East London humanist chair Paul Kaufman queries democracy in the Lords

PUBLISHED: 09:10 17 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:10 17 August 2016


The so-called ‘democratic deficit’ was a powerful argument for leaving the EU.

Even passionate ‘remainers’ have reservations about laws made by unelected officials. So why isn’t more fury aroused by other undemocratic bodies which govern our lives?

Take the House of Lords. The anomalies of this unelected institution were brought sharply into focus during a recent talk to our Humanist group by Baroness Thornton. Glenys Thornton is a member of the 100 strong All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. She was appointed to the House of Lords by Tony Blair in 1996 specifically to assist with its reform. So far the only progress has been a reduction in the number of hereditary peers to 92.

How extraordinary our laws can be decided by individuals who owe their power to an accident of birth, political patronage or religious persuasion, and who are completely beyond democratic control.

At more than 800 members, the Lords is the largest legislative assembly in the world after the People’s Assembly in China (where the population exceeds 1.3 billion!). It shares the unique distinction, along with Iran, that clerics participate as of right. Baroness Thornton described how unelected bishops wield influence on legislation to suit their religious agenda, and the special deference they receive because of their calling. The reduction in hereditary peers did cause the Conservatives to lose their automatic majority. Consequently, for the time being at least, the Lords have provided some check to government. It was frustrating to Cameron to see one measure after another face defeat in the second chamber. His responsded by appointing more Conservative peers, with scant regard in many cases to any question of merit.

The Brexiteers’ slogan of ‘Take back control’ rings rather hollow now. They will remain unaccountable whether in Europe or not. Only a truly radical shift in political direction will change that. More from Paul

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