*** DEBUG END ***

A scandal that reveals strengths

31 July 2015

The Sewel affair suggests that the system works well, says Paul Vallely


THE scandal surrounding Lord Sewel has been a perfect tabloid storm. High-minded assertions about protecting the public interest could be made, since the peer was in charge of upholding standards of behaviour in the House of Lords. But the detail of the saga told another story.

In exposing the peer allegedly taking cocaine with two prostitutes, The Sun was able to offer its readers a cornucopia of sexual titillation. There was a Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords apparently disporting himself in the orange bra and short leather jacket of one of the women; cocaine snorted from the naked breast of one of the women; claims of sex with a BBC presenter and various other women; a framed photo of Lady Sewel turned face down during the sex acts.

But there was a clear political agenda, too. Lord Sewel, it was noted, was paid a salary of £84,525 for his various House of Lords posts. He lived in a “rent-discounted” grace-and-favour Pimlico apartment. He was quoted as bragging that the £200-a-day House of Lords expenses allowance paid for his sex and drugs — and he claimed that other peers clocked in for the flat-rate expenses without doing any parliamentary work. Questions were raised about whether there were too many members of the House of Lords, or whether it was finally time to abolish it.

Scandals make great headlines. But they do not necessarily create sound political agendas. Ironically, but less sensationally, what the Sewel scandal has revealed is how well, rather than how badly, the present system works. A few vital facts emerged to illustrate this.

For a start, there are far fewer peers now than there were before Tony Blair’s partial reform of the House of Lords. The expenses system, whatever its shortcomings, is clearly a far less costly arrangement than an elected chamber would be. And it enables the maintenance of the chief advantage of the Lords — that the revising chamber is populated by men and women of far greater eminence and expertise than would be the case with elections, which would replace them with a chamber of party apparatchiks. In recent decades, the House of Lords has routinely offered much better scrutiny of government legislation than the Commons delivers.

Lords reforms, introduced under Lord Sewel, now allow for the disciplining, suspension, or expulsion of a peer. The disgraced former Labour minister provoked outrage with his initial declaration that he intended to remain as a member of the House. But political reality — aided perhaps by a police raid on his flat — brought home to him that his behaviour was clearly incompatible with the seven principles of conduct that the Lords adopted from the Committee on Standards in Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.

The man at the heart of this week’s scandal may have been exposed, in the words of the former Commons Speaker Baroness Boothroyd, as a “bad apple” who brought the Upper House into disrepute. But the House of Lords emerges from the sorry saga far less damaged than some gleeful commentators have tried to make out. The checks and balances in the system have worked, even if one man has been found wanting.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.


Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)