP MP Pete Wishart) and “mired in sleaze” (Labour MP John Mann).

Even a brief recount of recent scandals suggests that these remarks are, if anything, fairly conservative. We have had the revelation that “peers living within walking distance of the chamber are able to claim up to £300 a day just to turn up”, with Baroness Wilcox, a former Conservative minister – “who lives in a £4.5m house a mere 200 yards away from the Palace of Westminster” – receiving £74,400 from these payments over two years. Remarkably, the “peers who have said almost nothing during House of Lords’ debates” and “have received more than £1.6m in allowances and travel expenses during the past five years” are, apparently, not even breaking the rules.

Many Australians, like me, thought they would never see anything more absurd than our Prime Minister giving a knighthood to Prince Philip, or our parliamentary speaker spending thousands of taxpayers’ dollars to “charter a private helicopter to fly just 90km to a Liberal Party fundraiser south of Melbourne, on a route well serviced by a multi-lane highway”, but we could not have dreamt up the Independent’s headline on August 27: “Tory MP who claimed moat cleaning on his expenses has been handed a peerage.” Nor could we have imagined that the chair of the Lords’ privileges and conduct committee would resign in disgrace after “allegedly taking cocaine at his London flat, in the company of prostitutes.”

No one needs to go over these stories in detail because we know them so well – to many of us, they probably weren’t at all surprising. And, as Adam Ramsay wrote after Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw’s “cash for access” fiasco back in February, the protagonists in these stories often can’t actually see what they’ve done wrong, because it’s a case of “everyone else is doing it.”

Indeed, the scandals that have been most damaging to the public interest are usually not the ones that make the front page of the Sun on Sunday: the everyday corruption endemic in the House of Lords but also a number of our public institutions. 

Who can vote on the Health and Social Care Act?

On March 20, 2012, the Commons voted the Health and Social Care Bill through at 10:15pm after spending less than 6 hours debating the amendments made in the Lords. The Bill (now Act) has been covered extensively by OurNHS, and, to put it simply (it is an extremely complex piece of legislation), has played a key role in accelerating the involvement of commercial companies in the provision of health services in the UK.

Exhaustive reports by the Mirror, Andrew Robertson’s Social Investigations, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrated that no fewer than 142 Lords who voted for the Bill had financial interests in companies involved in private healthcare. These included, to name a few, Lord Ballyedmond, Chairman of pharmaceutical company Norbrook Laboratories; Lord Blyth of Rowington, former Boots Chemists deputy chairman; and Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, former Conservative Health Secretary and director of BUPA, the health insurance, private hospital and care group (see the full investigations here).

If this was the local council, after the declaration of such interests, these people would surely have to abstain from voting. But in this case they were able to vote on the “top-down reorganisation” of the National Health Service that David Cameron infamously promised would never happen.

“Business interests”

Private health companies are not the only businesses well represented in the House of Lords. I and many others have written about the significant presence of arms companies in Westminster, and the Lords is no exception. In raw numbers, there is no comparison with private health firms, but in terms of influence at high levels of government, there is.

We have Lord Inge, former Chief of Defence Staff who became a consultant to Britain’s largest arms company, BAE Systems; Lord Hollick, Director of British Aerospace (forerunner to BAE) from 1992-1997 and the US military technology company TRW Inc from 2000-2002; and Lord Simpson of Dunkfeld (now a former peer), who was registering shares in BAE Systems worth £219,220 long after his appointment to the Upper Chamber (for fuller lists, see this report from Campaign Against Arms Trade).

“Lords of the Bed-chamber, Lords of the Kitchen…”

Of course, the House of Lords is only the most obvious indication of the prevalence of “business interests” at the heart of government. In themselves, such interests are not necessarily damaging, but when they come to shape things like the future of the NHS or our “military-industrial complex”, they should concern us as much, if not more, than a Lord wanting to be “led astray” on a night out, or making ridiculous expenses claims.

The extent of not just the Lords’ but also the wider political establishment’s shameless corruption calls to mind the remarks of Tom Paine (see p.119) to his persecutors after he fled to Paris in 1793:

“The government of England is as great, if not the greatest perfection of fraud and corruption that ever took place since governments began.”

Heat-of-the-moment exaggeration, to say the least. But Paine would look upon the House of Lords today – he spent plenty of time ridiculing “Lords of the Bed-chamber, Lords of the Kitchen, Lords of the Necessary-house, and the Lord knows what besides” – and be quite amazed at how little things have changed.

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