Cameron Cuts MPs While Boosting the Lords – What Price Democracy?

by Josiah Mortimer

22 February 2016

Austerity has reached the walls of Westminster itself, apparently.

Recently the government announced it is going ahead with plans to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 as part of the upcoming review of constituency boundaries – part of a plan to equalise the size of seats.

The rationale for cutting the number of MPs is that the government wants to “cut the cost of politics and tackle the deficit left by the previous administration.” In doing so, the government is ignoring the advice of the Commons Political and Constitutional Committee, published last March (yes, 11 months ago).

But here’s the glitch when it comes to the government’s cost-cutting argument: the prime minister has appointed peers to the House of Lords at a faster rate than any PM in British history. Since 2010, the government has packed the upper chamber with 244 new unelected legislators. That’s a lot of new politicians – 40, unelected, for each of the last six years.

But, you might say, peers are unpaid…

Well, not exactly – peers are able to claim up to £300 a day tax-free for turning up. They don’t have to prove that they’ve done anything. They just have to sign a form.

In the 2014-15 term, around £100m was spent on the House of Lords. The Electoral Reform Society worked out exactly how much the average peer claims in expenses and allowances per year. It’s £25,826 – about the average UK full-time wage – and some of course claim much more. All that is before office costs, extra staff, catering and infrastructure costs are taken into account. When the whole cost of the Lords is taken into account, the average peer costs £118,000 a year.

But let’s take the conservative estimate: 244 peers at an average cost of £26k a year in just expenses and allowances equals £6.3m per year in packing the Lords with party cronies and donors.

So Cameron is responsible for spending an extra £6.3m per year in increasing the cost of our unelected and already bloated upper chamber. There has been a 17% increase in the number of Lords, at the same time as the government is reducing the number of MPs by 8%. What kind of priorities are these?

Cutting the number of elected MPs to save money, in this context, looks pretty tenuous – and not just in terms of cost. Fewer MPs means fewer people for select committees and all the scrutiny work that’s needed to hold the government to account. And if the government doesn’t reduce the number of ministers, it also boosts the power of the executive at the cost of backbenchers. With a higher proportion of MPs on the government pay-roll, there’s a risk that the Commons will be undermined as a greater percentage of MPs are forced to tow the government line.

Good democracy costs money. Politics costs money, and running a country costs money. Having 100 MPs would be cheaper than 650, while having just one MP would be cheaper still. But at what cost?

Here’s an idea: the government could concentrate its trimming energies on the real money-drain, but more importantly the real democracy­-drain: the unelected House of Lords.

Photo: UK Parliament/Flickr

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