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June - July 2007

Political News

The House of Lords: A 16-year old’s insight into the second chamber

by Jasmin Aujla

The House of Lords has been the epicentre of British Politics for centuries. However more recently, its validity as an institution is being questioned on the basis of what purpose does it serve within politics, and more so, do the honourable Lords that fill its Chambers qualify to carry out such a role in the political process? By which merit should they be selected to be in the House, and, is it in its current format still a noteworthy contributor to resolving modern political issues and the passing of legislation? Or has it simply aged into an institution in which people of an elite hereditary calibre, or superior financial status are simply awarded title and a seat? With all these questions and issues at the back of my mind I took up the opportunity to visit the House of Lords, and see what actually happens there on a fairly typical day.

The question which everyone asks of the House Of Lords is : “What does The House actually do?” The simple answer is, it processes and revises legislation passed to them from the House of Commons for approval; it acts as a check on the Government; it provides a forum of independent expertise, and also in its legal capacity it acts as a final Court of Appeal in severe criminal cases. In short, the daily routine takes account of all the above aspects.

Early afternoon is the commencing point for the majority of Lords to gather in the chamber, and openly review and debate over proposed legislation. Prior to the beginning of the debate, in true British tradition, a formal ritual is performed to mark an extremely grand entrance of the Lord Speaker. Draped in a black cloak, the Lord Speaker is accompanied into the chamber, in the form of a mini procession, whilst the peers and audience stand in respectful silence.

I sat in the lower west gallery, clearly overlooking the chamber which was lined with trademark red leather chesterfield sofa, richly detailed navy carpet, and an intricately carved golden throne, This throne is occupied by the Queen during State opening of Parliament. Hanging microphones were suspended from the ceiling across the entire room, and speakers were imbedded within the headrests of the seats, allowing every word spoken to be heard by all in the chamber.

The debates began on a legislation inquiring the need to aid the increasing linguistic difficulties within the British youth. Reasons for this problem were cited as being a lack of resources, for children born with disabilities, which affect their linguistic abilities, and children being brought up in environments without the appropriate and adequate supports. The outcome of this was stated to be lack of concentration or contribution to basic schoolwork. It was being proposed that further Government spending should go towards improving training and support to overcome these problems within the future generation, as simple linguistic skills are key to a good quality of life.

As this first debate was taking place, looking around the chamber I noticed there was a clear divide between the peers contributing to the issues and those who were not particularly attentive to what was being said, or discussed. Peerage being a lifetime commitment to the House of Lords, it is understandable for some aging peers to become set in their ways and allow the more vibrant peers to involve themselves in debates. However, is it really justifiable for them to keep their seat if they make no contribution to the laws which may govern the country, and we, as citizens, must live by? This is the general question which is being raised across the UK, Should there be a set and limited term that a Lord remains a peer? The supporters of this say it would encourage ongoing freshness within the chamber, introducing new younger Peers with new ideas and open minds. In 1997 The Prime Minister Mr Tony Blair stated that he would eliminate all hereditary peers from the House of Lords. However, there are still 92 hereditary peers amongst the Lords.

The House of Lords is an ancient and established Institution set in its ways, and to its credit, The House has made inroads towards ethnic diversity to be more reflective of representing present day British Multicultural Society, as I recognised the much respected Asian peer Lord Swaraj Paul and the newly ennobled Baroness Verma.

Next, a debate began on the issue of chewing gum, a topic which one humorous Lord regarded as a “sticky situation”. The main debate was leaning towards a potential ban of chewing gum due to the fact it is non-biodegradable, people freely deposit it onto the floor (for which they should be issued a litter fine), and it may leave Britain’s roads in a bad state for the forthcoming Olympics in 2012. It was said that chewing gum left on streets accumulates dirt and germs; and with the possibility of this getting stuck into the wheels of wheelchairs, it poses added health risks.

The manner in which the debates are conducted within the Honourable Chamber is subdued. There is none of the heckling or jeering seen in the Commons. There is also an absence of Party rivalry very often witnessed in the Commons. This can only be a good thing, as the focus is on the issue being debated and not party allegiance. Overall I felt the House of Lords to be a more relaxed environment for debating laws, as everyone’s seats are permanent, and the fear of general elections and campaigning against your opposition is not an issue for the peers, so the focus is not to be seen to be doing well, but just simply to do well, and do good. This can only be positive for the people.

I ended my day with a lengthy conversation with the newly ennobled Baroness Sandip Verma. Born in Amritsar, Punjab, Baroness Verma moved to England as a child, with the strict implements of a military father, and the inspirational drive to succeed, enforced by her mother. Baroness Verma’s entry in politics was an instinctive decision; and she is now one of the youngest peers within the House of Lords. A vibrant and energetic personality, Baroness Verma is clearly a contribution to the ethnic representation within the Lords chamber, both as an Asian and as a female. The Baroness however expressed her extreme dislike of the term “ethnic minority” and its constant occurrence in modern day politics. Quite rightly, her preference is to be seen to be selected on the basis of merit, and not merely for reasons of number crunching representation.

People seem to be including ethnic people at the forefront of politics just because it would seem racially and politically incorrect if they did not, overlooks the person’s reason and justification for being there as a good and worthy candidate, she stated. To add to this, with the rise, and rise of prominent Asians in today’s society, it is clear that the term “ethnic minority” is on its way out in any case. It becomes clear within a very short time that Baroness Verma is indeed an incredibly hard working, driven and motivated personality who simply happens to be Asian.

I would have to conclude that The House of Lords is a positive influence within British Politics whatever the issues remain with reference to its peers. With all its pomp, ceremony and tradition it remains a wonderful iconic symbol of the heart of British Politics; and long may it remain!

Baroness Sandip Verma

Described by the Guardian as “The Poster Girl for Britains’s multicultural success story………”

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