openDemocracyUK

The ignorance of the Lords on their caste legislation shows how redundant they are

A recent debate in the House of Lords on caste saw peers demonstrating a lack of understanding of key issues. What's the point in an unelected chamber if they don't even know what they are talking about?

Timothy Smith
23 December 2013
Queen_Anne_in_the_House_of_Lords.jpg

Queen Anne in the House of Lords

It has recently been made abundantly clear that several members of the House of Lords ‘turn up for minutes’ in order to claim their almost ludicrous (in the context of current austerity measures, unemployment and social inequality) £300 a day. It is now more clear than ever that the House of Lords is becoming an expensive and unnecessary institution that has no place in a democratic society.

One attempt at policy making that highlights the flaws in the way the House of Lords operates is the recent proposed amendments (that have now passed) to the Equality Act relating to 'caste.' The House of Lords tabled this amendment which was eventually reluctantly accepted by Parliament. Merits or negatives of the case for whether we should have caste legislation aside, it is important to note that this was a case of undemocratic figures proposing legislation that could impact on over 1.4 million British Indians.

A close examination of the decision making process that led to this legislation being passed and the debates in the House of Lords seriously brings into question the viability and desirability of the House.

The caste debate

The Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the man who tabled this amendment in the House of Lords supported by Lord Deben who noted that this was an "opportunity to protect people from this disgraceful discrimination.’’

Lord Rea echoed these moral sentiments stating to me that she finds ‘the whole concept of caste abhorrent’ but then goes onto note that she is ‘not well informed’ and needed further explanation of the Jatti and Varna systems that are central to understanding caste. How she can find something abhorrent that she admits to not being informed of, is quite intriguing. Many of the Lord’s spoke about caste without actually giving a meaning or definition, with it worth noting that caste doesn’t actually have a literal translation in any Indian language. Something that the Lords failed to mention or consider in the debate.

With regards to the decision making process it is interesting to note how regularly many of the Lords appeared to confuse their facts and be unable to verify where and how they came to the conclusions they did. Many lords noted that there are 400,000 Dalit’s allegedly in the United Kingdom, a statistic that is actually at odds with figures that put the number closer to 50,000, a major discrepancy. Even though some sources are now citing 400,000 Dalit’s in the UK it seems unlikely that nearly one in three British Indians are Dalit’s.

Lord Avebury for example quoted the figure of 400,000 Dalit’s living in the United Kingdom on a couple of occasions during the debate. Yet, when I quizzed him on this and enquired about how he came to this figure he commented “I’m not sure where the figure comes from….you will have to seek clarification from my colleagues.’’ This clearly highlights the fact that whilst being paid a comfortable £300 a day to debate this issue, Avebury clearly hadn’t researched the issue thoroughly enough, despite being a clear advocate for legislation.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon spoke up as a South Asian voice on the issue. Yet, alarmingly, he used arguments that would be considered out-dated in the extreme, such as the ‘Aryan invasion theory’ which has been widely discredited by academics such as Susan Bayley at Cambridge and Chris Fuller of LSE. It is surely questionable how someone can position themselves as an expert on a topic, yet produce an argument that would not pass even the most lax academic standards. When I pointed this out to Lord Singh he evaded the point completely.

A clear lack of accountability

Lord Lipsey gave a keen insight into how the Lords come to their conclusions stating ‘party peers will generally follow the party’s advice in the form of a whip.’’ Lord Lipsey went on to add that cross benchers will try to take in as much information on the topic as possible and base their opinions on that, worrying if we consider the quality of information at cross benchers disposal.

It is also worrying that some Lords would vote on issues which they admit they do not know much about, yet has significant consequences for a large number of people who live in the UK, who did not vote for these Lords and probably on the whole do not support the large expenses that they are able to claim.

The majority of Lords I contacted did not email back, and why would they, given that they are not accountable to anyone in the same way that a constituency MP has an obligation to reply. The issue of Peers (as MP’s do) blindly following the party whip also brings into question the democratic processes that are in place in British politics. This is an issue made abundantly clear to me by Lord Avebury who remarked (about ten emails in) “Where are you coming from, in asking me all these questions? Couldn't you ask Helen Grant?’’ Surely the fact that he was such a vocal proponent of legislation means that he has to be able to back up his opinions and be prepared for scrutiny? He seemed not to think so given his dismal of my enquires.

What this all shows is though, that in the context of ‘half the Lords’ turning up just to claim their £300 a day allowance, we do not need the Lords to patronizingly act on our behalves. The UK cannot claim to champion democracy if it allows non-elected members (mostly) made up of the elites of society to create legislation at the expense of the tax payer. This is barely the tip of the iceberg, the House of Lords is apparently costing the tax payer £60,000 per week (£1.3 million per year) in order to subsidize the Lords’ lavish meals and live the sort of excessive lifestyle that most ordinary Britons (who are paying for it) can only dream of living. In fact, this equates to £84 per week per Lord, when the Jobseekers Allowance currently stands at just £71 per week. The actual budget allocated to the House of Lords is reported at £102 million per year, which again in the context of wider austerity measures seems like incredibly poor value for money, especially if we observe the way that these ruling elites come to their conclusions and produce legislation. Perhaps then it is time not to reform the House of Lords, but to do away with it all together.

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