Long Live the Lords!

The House of Lords is like a living, breathing newspaper – its collective mind is a mine of information. In my experience, though, the calibre of its content is far higher than you will find in any broadsheet. Together, we in the Lords, are an encyclopaedia of detailed and practical knowledge: we Peers tend to know what has worked and, more importantly, what hasn’t. The Commons may have the hand on the wheel but we have a grasp on the tiller: we are here to guide, not to command. If the Lords are weakened, diluted and thinned out through hasty and botched reforms, the Commons will find themselves rudderless and adrift and it will be the people and our democracy that will suffer and be weakened in the process.

As a social reformer, I don’t believe in the adage “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. Things may not be broken but that doesn’t always mean they work well. But the House of Lords is not broken and it does work well so why throw a spanner in the works of this finely tuned machine? ‘Fairness’, ‘proportional representation’ and ‘equality’ are impressive words but how do they translate into practical, working reality? As a social entrepreneur with over 25 years working in some of the most deprived areas in Britain and having achieved real, positive and lasting results, I know that high and lofty political spin and media speak rarely help Karen and her kids at street level. Recently, in a debate in the Lords, I invited each MP to engage with reality and become involved in one project in their constituency to play their part in building the “big society”.
Education, Health, Welfare, and Culture – 3rd June 2010

For me the most important word in the world of Westminster is “honour”. It is a word that the Commons use frequently: “my honourable friend”; “the Right Honourable gentleman”. But the meaning of the word has been lost in translation. Members of Parliament sorely need to re-earn trust by re-establishing their honour. If the Commons cannot keep its own House in order, and do the maths, its members should not attempt to re-order ‘the Other Place’.

Tradition, pomp and circumstance are all criticised in the Lords at present: are the robes necessary? Isn’t State Opening a waste of money? A few weeks ago, after the election, we had a State Opening. It struck me that the robes and the ceremony I was witnessing are as relevant today as they were when created centuries ago. By putting on the robes, through swearing allegiance, by physically participating in the Parliamentary process, we – Lords and MPs collectively – were literally reminded that honour is central to the longevity of both Houses. I thought Earl Ferrers’s opening speech in response to the Queen’s speech showed great insight in this regard. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/100525-0001.htm#1005255000143

If reform is necessary, then changes need to be carefully measured. Most of the proposals for change come at present from the Commons. Not many people realise that the two Houses operate on two entirely separate systems – until recently, even the computer systems were different! This is for good reason: The House of Lords must be kept as a second chamber if it is to scrutinise and examine legislation effectively. It must not become an identical twin of the Other Place.

What concerns me then is not that calls for change are being made but that those calls come from people that in reality have very little understanding of how the Lords works on a practical day to day basis. They do not understand the detail and if I have learnt anything it is that the devil is in the detail.