Paddy Ashdown

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I’ve never had anything against Paddy Ashdown. I’ve always thought of him as a sort of genial, auburn raisin in camouflage gear, crinkling with amusement (or outrage) on Question Time, and occasionally being wheeled out at conference time so that young Lib Dems can come and dip their fingers in his facial crags and dream of hung parliaments.

No, I never had anything against Lord Ashdown until he piped up in the Lords debate over the Owen / Hennessy amendment on the Health And Social Care Bill yesterday. The amendment argued that the bill was such a drastic alteration to the way in which the NHS functioned that parts of it should be examined closely by a special committee. At a crucial moment as the amendment was coming to a vote, Lord Ashdown sputtered into life:

“If it must be considered in a committee,” he railed, looking for all the world like a squared-off orangutan scrotum in an ill-fitting suit, “What on earth is our function?”

Well, quite.

What is the function of the House of Lords? Except as an affront to the very idea of democracy. It somehow manages to be the least-democratic of the Houses of Parliament, which is saying quite something. (For the record: No, I don’t think a minority of swing voters in marginal constituencies deciding the government of the country for everyone else twice a decade is what Aristotle was thinking of when he talked about democracy. Had he any idea how close to oligarchy and aristocracy it could look, he might not have been so set against the idea of government by the people.)

Really, would someone like to explain what the function of the House of Lords is?

It’s not even like it’s a bulwark of tradition, because those peers who do not have to worry about the shifting winds of political opinion, the hereditary peers, have mostly been ditched. What’s left are those who could suck up to a government enough to be made a life peer.

Yesterday’s vote was defeated by 68 votes. There have been 100 new Conservative peers created since the election. David Cameron, has appointed more peers more quickly than any other Prime Minister in history, so much so that the chamber gets too full to accommodate them all. And their colostomy bags.

The Coalition pledged to reform the House of Lords, presumably by stuffing it to bursting point with placemen and placewomen, so that it would reform in much the way that ‘reclaimed meat’ does. They will become one, immense, dense, Spam of a House, issuing edicts from above. Lordzilla, filling her egg chamber – sorry, debating chamber – almost entirely, feasting on Manuka honey and stoat-corpses. Sometimes, if you peer closely, you’ll see the face of Shirley Williams or Floella Benjamin stuck just underneath the surface, screaming silently.

The other view you hear is that their greater life experience allows peers to take a more balanced, nuanced look at legislation.  Lord Hunt of Wirral, who introduced the Health and Social Care Bill into the Lords, is an exec director of Beachcroft, which advises many private health companies. Indeed, as reported in The Mirror, in a brochure advertising their lobbying services for private healthcare firms, Beachroft says “In David Hunt and Charles Clarke, Beachcroft has two former senior Cabinet ministers with unrivalled knowledge of the workings of ­Westminster.” In all, 40 peers have financial interests with private healthcare firms. Thank goodness their outside interests allow them to take a dispassionate look at legislation.

The other argument one hears is that the Lords serve as a corrective and a hindrance to The Commons.  Unfortunately, it’s not true.

As we saw time and time again throughout Labour’s period in government, the Lords were more than happy to wave through the Terorrism Act of 2000, or the one that followed not a year later, the Identity Cards Act of 2006. No assault on our civil liberties was too egregious to rouse the Lords from the slumber.

Well almost none. The one time in living memory the Lords have actually behaved in the way the Lords are nominally meant to behave was over, wait for it, fox hunting! What is it that can actually generate enough fury in the Lords to get them to send a bill back repeatedly? The right to have one animal tear another apart! And not because they are outraged by it, but because they support it.

The Lords is a profoundly undemocratic institution. The only argument for their continued existence is that they actually, on occasion, act as such. If there is a role for the Lords, it must be to represent those interests which are not represented by the majority party in the House of Commons, or at least to ensure that their rights are not abridged. It must behave like the undemocratic institution it is, if it is to have a purpose at all.

Or is it really just to provide a comfortable retirement home for Olympians and the principals of Oxbridge colleges?

One of the arguments used by the government every time it tries to get rid of the right to jury trials (oh, that’s right, they did! With the Criminal Justice Act 2003! Did the Lords do anything about it? Um…) is that juries sometimes return ‘perverse verdicts’. The argument runs that because juries decide that , despite the law, someone should or should not be considered guilty of an offence, they should be phased out.

But that is the point of a jury.

If justice were best served by the constant and consistent application of the law as written, then there would be no need for juries. Juries are there to look beyond the law and at the individual details of a case. They are there as reasonable, normal members of the community to make a determination as to whatever is just, in spite of the law when necessary. Because the law is a blunt instrument, it doesn’t fit all cases equally well, and the best system we have is to get a group of people together to discuss the case at a human level and come to a decision. Perverse verdicts aren’t a weakness but a strength of jury trials.

And the same goes for the Lords. If they aren’t perverse, they are pointless. And as we have seen, they are unwilling to be perverse. They are an ‘upper’ chamber in thrall to those in the ‘lower’ who appointed them. They are a bizarre anachronism, an insult to all thinking people, and every day they form part of our government is another day away from us ever achieving anything like democracy.

In answer to your question, Lord Ashdown:

Nothing. Now, piss off.