It is utterly predictable that much of the BBC film Meet the Lords (showing Monday on BBC2) should dwell on the red robes, an extravagant country mansion and comments about 'the best club in London'. This may be good entertainment but the question is whether it is a true picture of the second chamber?
To my mind it is not, for it ignores the sheer hard work that resulted last year in the government accepting over 1,200 amendments made to legislation in the Lords. It ignores the many peers working away from the chamber on a range of select committees scrutinising government policy. It ignores the fact that very few of us live in stately homes. And it ignores the everyday fact that most peers (including myself) arrive at Westminster not by chauffeur driven car but by London Underground.
Much of the work of the Lords is anything but dramatic. It is checking the legislation that has come from the Commons before it finally becomes law. That means detailed line by line scrutiny. It may not be good television but it is vital for ensuring that clumsily drafted bills do not affect, for example, small businesses with unworkable regulations or families facing cuts to their tax credits.
So I am not over critical of the actual makers of tonight’s film. My criticism is of the publicity machine of the BBC in their selectively revealed extracts last week, days before the programme had been shown. They marked in advance the audience’s card. They have tried to sex up the programme to pretend that it is some kind of exposé which it is not.
One part of the first programme makes the point. The most quoted comment is the charge of my predecessor Baroness D’Souza that one peer came into the Lords by taxi, kept the taxi running, dashed into the chamber to have his name checked off the list, and therefore was able to collect £300 for a full day’s work.
When did this happen? Do we know that he went into the chamber? Did he claim £300? Who was this peer and was he asked to explain? The point is we do not know the answer to any of these questions. What kind of investigative journalism leaves questions of that kind unanswered and apparently unasked?
What we do know is what should have happened. Any member who has serious evidence that the system is being abused should report it to the Independent Commissioner for Standards. It is her job to investigate and report on specific complaints against anyone who is alleged to be abusing the system.
Lord Hanningfield was suspended from the Lords for just such an offence and now the House has the extra power not just to suspend but to expel a member altogether. Sadly however an unsubstantiated allegation gives viewers the impression that such practices are commonplace in the Lords when they are not. You can imagine the BBC’s publicity department rubbing their hands in glee.
Let me be clear. I may wince at some of the comments that have been made. For example the easy but trivial comment that the Lords is 'the best day centre in Britain'. But I cannot deny that the words were spoken and I assume represent the considered views of the speakers.
My hope would have been that we could have had much more about how the Lords can work in the public interest. In the second programme Lord Dubs is shown in his fight to bring unaccompanied child refugees from the Calais jungle into this country. And there are other glimpses of the true Lords. We see Lord Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, reflecting on his life and the journey that took him from homelessness to debating legislation to reduce it in the House of Lords and we see Baroness King applying her own personal experience to adoption legislation. While Lord Hennessy utters perhaps the wisest words in the whole programme: 'bullshit in the Chamber at your peril'.
These are the authentic voices of the House of Lords 2017. Let us remember also that this is a House that has voted to reduce its own numbers and agreed an impressive committee under Lord Burns to do just that. Not many organisations decide off their own bat to cut down their size.
I suspect however that such serious messages will be drowned out by an anecdote about a taxi. Perhaps those who watch tonight might reflect that you should not characterise the Lords by one alleged offender.