It’s the 21st Century. So why do we have a legislative chamber where half the population is excluded from some categories of seats because of gender?
I went to a debate on the Transparency in Lobbying Bill in Cambridge this week. Julian Huppert took a lot of fire from a panel and an audience that was hostile to the bill. If anything, it should have been a Conservative minister or MP in favour of the bill that should have been defending it, rather than Julian who abstained from the votes on the bill.
I stated that the House of Commons failed in its public duty to ensure proper scrutiny of this bill – something one of the ministers (Jo Swinson) took issue with. (See this tweet to Puffles). The House of Lords’ Constitution Committee has already slammed the way the bill was handled in the Commons – see here. Much as I want the Lords to reject the bill at second reading, I don’t expect the cross-benchers to mobilise in the numbers required to kill the bill. That’s not to say it won’t get an easy ride. I’m on the look out for how the whips will whip MPs to overturn the amendments the Lords make to the bill.
“Lords? I didn’t know we had a Lord! I thought we were living in an autonomous collective!”
In the 21st Century we still have one class of peer where women are effectively constitutionally barred from sitting: The bishops/Lords spiritual. Given the nature of aristocratic succession laws, it’s very difficult for women to succeed to aristocratic titles – as the list of hereditary peers (skewed heavily in favour of the Conservatives) illustrates. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the constitutional outrage that is the existence of hereditary peers who by birthright can bring in amendments to legislation. As for rewarding failure, how about giving the former chairman of Northern Rock a hereditary seat in the Lords – and a Conservative one at that? (See here for my reaction).
It shows how poorly the Commons functions – it is dysfunctional as Julian Huppert said at the meeting – when it’s the House of Lords that provides the more stronger and detailed scrutiny. Ask any policy civil servant that has supported ministers taking legislation and chances are most will say that scrutiny in the Lords is far harder to respond to than scrutiny by MPs. Yet Julian mentioned the term “It’s up to Parliament to bring in the changes” – or words to that effect. The problem is that it is very difficult for the public to see where ‘parliamentary initiative’ comes from. Even more so with the current Leader of the House being Andrew Lansley, responsible for two of the most poorly drafted pieces of legislation to be tabled in Parliament by a government minister in recent times. As the Lords’ Constitution Committee say here, the handling of the bill by Lansley has been poor. It’s as he learned nothing from the unprecedented ‘pause’ of the Health and Social Care Bill (See here). Far better to get the policy right and then table the legislation rather than to get the policy wrong and rely on Parliament to throw lots of amendments at it to improve both in a very rushed and uncoordinated manner.
Yet this is what we are stuck with.
And it’s wrong.
So when it comes to sorting out Parliament’s systems and structures, I don’t ever want to hear MPs or peers saying “It’s for Parliament to resolve”. You’re a member of that institution – show some leadership and drive that change! Get some of your fellow MPs & peers from all parties & none, together. Engage with the public on what changes they’d like to see. Make life difficult for those that are barriers to the much-needed changes. Don’t fall back and say ‘Oh, it’s complicated and will take some time’ – set out a vision and a sequence of things that need to happen to force the issue.
Don’t be surprised if the public make the judgement call that the problems of Parliament – including the institutionalised sexism in the House of Lords – are just not important enough for you to resolve and that you are otherwise content to leave things as they are in the meantime.