A quick demonstration of how Nick Clegg has utterly lost his way. His long-promised House of Lords reform isn’t going to be anything of the sort:
The Government’s proposal to retain 12 reserved seats for Church of England Bishops would actually mean an increase proportionately of the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords. Keeping any reserved seats for the Bishops would be an affront to democracy and antithetical to the aims of a fairer and more egalitarian parliament, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has claimed.
The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set out the Government’s plans in a statement to the House of Commons from 15.30 on Tuesday 17 May. The Government’s proposals include a significant reduction in membership of the chamber, from nearly 800 at present to 300, and between 80-100% elected and the remaining appointed. At present, 26 Bishops of the Church of England are entitled to sit in the House of Lords as of right; the only such example of clergy holding automatic membership of a legislature in a modern democracy.
Under current arrangements, Bishops make up 3% of the House of Lords. Under the Government’s proposals that would increase to 4%. Reducing the number of reserved seats for Bishops from 26 to 12 would actually increase their presence proportionately in the chamber.
This is palpably absurd. The Bishops represent the views of unaccountable organised religion and haven’t been voted for by anyone. They are an appalling anachronism in what now, more than ever, needs to be a modern parliament, bent on ever better representation and not privilege. The Bishops should not be there at all. It’s a good thing that the Deputy Prime Minister wants to transform the upper chamber into an elected body, but retaining an increased undemocratic element can’t be allowed to happen. I saw the word ‘religiophobe’ used on Twitter yesterday, and an even better definition:
Religiophobe: One who strives for the elimination of religious privilege in government and public service.
I couldn’t agree more. That’s a badge I’d wear with pride.
by Chris Barnyard
A spokesperson for the J4J (Justice For Jean) campaign last week condemned the decision to give former Met Police chief Ian Blair a peerage as an “insult”.
This seems like a final flourish of a discredited Parliamentary system handing out tawdry awards to political allies and cronies. Actions like this only reinforce the impression that politicians remain detached from the views of ordinary British people.
Jean Charles De Menezes was shot by Met Police officers in 2005. An investigation later showed the Met Police repeatedly tried to block the inquiry into his death.
Vivian Figuereda, cousin of Jean Charles de Menezes, who lived with him at the time of his death said:
We are disgusted at this decision. As Commissioner, we believe Ian Blair was ultimately accountable for the death of Jean, for the lies told and the cover up. He even tried to stop the IPCC investigating our cousin’s death. This is a final slap in the face for our family.
Blogger Kevin Blowe added:
Quite how someone, who deliberately delayed an investigation into a hugely controversial death and whose force was found to have made nineteen catastrophic errors that endangered the lives of Londoners, could ever been viewed as fit to serve in the House of Lords, or provide the benefits of his ’specialist knowledge’, is quite beyond me. Once again, it rather makes the case for the abolition of the Lords so that such blatant acts of patronage are no longer possible.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg will create more than 100 peers to ensure that controversial legislation gets through Parliament.
The coalition government has agreed to reshape the House of Lords, which is currently dominated by Labour, to be “reflective of the vote” at the general election. That saw the Tories and the Liberal Democrats together get 59 per cent.
None of Labour’s 211 existing peers can be removed, so the coalition must appoint dozens of its own to rebalance the upper chamber. Lib Dem estimates suggest that the number of Tory peers would need to rise from 186 to 263 and Lib Dem peers from 72 to 167.
The first wave is expected soon, to enable additional ministerial appointments to take place, with further announcements within the parliament.
But the Lords isn’t supposed to reflect the popular vote in each election, surely? And when it’s elected in future by PR it won’t reflect the same sentiments as the House of Commons, so why should it do so now? I can understand the wish not to bring about the political deadlock which so paralyses the American political process, but this isn’t the way to do it. If there’s to be constitutional reform, even transitory reform, it can’t be a partial thing. For the parties promising it to be abusing it as long as they can get away with smacks of rank hypocrisy at the very least. The Lib Dems are good on so many other aspects of this challenge, that it’s surprising they should be happy with such shameless political gerrymandering. There’s nothing ‘new’ about these politics.
The House of Lords has voted to allow civil partnerships on religious premises:
The amendment to the Equality Bill, which was tabled as a free vote by gay Muslim peer Waheed Alli, received overwhelming backing in the Lords, including from a number of prominent Anglican bishops.
Under current UK law religious venues are forbidden from holding civil partnerships, although some liberal denominations within Christianity and Judaism have been willing to bless gay unions once a partnership ceremony has taken place elsewhere.
The lifting of the ban, which still needs to be approved by the House of Commons, will now give religious venues the option of conducting civil partnerships – but it will not compel them to do so, as some traditionalists had feared.
Lord Alli denied the suggestion that religious communities would be forced to accept gay marriages.
“Religious freedom cannot begin and end with what one religion wants,” he said. “This amendment does not place an obligation on any religious organisation to host civil partnerships in their buildings. But there are many gay and lesbian couples who want to share their civil partnership with the congregations that they worship with. And there are a number of religious organisations that want to allow gay and lesbian couples to do exactly that.”
No doubt the religious fundamentalist set will denounce this as an anti-religious move, but as Alli points out this, if approved by the Commons (and how appalling would it be if the Commons struck this down?), would allow civil partnerships on religious premises, not demand them. It’s amazing how often the devoutly religious wilfully mix the the two up, but the distinction is pretty important because it’s about religious freedom for all. As Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill says:
‘We’ve argued throughout that this is an important matter of religious freedom. Ministers have known for some months that we intended to table this measure and we regret that the Government didn’t stand up to the bullying it faced from some churches on this issue. We’ll now work closely with ministers to ensure that we secure implementation of this further step towards equality. This vote is hugely important to those gay people of faith (and, as Lady Neuberger pointed out, to their Jewish mothers too!) who wish to celebrate their civil partnerships in their own place of worship.’
It should have been unthinkable to have had a ban in the first place. Why any religion should have the freedom to discriminate based purely on the grounds of the bigoted beliefs of some, is beyond me. But this government has kowtowed incessantly towards the religious lobby, and in the run-up to the general election will no doubt continue to do so. Remember civil partnerships are still only for gay people, and marriage is only for straight people. In a European Union where even Catholic Spain has marriage equality I fail to comprehend why Britain’s inequality is allowed to continue.
Of course, any move to ensure gay people are treated the same as everyone else is immediately labelled “political correctness” and smothered in exaggeration and distortion. The defenders of homophobia can no longer, in polite society, say they think gay people are disgusting and immoral. Too many people have grasped the simple, humane truth that every human society in history has had 3 to 5 per cent of people who were attracted to their own gender, and it does no harm to anyone. So the homophobes have resorted to other tactics. One that has been growing over the past year is to claim that gay people who are trying to stop bullying and intimidation are “the real bullies”, trying to “silence” poor embattled homophobes.
We’ve got it happening with Christianists through to newspaper columnists – attacking homophobia is being spun as ‘infringing the right to believe’ or ‘breaching freedom of speech’; we do after all live in the age where there are no more universally understood or accepted ‘truths’. Just this week the House of Lords scrapped an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill which would have criminalised incitement to homophobic hatred. The homophobes would have you believe it represented a victory for free speech:
it is defeat for what would have been an undemocratic and quite sinister attempt to prohibit the expression of opinions and feelings of which government disapproves (even though those opinions – disapproval of homosexual practices - constitute religious principles for many Muslims, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews). Lesson: freedom of speech must be indivisible – even if it is sometimes hurtful and offensive.
But just look at what the amendment actually said:
“For the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.”
It’s pretty clear where the real bullying is here, and Ian Baynham knew it too, when he stood up for who he was against homophobic hatred. Hari suggests the ‘political correctness’ and religious fundamentalist lobbies legitimise hatred which leads to cases like Ian’s, like James Parkes’, like Michael Causer’s. I would tend to agree. The Christian Institute celebrated the amendment’s defeat however, saying it was a ‘victory for common sense’. Yet Hari points out:
[The] Stonewall study found that in schools with a consistent policy of punishing homophobic language, gay children were 60 per cent less likely to be attacked. That fall in violence could ripple out from the school gates – but today, only 6 per cent of schools adopt this policy. The Government should immediately make it mandatory.
They should indeed – incitement to homophobic hatred must be banned.
Reform of Britain’s upper house might have been a priority for New Labour in 1997, but as with many other important issues, they’re only just getting around to it. Justice Secretary Jack Straw now appears to acknowledge it’s time to elect our senators-in-all-but-name, but wants it to take a generation to happen:
Straw said: “All the parties are agreed that moving to an 80% or 100% elected house will take three parliaments. By definition you need not do 100% before arriving at an 80% threshold. Therefore it follows that reformers do not need to tie themselves in knots about whether the final destination is 80% or 100%. If we get to 80% that would be a major achievement.”
Reformers, who will have a chance to question Straw at the seminar, may express disappointment that the government is not endorsing a wholly elected chamber from the outset. The government has faced criticism for the slow pace of reform after the expulsion of all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999.
The justice secretary will defend his decision to move at a measured pace for three reasons: it is right to try to build a consensus; his proposal keeps alive the prospect of a wholly elected upper house; and it will take time to introduce a complex electoral system.
Let me make this clear – I don’t believe 80% would be acceptable, and taking 15 years to do so would be beyond a joke. It sends out the message that the New Labour bigwigs who are about to lose their jobs want to feather their nests, and discredits the whole point of reform – democratising the political process. I believe the scrutinising chamber should be wholly elected by single transferable vote, but this brings up the other question – if it’s so important to reform the upper house of parliament, why is it then apparently unimportant once again to reform the House of Commons? The power of whips over the composition of select committees is still total, the executive is still using statutory instruments to get legislation passed over the heads of the legislature; there is next to no meaningful oversight over laws passed in our name. Oh and of course there’s the thorny issue of the voting system, which remains not at all representative, and forces confrontational politics to fight over a small pool of swing voters rather than actually offering the change the country needs.
Lords reform is important but nowhere near as important as reforming the voting system. Sign Vote for a Change’s referendum here if you want the chance to have your vote actually mean something.