Saturday, 7 November 2015

Oh, the irony as I find myself rooting for unelected Lords - my Catholic Universe column

Regular readers of this column may well have by now gathered that I have a something of a problem with double standards. I hate them and, although we are all guilty of them from time to time, whenever I see them I try to redress the balance.

Close viewers of Westminster politics will rightly assert that the past week has been a classic for hypocrisy and for me, at least, I think it’s time to set the record straight.

With many MP’s wanting to get home to their constituencies Fridays are usually something of a light day in parliament. They are a day for non-contentious government business and often a day for other matters such as private members bills.

Last Friday was one such day. Labour backbench MP Julie Cooper had won a place in the lottery of private members bills and her Hospital Parking Charges Bill had been scheduled for debate in the chamber.

Ms Cooper’s bill was an excellent one. Carers are undoubtedly some of the most undervalued members of our society, they often carry out untold hours of work looking after the sick and infirm often for hardly any financial compensation.

Had her bill been successful Ms Cooper’s proposed legislation would have saw carers visiting the hospital afforded the ‘luxury’ of not having to pay for car parking. Hardly an extravagant gesture when carers will usually be visiting to provide assistance to their charges but nevertheless a worthwhile one when considering the contribution they make.

The only problem is Ms Cooper’s excellent bill didn’t stand a chance of becoming legislation for one very straightforward reason. A small number of Conservative parliamentarians lead by Tory MP for Shipley Philip Davies had decided to talk the bill out.

To be brutally honest I have no idea what Mr Davies has against providing free hospital parking for carers, it seems to me like a perfectly laudable idea, but last Friday he took to his feet and spoke for 90 minutes to ensure that there was not enough time for a vote to be taken which would have allowed the bill to progress.

The process of talking out a bill is known as a filibuster and has been around since Roman times.

Supporters of the bill, many from the left of the political spectrum, went wild pouring scorn on Mr Davies for his use of this parliamentary tool. How could one man be so callous as to use this awful antiquated device to stop an excellent bill?

And that is where the double standards kick in.

I think Mr Davies is wrong in opposing such a worthwhile bill, something that I very much hope will eventually get picked up by government in order to ensure its success can be guaranteed, but he was entirely at liberty to use the concept of the filibuster.

But my question has to be how many of those castigating Mr Davies would have been applauding American Democrat State Senator Wendy Davis, in June 2013, when she conducted an 11 hour filibuster which made global news to prevent the passing of a bill limiting abortion rights?

How many would have lauded Liberal Democrat MP’s who, in 2007, talked out a private members bill seeking to exempt Members of Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act?

My point is this. Filibusters have been around hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Sometimes they help our viewpoint and sometimes they don’t. But when they don’t it should not mean that they become a reprehensible concept.

We shouldn’t castigate Mr Davies for his use of the filibuster although it is perfectly correct to disagree with him on his viewpoint that Ms Cooper’s bill was worth voting upon.

As someone wisely once said we should play the ball, not the man.

Astonishingly however Mr Davies’ use of questionable parliamentary process wasn’t even the most notable occasion that that topic had raised its head this week.

That honour has to go to the House of Lords and Working Tax Credits and I would put a great deal of money on the likelihood that those criticising Mr Davies for his use of obscure parliamentary procedure were joining in the chorus of approval when the unelected peers effectively scuppered the will of the elected House of Commons.

The behaviour of the House of Lords has been a difficult circle to square this week.

We have a Conservative government with a working majority of MP’s who have introduced what even Tory colleagues tell me is an appalling piece of legislation which will only harm the working poor which has nevertheless passed properly through the House of Commons.

For well over a hundred years there has been a general acceptance that the upper house should not hinder the passage of financial bills but seemingly last week it would appear that is exactly what their Lordships did.

Of course no one is quite sure whether they did or not. Surely every departmental bill sent for scrutiny has elements of finance so when is a bill to do with money and when is it not? And, of course, when is a bill a bill and when is it a statutory instrument which has not gone through the same rigorous procedures in the Commons?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer may well have been appalled with the Lords but the simple fact is, it would seem, they did absolutely nothing wrong other than use obscure procedures on this occasion to arrive at exactly the right result providing some much needed relief to some of our nation’s poorest families in the process.

I must say that I’m beginning to have quite an affection for the House of Lords.

Yes, I know they are undemocratic and I understand that overturning the will of the elected chamber is somewhat dubious but there is something slightly marvellous in having the backup of a group of experts, for that is what most of them are, who never have think about being elected so can genuinely look to what is right and wrong rather than popular or unpopular.

It’s comforting to know that the Lords isn’t full of Conservatives having largely been appointed under a Labour or coalition government. Similarly it will be reassuring to know that by such time as Labour take office once more Tory appointees will in all likelihood have gained the upper hand providing an effective block to the worst extremes of the far left.

Just like the leaders of our own faith isn’t it gratifying to know that there are a group of men and women whose only focus isn’t remaining popular enough to re-enter office next time around?

Politics is genuinely a marvellous thing. Decent men and women from all walks of life have entered Westminster largely using processes that have remain unchanged over the years. The reasons they have remained the same is because, on the whole, they provide stable and progressive government.

Even though we may disagree with them sometimes we need to reflect on how decent our politicians actually are. 

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