'Erminegate' Renews Demands For Revamped House of Lords

The scandal is being called Erminegate for the traditional robes sometimes worn in the House of Lords.
The scandal is being called Erminegate for the traditional robes sometimes worn in the House of Lords. (By Tim Graham -- Associated Press)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

LONDON, Jan. 27 -- Britain's latest political scandal has been dubbed "Erminegate" because of the regal, fur-trimmed red robes sometimes worn by members of the House of Lords.

It began when reporters from the Sunday Times newspaper, posing as lobbyists for a foreign businessman, taped conversations with four members of the upper house of Parliament that suggested the lawmakers were prepared to accept cash for amending legislation.

Television stations carried the audiotapes and newspapers ran transcripts Tuesday. In one tape, Thomas Taylor, 79, is heard telling the undercover reporters that some companies will pay him 100,000 pounds (about $141,000) a year, adding: "That's cheap for what I do. . . . You've got to whet my appetite to get me on board."

Taylor and three other members of the House of Lords are being investigated for offering to influence legislation for cash. All four are members of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labor Party. They have denied any wrongdoing. Supporters have deplored the journalists' tactics as entrapment.

"If I have done anything that has brought this house into disrepute, I most humbly apologize," Taylor, also known as Lord Taylor of Blackburn, said Monday. "I feel within my own conscience I have followed the rules and the directions that have been given in this house over the 31 years that I have been a member."

The scandal has clearly damaged the already shaky reputation of the House of Lords. Some see the chamber as a bastion of British tradition, while others say it is an elitist club long overdue for modernization.

In 1999, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair carried out a major shakeup of the Lords. Hundreds of aristocrats who had inherited seats were kicked out of the chamber, which then had more than 1,000 members. Today there are 743 members, and most of them are appointed.

But rules in the Lords, a chamber that dates to the 14th century, are still far out of step with modern Britain. Unlike in the House of Commons, the upper chamber has no powers to suspend or expel members who violate ethical standards. Currently, the strongest penalty available is publicly "naming and shaming" members who violate the rules.

Conrad Black, a newspaper magnate convicted of fraud in a U.S. court in 2007, is serving time in a U.S. federal prison -- yet remains a member of the House of Lords.

The latest embarrassing headlines have renewed calls for an overhaul of regulations in the Lords.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron said Tuesday that members of the House of Lords found to be abusing their positions should be thrown out of Parliament. "Today, it's not possible to suspend a member of the House of Lords no matter how badly he or she behaves, it's not possible to expel them from that legislature and yet they're making the laws that all of us have to obey," he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said politicians in the upper chamber must be stripped of the "extraordinary protection" that makes it exceedingly hard to kick them out of Parliament.

The leader of the House of Lords, Janet Royall, a member of the Labor Party and the baroness of Blaisdon, promised a full review of sanctions available and said many in the chamber "feel demoralized" by the allegations. On Monday, she ordered a formal inquiry into the accusations and said tougher sanctions were needed.

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