Sewel scandal poses PR questions for Cameron and Lords, say experts

The resignation of Labour peer Lord Sewel over a sex and drugs scandal highlights the House of Lords' "horrible PR problem", public affairs experts say.

Calling Sewel a 'crony' could heighten public suspicions around upcoming life peer appointments, it is suggested
Calling Sewel a 'crony' could heighten public suspicions around upcoming life peer appointments, it is suggested

It could also draw public attention towards forthcoming Lords appointments at an inopportune time for Prime Minister David Cameron.

Lord Sewel resigned from his role as deputy speaker of the House of Lords on Sunday, after The Sun on Sunday published a front-page story saying that Lord Sewel had "snorted cocaine with two vice girls at this London flat".

The allegations against him, which will be investigated by the police, were described as "shocking and unacceptable" by the Lords speaker Baroness D’Souza.

Stephen Day, managing director and chair of the public affairs practice at Burson-Marsteller, said that the fact the news broke during silly season could pose difficulties for Cameron.

Day said Cameron is due to shortly appoint a number of additional life peers, appointments he said were "vital to get the Government’s programme through now the Lib Dems are now longer voting with the Conservatives in the Lords". With The Sun’s focus on Sewel having been a ‘crony’ of former PM Tony Blair, it may now be more difficult for Cameron to announce these quietly and with little fanfare.

"If the PM can’t appoint the critical peers he needs or feels restrained in doing so, it might be that this one man’s behaviour has a big knock-on effect for this Government," Day said.

More broadly, Day said the Sewel scandal "will bring into the public mind the question 'are these people worthy of overseeing our laws?'", and could renew momentum of decades-old debates over the make-up and function of the upper chamber.

Andy Silvester, campaign director at The TaxPayers’ Alliance, said that the story would add to widespread – albeit in his view "largely unfounded" – public views of the House of Lord as "a kind of luxurious retirement home for the great and good".

Silvester went on to say: "In truth, the House of Lords has a horrible PR problem: the majority of peers are hardworking, not just scrutinising legislation but performing valuable committee work and plenty of community outreach, but nobody seems to know about it."

He suggested this PR problem could be combated by "doing away with some of the more anachronistic elements of proceedings, and encouraging some of those peers who are ready for a life out of the public eye to retire", adding: "The fact that Britain's unelected upper chamber is now the second largest legislature in the world, behind only the Chinese People's Congress, is a little bizarre."

Update: The morning after this PRWeek story was published, The Sun published a double-page spread highlighting others peers' indiscretions and legal trouble, under the headline 'Shamed again... Is Lords' Time Up?'. The accompanying article included quotes from Conservative and Labour MPs suggesting reform of the Lords was needed, including Labour MP Stephen Pound echoing Silvester's concern about the size of the house's membership.

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