HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM IS BAD NEWS FOR THE DISABLED

 

Let me be honest at the start: I am appalled at plans to reform the House of Lords which in my view amounts to 850 years of history cast aside on a whim.

The Government wants 80 per cent of the peers in the House of Lords to be elected. They also want to cut the number of peers by almost half to 450.

Hereditary and most peers would be replaced with elected members who would be able to serve for 15 years, instead of the current system which allows peers to be lifetime members.

It may all sound jolly good on paper and right in line with current political dogma, but I am wondering if protaganists for the bill including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have really understood what the nation will be losing if this piece of constitutional vandalism actually comes to pass.

One reason why the Government is pushing for reforms is because it says the current unelected chamber is not democratic.

But I would argue the current system works actually works very well and here is why:

There are dozens of peers whose experience of life, say in academia or sciences, qualifies them to  bring a dazzling amount of intellect into proposed bills as they pass through the Lords. They currently do this day in and day out when the Lords is sitting.

And just because a fractionally small percentage of the population has failed to put a cross on a ballot paper we may well lose these brilliant peers whose contribution to law making is beyond measure; learned men and women simply jettisoned with no thank you, no goodbye; simply cast aside as if they are worthless.

But that is possibly not the worst consequences of the proposed reforms.

There is one tranche of very special people close to my heart who will almost certainly be lost from the House of Lords if the new bill goes through – disabled peers.

Getting elected is tough if you are disabled. Maybe that is why Members of Parliament with disabilities are as rare as hens’ teeth.  You can count them only on two hands including the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown who was blind in one eye and former Home Secretary David Blunkett who was blind since birth. There is also Dame Anne Begg who when she was elected as an MP in 1997 was the first permanent wheelchair user in the House of Commons.

One reason for the lack of disabled MPs  is the terrible strain electioneering puts on those seeking public office.

A campaign saps a candidate both mentally and physically. I can say from personal experience at election time sleep-starved election candidates cover many miles on foot to knock on doors, deliver leaflets and attend meetings. The sheer physical toll is terribly harsh, even for the able bodied.

For anyone with disabilities the campaign trail is a nightmare and to be frank it is almost impossible to get elected if you are disabled.

And how we urgently need MPs and peers who are disabled.

A large proportion of society suffers from some disability. And the number is bound to grow especially as by 2020 a third of the UK’s population will be over seventy years old.  Consequently the insights of disabled people ought to be embedded in the legislative process.

There are disabled peers in the House of Lords. But they are not known because of their disabilities, but as a result of their fantastic work and highly varied input into bills; Labour, LibDem, Conservative and Crossbenchers –  they will all vanish like melted snow and we will not see their like again if the so called House of Lords Reform Bill goes through.

I raised this serious issue with the Deputy Prime Minister’s office a few weeks ago but the response I got was not satisfactory.

I was told disabled people could go and sit as appointed crossbench peers. How demeaning and discriminatory for it implies because of their disability disabled peers are just a footnote  and they should be removed from party politics.

My other big concern is if the appointment of disabled “senators” is left to disability rights groups the appointees could find themselves beholden to lobbyists. Indeed under the proposed new system they could be plagued by lobbyists.

At the moment disabled peers enter the House of Lords simply as people, not because they represent a certain segment of the disabled world. If they are appointed by a group it will mean they are not there as individuals but to fulfil a purpose. That cannot be right.

And before we start trying to reform the House of Lords let us see what the upper chamber has got right. Women for example, are at the forefront in the Lords. Thirty are in top positions. The leader of the opposition and the Government chief whip are women. Disabled peers often remark how well they are treated in the House of Lords. The Upper Chamber is way ahead of the House of Commons in terms of representation.

In attempting to change the British Constitution, those trying to change the House of Lords would do well to look ahead at where this could lead, and take care lest their democratic ideals lead to the unbalanced representation of the citizens at the top level of government. 

The irony, it seems, is that in attempting to listen to the diverse views of the public in the form of elections, the diversity within the House of Lords may be lost for ever.