Wednesday, April 18, 2007

 

The Lords’ Appointments Commission Isn’t Toothless – It Just Didn’t Bite

You may have heard about Lord Laidlaw, a Conservative peer and donor who’s said to be the second richest person in Scotland and – gasp! – a tax exile. The BBC reports that, three years after agreeing to become a UK resident to gain a peerage, he still hasn’t done it. The Lords’ Appointments Commission will “name and shame him in a forthcoming review” (so what’s this morning’s leak news?), but the Today Programme said they’re otherwise “powerless”. I know what you’d expect me to say: ‘Tory donor, filthy rich, tax exile, cash for honours, scandal, holds up shocked mittens’. Actually, it’s not quite that simple. My biggest problem is not with Lord Laidlaw, but with Lords’ Appointments Commission.

I don’t approve of peerages, with donations or without. I was delighted last month when the House of Commons voted to replace the whole bunch with people who can be elected and held to account – though, unaccountably, the Lords didn’t agree. But despite Lord Laidlaw sounding, in a one-line summary, like one of the dodgier members of a wholly dodgy House, I’m wary of reports that throw everything at one individual. In part, it’s because that distracts attention from the need to throw out the lot of them and replace them with people we can choose to throw out, or not, on a regular basis. In part, it’s because the story contains some elements in his favour.

Obviously, if we’re going to have legislators on the basis of some whim, bung or ancestry rather than because they’ve won an election (sorry to keep banging on, but my dictionary and I have rather old-fashioned notions of what a ‘democracy’ might mean), having a legislator called ‘Laidlaw’ is as good an excuse as any, and better than most – I mean, can you think of a more brilliant name? More seriously, the BBC’s Business Editor reports that Lord Laidlaw has written to the Lords’ Appointments Commission to say that he does still plan to move, but that personal reasons have delayed it. Well, I can understand that; I’m quite attached to our flat and wouldn’t want to be forced to move from that either, though tragically it’s not worth £700-odd million, and involves us already paying taxes. And, very much in his favour, he’s said he intends gradually to give away his vast personal fortune to charity. Knowing little about him except for this story, that makes him sound rather a good egg, major donor to the Tories or not. Against him, there’s the fact that he told the BBC’s Business Editor “I have made it a rule never to speak to journalists.” Well, I suppose being a snooty git who considers any enquiries from the people they rule over to be the height of impertinence comes with the job, too (see ‘objections to House of Lords, general’, above).

So if Lord Laidlaw is a laudable philanthropist who simply has an unfortunate record of giving some of his largesse to deeply undeserving causes, what’s my real problem? It’s with this report, swallowed wholesale by journalists, that all the Lords’ Appointments Commission can do is “name and shame” tax exile peers they’ve previously rubber-stamped, and that they’re brave, noble individuals who are “powerless” to take real action such as, say, revoking a peerage. Well, aside from their being there as an artificial life-support for the concept of government by patronage, I have no sympathy whatsoever for their sanctimonious bleatings today. Their cowardly leaking that they’d like to revoke Lord Laidlaw’s peerage if they only could is shameful. The fact is, they were not powerless when it mattered – just incompetent. The Commission had all the power they needed to prevent a tax exile from becoming a peer. They could have heard his evidence that he intended to move at some point, and answered: ‘Fine. And six months after you’ve done so, provide us with the evidence you’ve settled here and we will give you your peerage.’ But they didn’t bother. This cowardly, lazy and incompetent bunch are now saying – out of the corners of their mouths, as of course their “review” remains “forthcoming” – that it’s all someone else’s fault. No, it’s not. It’s theirs, and rather than criticise someone else, they should be apologising for giving him the nod in the first place when it was their duty to have stopped him. Just as all but about 0.0001% of the tens of millions of us in Britain have no say on the Lords themselves, we have no say on this small group of people who are supposed to choose whether our potential lawmakers are ‘worthy’. Today more than ever, it’s clear they need holding to account, too.

In other news, the ‘war on drugs’ (immensely tasteless, with all the real wars about) has completely failed, as drug use remains high and a major source of criminality. Well, goodness me, bless my muffins, who’d have thought, I don’t Adam and Eve it, etc. Expect the Labour Government to sound just as faux-shocked as their Lords’ Appointments Commission as they rush round to blame everyone else but themselves and ask for new powers with which to waste police time instead of getting to the root of the problem. As long as drugs have an effect on people, people will take them. And as long as they remain illegal, criminals will take those people’s money. Like ‘Who gave the go-ahead to a tax exile peer,’ this is not rocket science.

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