M. Continuo

Cameron appoints new members to scandal-tainted upper chamber

By William James

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron appointed 26 supporters on Thursday to Britain's unelected upper chamber of parliament, reigniting criticism of an institution long branded as undemocratic and elitist and now reeling from a sex-and-drugs scandal.

In Britain a prime minister has the right to regularly replenish the ranks of the House of Lords with political appointees. With 826 members at present, the ancient chamber is the world's second largest legislative body after China's National People's Congress. Many lords serve lifelong terms.

Thursday's appointments are designed to help Cameron's Conservatives -- who have a majority in the elected 650-seat lower chamber, the House of Commons, but not in the Lords -- to pass laws without them being blocked, changed or watered down.

The list, comprising ex-lawmakers, party advisers and business figures, included William Hague, a former Conservative Party leader who served under Cameron as foreign secretary.

The Lords, who debate in a lavishly decorated chamber and often wear grand ceremonial red robes tipped with ermine fur collars, frequently serve as a lightning rod for public frustration over Britain's ruling class.

"Everything about the House of Lords screams to people that it's an out-of-touch club," Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society campaign group, told Reuters.

"They see a second chamber that looks nothing like them, their lives and the country they live in. People from all corners of the UK will look at it and think 'the people there aren't speaking up for me'."

The increasing cost of the Lords, who can claim up to 300 pounds ($460) per day for attending parliament, at a time of public sector pay restrictions and public spending cuts has boosted calls for reform or outright abolition of the chamber.

"At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet, people will see this as the Tories (Conservatives) putting their cronies before the country," said Lucy Powell, spokeswoman for the main opposition Labour Party.

As well as the 26 new Conservative Lords, Cameron also appointed on Thursday eight new peers from Labour and 11 from the Liberal Democrats.

Ghose estimated the new appointments would cost at least 1.2 million pounds a year. A parliamentary report put the total cost of the chamber at 94.4 million pounds in 2014-15.

"NO POINT" IN REFORM

The clamour for reform gained fresh momentum recently when one senior member of the Lords was filmed snorting what The Sun on Sunday newspaper said was cocaine with two prostitutes. That prompted another national newspaper, the Daily Mirror, to launch a campaign to abolish the chamber.

Cameron attempted to reform the upper house during his first term as prime minister, promising in his 2010 election manifesto to create a "mainly elected" second chamber. But a rebellion in his own party ranks scuppered that plan.

After winning a second five-year term in May, Cameron said there was "no point" in trying to revive the plan and instead signalled he would appoint new members in an attempt to gain greater influence in the chamber.

Cameron still lacks a majority in the Lords, meaning that the chamber could still hold up, for example, his plans for a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union, his push to replace human rights laws and other reforms.

By convention, the chamber does not block bills that fulfil promises in the governing party's election manifesto, but it can amend them.

Ultimately, the House of Commons can overrule the Lords, but many Lords amendments do become law, and the back and forth between the chambers can delay government plans.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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