Comment: Lords in a stew

Many of them are thoroughly odd, but the Lords still make for great entertainment.

By Rebecca Burns

The House of Lords is a funny old place. It has no final say in British legislation. Its leader sits on a giant sack of wool. The average age of a House of Lords peer is just shy of 70 – they have almost double the time to get to the voting lobbies as their sprightly Commons colleagues. Bearing all this in mind, total abolition of the Lords as we know it is currently under discussion. No one can really work out what to do with the damn thing. It is, a peer might say, in a bit of a pickle.

Yesterday afternoon, the Conservative peer Lord Inglewood innocently and flawlessly showcased the Lords’ unique qualities. Responding to proposals to make parliament family-friendly by bringing in normal working hours (rather than the current late sitting times) the peer worried that members of the Commons and Lords would be threatened by “the temptations of the stews of Soho”.

Lord Inglewood’s comment is worth quoting in full: “I am particularly on my guard when I hear reference to ‘family-friendly policies’ in parliament. That normally means that you are going to have to spend all evening by yourself, and the temptations of the stews of Soho will no doubt be ever more in one’s mind as the evening goes on.”

In Lord Inglewood’s opinion, some parliamentarians would apparently spend their free evenings sampling the finest selection of profligacy and perversion Soho has to offer. Infidelity, the peer implied, was the almost unavoidable consequence of allowing parliamentarians free time. This would inevitably make parliament less family friendly, Lord Inglewood concluded, sensibly enough.

It is almost quaint that this misogynistic approach should rear its head in 21st century legislature. Lord Inglewood, who voted against equal gay rights and the hunting ban, unwittingly revealed the Victorian views that still exist among some members of the more traditional of parliament’s two Houses. Queen Victoria herself may well have agreed with him. She was, after all, responsible for the placement of a modesty curtain in the House of Lords ladies’ gallery, preventing her noble Lords being distracted by a glimpse of a ladies’ ankle.

The comments seems particularly poorly judged when at the heart of David Cameron’s ‘big society’ is personal responsibility. Are parliamentarians less able to control their urges than the rest of us? Despite (or perhaps because of) subsidised alcohol and bars that serve until parliamentary sessions finish, parliamentarians have repeatedly given in to the “stews of Soho”.

Admittedly, most didn’t take place in Soho itself, but parliament has had its fair share of less than family-friendly scandal nevertheless. These include Paddy ‘pantsdown’ Ashdown’s affair with his secretary, Labour’s Ron Davies’ ‘moment of madness’ with a male stranger on Clapham Common and the Liberal Democrats’ one-time potential leader Mark Oaten, whose fling with a rent boy was widely documented.

Although the unfortunate, sometimes obsessive media coverage may imply that no politician can be trusted, it is laughable for someone in our legislature to use this as a serious excuse to prevent reform. Mind you, you can always look to the upper House for a good bit of comedy, particularly in these days of grim recession. And as George Osborne’s not going to keep us entertained – for humour’s sake – save our Lords. I like them just as they are.

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