Electing the Lords: Issues 6 – Cost and size
My sixth post on electing the Lords addresses an oft-overlooked matter: the size and cost of an elected Senate.
Members of the House of Commons are salaried, domiciled in offices, have access to expenses, and employ researchers, both in Westminster and in their constituencies. The House of Commons cost £432 million in 2009-8 – almost £650,000 per MP. This is an increase of £36 million from the previous financial year.
Meanwhile, the cost of the Lords went down in the same period – from £152.5 million in 2007-8 to £106.5 million.
After all, Lords do not get salaries. Nor do they receive expenses, beyond a daily attendance allowance. They employ researchers, but they tend to share their talents among groups of Lords. Likewise with accommodation – while MPs are entitled to their own office, Lords tend to share with three or four others. Nor do they get constituency allowances – they don’t have them, after all. Additionally, the size of Lords committee staff tends to be considerably leaner than those for the Commons.
I’m going to do some maths here, so bear with me.
Let’s see what the cost to the taxpayer would be of electing the House of Lords. The Work of the House of Lords 2007-8 gives us a helpful breakdown of the £212.5 million the Lords spent in the year, and 40% of it (£48.6 million) is related to members’ expenses, staffing and others – the remaining 60% on on-cash items, such as security and building maintenance. I will now attempt to work out this 40% as it would likely be under an elected British Senate.
Assuming this is a similar proportion as spent in the Commons, then the Commons spent £154.9 million (40% of £387.2 million) on the same functions.
Dividing this by 659 (the number of MPs in the last Parliament) gives us £235,000 per MP. Let’s keep that figure in the back of our minds for the moment.
Considerations of how big the new Senate would be vary. The 2000 Wakeham Commission proposed a reformed House of 550 members, the 2001 White Paper 600 members, 2007, 540 members. So about three quarter of the House’s present size.
Senators would require the same perks as MPs: salaries, expenses, researchers, constituency offices, websites, and accommodation. Assuming £235,000 would suffice as it does for MPs, then 540 (to take the lowest estimate) multiplied by £235,000 equals £126.9 million.
Now add back on the rest of the bill, the ‘non-cash items’ (i.e. Chamber maintenance), security, property costs and so on…that’s £126.9 million plus £72.9 million. The grand total is £200 million.
Cheaper than the Commons, considering its slightly smaller size. But compared to the Lords, an increase of 60% of the cost.
And that’s assuming property costs will stay the same, which it won’t. Senators will demand the same perks as MPs, and that means their own constituency offices, researchers, and above all, those lovely offices in or near Parliament, plus expanded committee sizes.
The costs of elections, according to the 2008 White Paper, would be £43 million. If a statutory appointments commission were also established, this would cost an extra £1.5 million. Let’s add those too.
The total is £244.5 million. That’s an increase on present costs of £138 million.
This at a time when the size and cost of the state apparently should be falling. Here we are ignoring a potential black hole for the public purse, planning to throw our money at a white elephant which will be a shadow of the chamber it will replace. It’d be the parliamentary equivalent of the Millennium Dome.
Of course, money should not come into any reckoning when the quality of democratic government is concerned. But as we have seen, electing the Lords threatens to worsen the quality of government. Is this cost worth it? I think not. Anthony King asks how exactly would the Senate improve our lives:
‘It is also not explained why it should be desirable to add significantly to Britain’s already large body of full-time, professional legislators: 650 at the moment in the House of Commons, 129 in the Scottish Parliament, 60 in the Welsh National Assembly and 108 in the Northern Ireland Assembly – an impressive total of 947. Even with the proposed reduction in the size of the Commons, the creation of an elected upper chamber would almost certainly push that total to well over 1,000. That would be a paradoxical outcome at a time when Britons are suspicious of party politics and politicians’.
I think this says it all. We’ll get an inferior chamber for considerably greater expense.
Back to Article 5
Forward to Article 7
The Work of the House of Lords 2007-8, House of Lords 2009