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Britain's 'Lord Coke' vs. Canada's Senate expenses — pick your house of sober second thought

07/29/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/28/2016 05:59 EDT
While the Canadian Senate sits quiet and empty — its future now debated ahead of an impending election campaign — its cousin across the Atlantic Ocean has been hit with a scandal splashed all over the British tabloids.

The House of Lords is reeling after a video surfaced over the weekend showing what appears to be one of its members, John Sewel, snorting cocaine and cavorting with prostitutes.

He is also heard making disparaging comments about other parliamentarians, as well as some women.

In the video, Sewel, also a deputy speaker, briefly discussed his £200 — $404 Cdn — daily allowance with one of the women.

"200 a day to buy lunch?" she asks him.

"It's not lunch, lovie darling. It's paying for this," he responds.

Sewel, married with four children, has since resigned from Britain's upper house, apologizing for the "pain and embarrassment" he caused and said he hopes his decision will "limit and repair the damage" he had done to the institution.

Cocaine and prostitutes is a far cry from the time indignant Canadian Senator Nancy Ruth decried an airplanes' offering of "ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers" amid an exhaustive audit of senators' expense claims.

On the other hand, it's also not the $90,000 reimbursement cheque for housing and travel expenses that publicly ensnared Mike Duffy, currently fighting fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges in court.

At least Canada can be assured that despite what is possibly the worst scandal to rock our Red Chamber ever, spurring a public debate over its very existence, the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.

Sober second thought

Similar to the Canadian Senate, the British House of Lords is an unelected chamber filled with 783 mostly appointed members who regularly review and amend bills from the House of Commons and act as the so-called chamber of sober second thought.

"It's always said that it's effective as a revising chamber," said Iain McLean, a politics professor at Oxford University. "And that is true for some lords.

"The trouble is that there's many other functions — notably being a place where you can put rich donors to your party. Canadians won't need to be reminded of the case of Lord Black of Crossharbour."

Canadian-born Conrad Black, a former media baron who renounced his Canadian citizenship, was conferred a life peerage with the title of baron in 2001. Despite his 2007 conviction and sentence in the U.S. for fraud, he remains a member of the House of Lords, though unaffiliated with any party.

He also wasn't the first peer to be embroiled in controversy, criminal or otherwise.

The Telegraph newspaper in London on Tuesday catalogued seven other "deadly miscreant peers" upholding what it sarcastically called "the finest traditions of the Upper House."

These peers, now deceased, include Joseph Kagan, a philanderer who claimed to have 40 mistresses by age 60 and who was also convicted of defrauding the public revenue; John Hervey, who was twice jailed for drug offences; and Antony Moynihan, who inherited his father's peerage but ultimately settled in the Philippines and ran brothels.

There was also Jeffrey Archer, the noted author, who was imprisoned for perjury in 2001.

"These things keep happening," said McLean, who also authored the book What's Wrong with the British Constitution?

"From time to time, a lord gets caught doing various things … a lord would get jailed for fraud, then after they finish their jail term, they pop back," he said.

The reason for that, McLean said, is because there's not yet an effective mechanism for expelling somebody who doesn't go voluntarily.

In Canada, the Senate voted to suspend Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin without pay over their travel and living expenses in November 2013. It was the first time in Senate history senators were sanctioned in that way without being convicted of a criminal offence.

The suspensions last until the federal election, at which point they could be back on the Senate payroll.

As "master of its own house," the Senate could also expel one (or more) of its own if it so chooses.

No limit on seats

Britain's House of Lords began as a chamber consisting of noblemen, bishops and abbots.

Before the Labour government in 1999 pushed through a reform act, all hereditary peers (those with noble titles such as earl and baron) were entitled to be members of the chamber.

The reforms in 1999 restricted membership in the upper house to only 92 hereditary peers, thus decreasing membership then to 669 from 1,330.

While the elected House of Commons currently has a fixed 650-seat membership, there is no limit to the seats in the House of Lords.

"Mr. Cameron is set to nominate another bunch of Conservative peers," McLean said. "It's either people who gave him money or people who might be useful; then he has to nominate some for other parties.

"And so the house just gets bigger and bigger without limits, so it's pretty silly."

Though he says the chamber "has become much more challenging of government" since most of the hereditaries went, it doesn't have "a particularly wonderful reputation right now."

So what would it take for the British institution to bounce back from this latest scandal?

McLean isn't sure, though his thoughts turned to former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

"One guy being caught taking cocaine is one guy being caught taking cocaine," he said. "I could ask a Canadian, what would it take for the mayoralty of Toronto to bounce back from your guy?"

"A guy is a guy and the institution is the institution."

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