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.