Peers ‘exploitation’ of leave of absence from House of Lords to be probed

Peers have been accused of “exploiting” the system that allows them to take leaves of absence from the House of Lords

Members can obtain ‘leave of absence’ status if they are unable to attend the House of Lords due to “temporary circumstance”.  But the system will now be scrutinised by Westminster, amid claims it is being abused

Leave of Absence status exempts peers from legislation which would otherwise see them lose their seat on the red benches. Cases might include a peer seeking leave of absence for medical treatment, to care for a family member, or to take up a diplomatic or other role. 

 The unelected chamber heard that 38 peers were currently on leave of absence, of which 18 have been for more than two years.  Peers were told there are “big question marks” over some of them.

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The concerns come amid calls to reform the upper house and reduce its size, which has around 800 members.  Senior deputy speaker Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who chairs the Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee, said: “The committee intends to look further at the leave of absence scheme in the autumn, and I would be happy to talk to any member who had thoughts on how it could be improved.”

Labour former minister Lord Foulkes of Cumnock said: “I have reason to believe that in one or two cases the leave of absence provision has been exploited in an unfortunate way.”  He argued each case should be looked at to ensure the status is not being abused.

Conservative peer Lord Cormack said: “This House is frequently criticised because of its size. We have trotted out in newspaper leaders and articles that it is second only in size to the Chinese National People’s Congress, but if one actually looks at this House and studies it, the vast majority of work falls on the shoulders of a relatively small number of the 800 or so members.

“It is also clear, when one looks at the list of those who have taken leave of absence, that there are big question marks over some of them.  Of course, an ambassador, such as our current ambassador in Italy, should, without question, be given leave of absence. We know that when he retires from his diplomatic career, he will be able to add many wise words to our counsel in this place.

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“However, there are others, whose names I will not mention, who do not necessarily measure up to that and are not necessarily very ill for a long period. Of course illness or caring for a loved one should be taken into account and accepted as a proper reason, but there ought to be much more frequent reviews of this.

“My view is that, unless there is an overriding reason – health, a diplomatic appointment or something like that – a leave of absence should not be readily granted for more than a parliamentary session.  There is a very strong case… that those who do not put in a certain minimum attendance should forfeit their right because you are not able to play a constructive part in a chamber of Parliament unless you attend on a reasonably regular basis and participate.

“If numbers are something that bring obloquy on the House, we ought to try to deal with that in a constructive and sensible manner. Granting indefinite leave of absence without rigorous examination, frankly, does no service to Parliament in general or to this House in particular.”

Responding, Lord Gardiner said: “The work that will be getting under way… is precisely for the reasons that have been articulated. We need to get this right and it needs to be appropriate. We are of course mindful that there is the ability for some of our members to be away for the reasons that we all know and, I hope, to come back and make a strong contribution – sometimes because of the experience they have had in other disciplines and tasks.”

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