Monday, February 12, 2007

Lords a Leaping




















For years I worked in local government, sometimes on policy but mostly managing regeneration projects. It always sounded like such a lot of fun to be involved in ‘making a difference for real people’ and ‘changing places, changing lives’. Sometimes people would come up with really good ideas like replacing school buildings before they fell down and killed a lot of children or stocking libraries with books or making sure there was a health centre within a day’s walk.

But, increasingly, the ideas started to get less, well, concrete. Instead of being presented with a proposal to knock down a semi-derelict tower block and replace it with a nice row of houses, you’d find yourself in all day seminars discussing ‘issues around anti-social behaviour’ which would be presented as the main reason why our social housing is in such poor shape – as opposed to a complete lack of maintenance.

Over an executive finger buffet at lunch time, you’d receive a parade of police superintendents and housing association directors telling you that it would be a ‘cool idea’ to erect youth shelters everywhere, presumably to relieve young people of the obligation of carrying an umbrella with them wherever they went. My riposte of suggesting that bus shelters could be renamed did not usually go down all that well.

Eventually I realised that the reason so many of these initiatives end in abject failure is that once the great ideas that come from the ‘grassroots communities’ have been filtered through a plethora of regulations, budget constraints and fixed positions there is very little left of the original concept that caused such a huge buzz. It is not unheard of for a proposal for a marvellous new leisure centre to get negotiated down to an infrequent community newsletter and some pious advice about the perils of obesity.

What we in this country have really failed to grasp is that progress requires openness and a willingness by those who are standing in the way to give themselves a bang on the head and move forward with the rest of us. The proposed reforms in our second chamber of government, the House of Lords, are a classic case in point. Jack ‘Strawman’ Straw, the minister responsible has shied away from suggesting one of the most fundamental meaningful changes, to get rid of the bishops, in his recent White Paper.

This is our problem. We can’t be honest with ourselves about what is the true function of this house. The second chamber reviews the decisions of government. That is its only job. Yet the last possible consideration is to prioritise putting people in it who will do that job most effectively. Instead of reviewing the function of the house and making recommendations for membership based on purpose, the arguments have all been about safeguarding positions and traditions.

Britain is the only modern democracy with religious leaders taking a directive role in government. Rather than recognise this for the anachronism that it is, Strawman is suggesting that other religions are also represented. No! Terry Sanderson writes in the National Secular Society’s Newsletter (also on CiF) that other religions only cover 5% of the population and a resounding 98% of us do not provide the Church of England with its weekly bums on seats. If this Government is sincere about wanting to modernise and engage ordinary people, then the second chamber has to be a genuine microcosm of the general population. You don’t see that many bishops picking up a few bits from Marks & Spencer or attending parents’ evenings at their local school or battling to get a pushchair onto the bus in the rain or agonising over whether their elderly relative is being well treated in their care home.

There is, however, the tentative suggestion that the number of bishops in the Lords be reduced, to predictable consternation. This from the National Secular Society,

The ‘Church Times’ reports that the Bishop of Chelmsford was one of those on the working party who prepared the paper. He said that there was a point below which the number of bishops could not be cut if they were to do their job. “I have got a sticking point. The numbers have still to be worked out, but you need 16 active bishops to make it work, and you need more than that to achieve that number, if some are off ill or away. This is not a settled issue.”

What kind of maths is involved here? Are the bishops also expected to provide a volleyball team?

The very same Lord Bishop of Chelmsford once wrote on his time in their lordship’s house: “I am listened to because of the position I occupy. And if I write to a minister on House of Lords notepaper protocol dictates that I receive a reply, and speedily …most bishops enjoy their time in the Lords. I love it. The privileges are enormous.”

So when did deference end exactly? If they’re really that wedded to the retention of their ermine and ornaments why don’t they just build a theme park? Having said all that, I’m sentimental about the Astronomer Royal being there, although it really should be Patrick Moore, he aligns with my everyman criteria …




Cartoon from www.loc.harpweek.com

14 comments:

Groucho said...

Wives are people who feel they don't dance enough

That's so pants said...

Dear old Groucho - how are you? Perhaps we should replace the house of lords with your ex-wives. What do you think?

Ms Melancholy said...

Sometimes people would come up with really good ideas like replacing school buildings before they fell down and killed a lot of children or stocking libraries with books or making sure there was a health centre within a day’s walk.

It doesn't matter how utterly miserable I am - and today I have been particularly miserable - you always make me laugh out loud. It is possible that I might be part of a regeneration project in the north east in the not too distant future. I promise I will come to you for advice, if it pulls off...

That's so pants said...

Hi Ms Melancholy - so to hear you're feeling miserable. Seriously, email me if you want any advice.

Ms Melancholy said...

I will do that. I am part of a 'consultancy team' which is part exciting and part fills me with horror. My role would be to train community workers in capacity building, (at least I think so anyway...) which could be a fantastic opportunity or could be an exercise in lip-service. I hope I am not being naive...

Matt said...

The Lords Spiritual are a pet hate of mine too Ms Pants, and I have but one thing to say on the matter: GET RID OF 'EM!!

There are of course a lot of abusrd parliamentary anachronisms that are very charming, for instance the opera hat in the drawer of the Serjeant at Arms desk in the Commons, which members used to have to go and fetch if they wanted to ask a question during a division. (This one got modernised away in 1998 - tsk!) I'm all for preserving anything to do with dress-ups or other similarly weird but cute practices, but only the ones that can amuse us without actually damaging the political process. I draw the line at sending doddering old religious zaelots to Parliament.

That's so pants said...

Hi Ms M - email me and I'll be happy to advise.

Hi Matt. I didn't know about the opera hat. Wow! Is this what gives rise to the expression 'putting on my other hat' which you hear everywhere in govt?

Miss Hacksaw said...

Ah, local government. The reason I can pay my mortgage and eat cakes. Which one were you owned by?

MrZhisou said...

I wouldn´t mind the Church of England being represented in a House of Lord (or whatever they want to call it), but only if their number equates to their support within society.

It´s intetesting to hear you worked in urban regeneration, I guess you went to Manchester a lot then.

Groucho: That´s a beautifully observed comment. I like it.

That's so pants said...

Hi Ms Hacksaw - never owned, merely rented - by all the worst ones!

Hi Mr Zhisou - that's 0.4 of a bishop then.

Please do not encourage Groucho - I have only just got him tamed.

Ms Melancholy said...

If we get the gig will email you for sure...

That's so pants said...

Cheers Ms M - good luck

City Slicker said...

Great post.

I used to work at IPPR dealing with city level policy issues. Can completely relate to your points here!

That's so pants said...

Hi CS - You see! People think I'm joking about this stuff!