'Couch potato' peers are claiming millions of pounds despite not speaking in the House of Lords

LONDON — ‘Couch potato’ peers are claiming millions of pounds from taxpayers despite not speaking in the House of Lords, a new report by the Electoral Reform Society has shown.

Members of the House of Lords can claim up to £300 a day for turning up, but do not have to vote or contribute to a debate to gain the allowance.

A total of 115 Lords, a seventh of the total number, failed to speak during the 2016/17 session but still claimed an average of £11,091 each, the ERS research shows.

A further 18 peers failed to vote at all, but still claimed £93,162 between them during the nine-month period between June 2016 and April 2017. In total non-speaking peers claimed £1.3 million.

The ERS data also shows that £4,086,000 was claimed by 277 peers who spoke just five times or fewer and £7,321,000 was claimed by 394 peers who spoke ten times or fewer in the past year.

The ERS says that its study shows a “something for nothing” culture amongst some peers, after it analysed 779 peers’ record in the upper chamber.

“These figures are a damning indictment of the state of the House of Lords,” the ERS chief executive Darren Hughes said.

“There appears to be a growing ‘something for nothing’ culture in our upper house, with tidy sums being claimed by those who barely contribute. And there are a worrying number of couch-potato peers and lobby-fodder Lords at a time when there is plenty to scrutinise — ostensibly the upper chamber’s role.”

The most active 300 peers claimed only half the total of expenses, which shows “the size of the Lords can be cut without significantly limiting its work,” the ERS added.

‘I see the Lords as a non-executive director of the country’

One Lord facing questions over his worth as a member is former CBI head Digby Jones, who claimed £15,290 during the nine-month period, despite not speaking in debates or asking any questions.

Jones, who was a minister in Gordon Brown’s government, has not spoken in the Lords since April 2016 when he asked a question about warships.

The normally outspoken Lord told the Financial Times newspaper that contributions to the chamber was “only one measure” of working as a member of the House of Lords, and he used his membership “to learn and meet people.”

“I see the Lords as a non-executive director of the country” he said, adding that he would speak in the chamber in future “if I have something to say that others aren’t saying”.

A House of Lords spokesperson said: “Speaking in the chamber is only one of the ways members hold the government to account and this research ignores members’ contributions including amending legislation, asking the government written questions and serving on select committees.

“More than 320 members served on committees in the last session of parliament — as well as parliamentary work away from the chamber.”

The House of Lords is expected to play a crucial role in scrutinising Brexit legislation, including the EU withdrawal bill, in 2017.

House of Commons speaker John Bercow said last week that the Lords “could most definitely be halved in size and I think most fair-minded people would say, it should be,” and that it was “patently absurd” for the Lords to have more members than the Commons.

The Liberal Democrat’s leader in the Lords Dick Newby said: “It’s clear the House of Lords is in need of radical reform, as the Liberal Democrats have been arguing for decades. We will keep leading the fight for a democratically elected second chamber that is fully accountable to the public.”

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