Sunday, May 21, 2006

"we love our House of Peers"

posted by k

The existence of a House of Lords is indefensible. It's a relic of feudalism, an abuse of patronage, a means by which the government reinforces itself by recruiting the generous and like-minded.

Now Tony Blair plans to curtail the Lords' powers to delay and revise Bills. It's not a role they should fulfil but they have become, absurdly, the last hope of democracy and, on occasion, our defence against state power.

It's not always so. Last week Lord Peyton urged the removal of Brian Haw from Parliament Square, on the grounds that his protest is "messy". Aesthetic preference, he argued, is worth more than freedom. In the long term the Lords must be abolished or reformed into a democratic institution; some of these unelected people are rather stupid.

However, on occasion, the Lords do ask the right questions. They may look at the likely effect of Bills before them. Some even think. Too many MPs troop ignorantly into lobbies at the call of the pager, like sheep trying to ensure the farmer who reared them for slaughter will take home the trophy from the sheepdog trials.

We can't reform the Lords without looking at our elected representatives in the Commons. We are ruled by a party elected by less than 37% of the voters - about 22% of the electorate. Few Members of Parliament attend debates in the House of Commons - perhaps to avoid being swayed by arguments or evidence. As far as intelligent votes on laws are concerned, we might as well vote for a bar of chocolate or a speak-your-weight machine. Come to think of it, the first might offer constituents more comfort and the second more honesty.

If our unrepresentative MPs read the votes they enacted, that would be a start. But would they understand them? MPs are well trained in public speaking and being interviewed. They know which colours complement their features and take advice on appropriate hairstyles. Does anyone, I wonder, train our law-makers in framing or reading a Bill in Parliament - or how to understand it in relation to laws and treaties of the past.

It's not easy - as word got out about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, all sorts of individuals - some with no training - worked for hours and days trying to understand exactly what the Bill said and what effect it would have on past legislation.

Some members of the House of Lords have time and the right kind of expertise. Lords don't have to be marketed like an exciting new brand of floral shampoo to attract the right market sector when launched on the electorate. Lords can choose which interests to defend although, given their background, they're more likely to support wealth and hereditary privilege than to care for the destitute.

Tony Blair's purpose in rushing through Lords' reform is evident. Given his record and the time he's had already, he's not driven by a desire for democracy. He just wants to push his plans into law more easily, and with far less public attention.

Last week was the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Next week, it's the Armed Forces Bill (which got through the Lords too easily - before reaching MPs). There may be numerous other Bills and Statutory Instruments which no-one has scrutinised - and there will be more on the way. Government lies about the way the Human Rights Act works indicates some rapid amendment to sweep away more of our rights and liberties.
The speed with which Bills are devised and hustled through parliament allows little pause for reflection.

Many of us now log on to the Parliament website to see what Bills are on their way. We're trying to understand them. We need a proper system of scrutiny. MPs should read Bills attentively before voting for them.

In the meantime, let's hang on to the House of Lords. They're a poor substitute for a free commonwealth, and a better system is needed. But until we can devise one, they may be the best hope we have.


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