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Sunday, 21 November 2010

Elected Lords = Emasculated Democracy

Those who repeatedly bleat about their wish of a completed elected House of Lords are asking for one of the most important checks on government power to be completely emasculated under the guise of "greater democracy". This is what happens when good intentions meets lack of political knowledge. 

A lot of people make comments about politics with little understanding of politics. For instance, they criticise the Lib Dems for "breaking election promises" on tuition fees without recognition that when you enter a coalition you have to negotiate and the result is a joint manifesto in which both sides have to drop elements of their manifesto and get to keep others. But in this case there is a real need for those campaigning to arm themselves with that political understanding, because the consequences of this particular change are particularly dangerous for the way our country runs itself.

The House of Lords is known by many other names, but one of them is as an 'amending' chamber. They possess no governmental power whatsoever apart from the ability to delay a bill passed by the House of Commons. But this power is absolutely vital. They scrutinise every piece of legislation created and if they don't feel it is right will send it back to the Commons to be redrafted.

This has all come to the forefront of our minds by the naming of new working peers by the parties over the past week which redressed the balance of peers to the point where the coalition government is in the majority, having had a Labour majority in the Lords for a long time. Opponents of the way the Lords is run have argued that this appointment by political dictat is one of the problems with the House of Lords.

The Lords consists of 26 'Lords spritiual' - senior bishops in the United Kingdom. Then there are the 'Lords Temporal' appointed by the Queens through the political parties and also called 'Life Peers'. Finally we have the 'hereditary peers' who sit in the Lord as a right of birth. Following a series of reforms under Labour we are down to 91 hereditary peers out currently 738 members, and that list will get smaller. The fact that this country has 26 Lords appointed from the church is obviously controversial given our ethnic mix, but this argument about membership is really about the temporal Lords.

Opponents of the temporal Lords argue that Lords should be elected by the population. On first sight this makes sense. Why shouldn't we the people elect them? The answer is because if they did then the government would quite simply no longer be held to account, and democracy would lose out.

Why? Because the Lords - even though many are appointed by political parties - take their roles very seriously and revel in their independence. Tony Blair's Labour government were defeated over 400 times in the House of Lords even though it there were more Labour-appointed peers than anyone else. For example, we would have 42 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects if it wasn't for the House of Lords. It is precisely because they DON'T have to rely on their party for re-election and other jobs that they will act with such independence.

There was an early Coalition Cabinet meeting when the Academies Bill was being discussed and David Cameron allegedly turned to Lord Strathclyde (Conservative Leader of the House of Lords) and asked if Strathclyde could "get his people into line on this". Lord Strathclyde's answer was "“Er, that’s not quite how it works in our place, Prime Minister.” This shows that even the most senior politicians forget what the Lords is for sometimes. 

If the Lords were elected - let's say every five years - the following would happen. They would become reliant on their political parties for money and campaign expertise and could not afford to rebel against them. The Lords, effectively, would reflect the Commons in terms of party balance and whichever party was in government would see their legislation sail through relatively unchallenged.

The Lords at the moment is made up of a far older group of people, most of whom have had actual life experience in the outside world.  As Rachel Sylvester pointed out in The Times recently - "An elected senate would not have Lord Winston, the fertility doctor, to comment on medical ethics or Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, to discuss anti-terror laws. It would be deprived of Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, the former head of the Armed Forces, asking about Afghanistan, and Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, raising concerns about sentencing guidelines. It would miss out on Lord Browne of Madingley, the former head of BP, and Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, and Lord Darzi of Denham, the surgeon who once saved the life of a fellow peer having a heart attack in the Lords."

The alternative is for the Lords to become elected, but basically a dumping ground for professional politicians with no experience outside politics and who had failed to get elected. I realise that on the recent list is Oona King, who has made a career out of failing to get elected so needed to get appointed....but she is an exception to the rule that the House of Lords is a good thing for this country's democracy, and until someone can persuade me that an elected Lords will improve our democracy I hope it stays just how it is.

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