Lord Sewel’s career is well and truly over. His alleged participation in illicit activities involving drugs and prostitutes, as reported by The Sun, has caused fatal damage to his little-known reputation. It’s hard to see how he could excuse the behaviour caught on camera, but Sewel will be all too aware that his actions have damaged public perceptions about the House of Lords and Westminster generally.
In an age where elected politicians are highly scrutinised, the public has little understanding of the House of Lords, who ends up in there and what it does. When a scandal such as this breaks, it only confirms their worst fears about politicians and peers. As well as these actions, Sewel has made matters worse with some choice remarks about changes to expenses:
‘It’s all changed and disappeared. People were making false claims.’
And some well-meaning thoughts about his colleagues:
‘Members of her Lordship’s House who are right thieves, rogues and bastards at times. Wonderful people that they are.’
Sewel’s words are unlikely to be judged as utterly trustworthy but he does create the impression that all peers are rogues. This is not the case and to protect the reputation of the house, Sewel should consider what to do next (assuming he cares). He has already resigned as deputy speaker but as a life peer, he remains a member of the Lords.
There is, however, a constitutionally interesting new avenue that can be pursued: suspending or expelling Sewel. The House of Lords (Suspension and Expulsion) Act 2015 introduced earlier this year allows for peers to be barred or removed from the House. Helpfully, there is a blog on the Huffington Post explaining how the process of expulsion can happen — written by none other than Sewel himself:
‘All allegations of breaches of the members’ code or the staff code are investigated by the independent House of Lords Commissioner for Standards. In addition to receiving complaints from the public, the Commissioner can himself launch an investigation into a Member’s conduct.
‘No system of regulation can be perfect, but the House of Lords has come a long way since 2010 in improving its regulation of its Members and punishing the small number who misbehave. Today’s new sanctions strengthen the regime further.’
As Sewel puts it, ‘scandals make good headlines’. There is a terrific irony in this situation — the man who drew up the new punishments will be the first test of them — so it’s unlikely that the Lords Commissioner for Standards will go easy on him. If Sewel is guilty, it would save a lot of hassle if he stepped down from the Lords now and ended the story.