UK Politics

The Lords must reform to survive

BY James Bethell   /  12 July 2019

Randy peers, snobby clerks, bossy doormen and a decrepit culture of deference. That is how the newspapers reported this week’s hard-hitting report into harassment and bullying in the House of Lords by the respected QC, Naomi Ellenbogen.

But peek behind the saucy headlines, and you can sense a massive opportunity to renew the world’s first and, arguably, best Second Chamber.

But only if the authorities move promptly and with courage to recast the House of Lords into a modern, 21st century institution.

Having read many such whistle-blowing internal reports during my career in business, I predict that unwanted reforms that will ruin the distinctive qualities of the House are inevitable if they duck their responsibilities.

I love the House of Lords.

I loved it as a boy, sitting on the cushioned steps of the 170-year-old Sovereign’s Throne being fed sweets by the doorkeepers and listening to my Father address great events in the 1980s.

I remember, aged 14-years-old, the Falklands War debate in April 1981. “If we do nothing, we shall be in the position of the child at school who has let it be known that he can be beaten up with impunity, and he will then suffer more and more bullying as a result of his failure to retaliate,” he told the House. Quite right, bullies must be taught a lesson, I thought.

I have loved the House of Lords since arriving a year ago, winning the hereditary by-election, an idiosyncratic, frequently-challenged but strangely-durable part of our parliamentary system.

I still get lost. I was recently rescued from a dark basement cul-de-sac by the blind Olympian Lord Holmes and his guide-dog, Lottie. My knees wobble before speaking in debates. But, like a pupil at Hogwarts, I have a named gothic-style coat hook and a lockable mahogany locker. I feel I belong.

But my starry-eyed enthusiasm had a rude shock last year in a debate over the suspension of Lord Lester, a veteran human rights lawyer who worked for several decades on gender equality and race relations. The privileges and conduct committee had upheld a lurid and detailed complaint of sexual harassment against the peer and recommended sanctions. But these were then challenged by his legal friends on the red-leather benches.

In the three-hour debate I was surprised to see my fellow peers close ranks around an influential colleague in a concerted manoeuvre to overthrow the findings of the independent and highly-respected House of Lords Commissioner for Standards, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff.

In one of the most cleverly-orchestrated debates I have witnessed, a dozen senior legal figures spoke to defend the 82-year-old peer, to challenge aspects of the case or to question the evidence of the witness.

I was dumb-struck. I had never seen such a vivid and public example of the Establishment circling their wagons to protect one of their own.

Originally he was to be expelled, then this was down-graded to a suspension though that was not enforced and ultimately he resigned.

I was shocked by the treatment of the witness and the sense of superiority and entitlement. I could sense that parliamentary staff were horrified by the tone of the debate, and who could blame them?

Looking around the Chamber, it was the moment when I realised that perhaps it had all gone to some their heads.

This week’s Ellenbogen Report addresses similar issues. Like any thoughtful modern manager, the House of Lords Commission commissioned outsiders to conduct confidential interviews with the staff to give him ammunition for change. The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, has rightly welcomed the findings.

Based on my experience, I guess many of the most vociferous interviewees were the long-standing and loyal employees with a passion for the institution, but a distaste for the excesses that threaten the future of the organisation they love.

Experience tells me it is always wise to take these whistle-blowing reports seriously. It was particularly poignant the way they have called out the culture.

The Ellenbogen Report’s 13 recommendations would, in normal circumstances, be unarguable (though they have ruffled feathers in Bishop’s Bar, the peer’s drinking hole).

For example, it is plain good sense that peers who show signs of frailty should be prepared to take a medical test to check they are not a danger to themselves or a threat to their colleagues.

Who can reasonably argue against modern technology being used to create an efficient and safe environment? So if CCTV in troublesome hotspots creates a sense of security, it should be installed immediately as it would in any other workplace.

Repeat offenders should be challenged and privileges withdrawn in a measured thoughtful fashion, without fear of reprisal to the staff.

The Lord Speaker should launch a major round of training for staff and peers on how to treat people in the modern world, like CEOs have done in practically every other organisation in the country. This seems particularly sensible in an 900-year old organisation where peers have an average age of 69 and many staff left mainstream work environments decades ago.

There should definitely be a director-general who has strong managerial skills, just as hospitals have relieved the consultants of back-office duties best left to the professional managers and big schools now employ principals to support the headmaster.

And the authorities should embrace improvements to the organigram and procedures that are basic modern managerial improvements.

These are not changes that anyone should get on their high horse about. They are the Human Resources equivalent of installing two-step verification and air conditioning. Let us please just get on with it.

But the most challenging recommendation is changing the culture of deference.

Calling peers M’Lord is a tradition of the House of Lords that movingly demonstrates respect for the institution.

I admit it is also a great buzz.

But unless you are careful, it can go to your head.

The Ellenbogen review makes it clear that too often, it has done.

“It makes my skin crawl when people say “M’Lord””, said one witness to the review.

My heart breaks to read these words.

I wonder if it is time we gave it a rest?

After all, major reform hovers over us. At stake is the government appointment system and the life-time tenure. Though derided, these are the bedrock of the House of Lords system. I have learnt to value them. They need reform, not replacement.

And we need to start with the culture in which they operate.

If we do not fix this, when a major challenge comes, as it will, we will be vulnerable. Our wonderful House of Lords, which provides such wise counsel and brave challenge to authority, will be replaced by a dull, elected, regional second house, indistinct from most of the world’s other 70 Second Chambers, most of them unloved and unambitious.

But it we do embrace change, we could dramatically improve the performance of the whole institution.

James Bethell is a member of the House of Lords.

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