Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 15 January 2013

Reform (vb.): Change in order to improve.

IN a few weeks' time there is going to be an election.

You won't have heard about it, which is strange because it is an election to find someone who will argue, amend, or defend legislation which will directly affect your life.

If you're over 18, you have a vote about who to send to Westminster to make your laws. This is a democracy, right?

The vote is for a seat in the House of Lords, something which probably sounds like a great idea. A vote is always a good thing, and if we're electing people to a Parliamentary chamber where all its members used to inherit their seat along with a peerage well, that's fabulous, isn't it?

Not if you look at the small print, it's not.

Because this is a kind of election invented very recently - 1999, in fact - and was called a 'reform'. Reform is a word used to describe a thing you are changing slightly for the worse while making it sound like it's better; it very rarely indicates improvement.

The reform in question is that there is a vote, but not for you.

The House of Lords used to be the most powerful part of Parliament, with the plebeian House of Commons merely being there to offer advice on laws. With time and Civil War the Commons grew stronger and the Lords weaker, and these days laws are set by MPs in the 'lower house' with them being amended or argued over by peers in the 'upper house'.

It is, in theory, a reasonable way of ensuring the government of the day doesn't always get its way. But the Lords remains a place of privilege and entitlement which naturally leans on the conservative side.

So in 1999, with a series of Labour bills thrown back at him, Tony Blair announced a bill to reform the House of Lords. People born to a title were not due a say in legislation, he said, and the upper house should be elected.

Its first clause states: "No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage."

You can imagine how that went down with the 75th Baron of Lower Diddling, confronted with the prospect of spending his life with the baroness of Lower Diddling rather than snoozing gently on a leather bench and enjoying subsidised claret.

So the Lords threatened to throw back every bill Blair sent their way, so to buy them off he allowed 90-odd hereditary peers to remain, along with 25 Lords Spiritual made up of church bishops and a remaining 700 or so being those given a life peerage.

In theory, this meant most of the people in the upper house were experts after a long career in a chosen field and after much hard work in public life they would be elevated to the Lords where their wisdom could benefit the whole nation.

In practice, we got John Prescott back. We also have the bloke who wrote Downton Abbey and a chap who heard Jimmy Savile rumours when he ran the BBC but didn't do much about them.

So what's this vote for? Well, when a hereditary peer shuffles off to the great big comfy chair in the sky there is a by-election for his place on the red benches.

Who can stand for election? Other hereditary peers - in particular, those already thrown out by Blair's 1999 act.

Who can vote for them? You'll like this - it's other hereditary peers.

So when a person born to a title dies, his place gets taken by a person born to a title who is chosen by other people born to a title. This somehow seems worse, and certainly more expensive, than just letting them sit there without any type of selection beyond that of Mother Nature in the first place.

And it's not just a futile and nationally embarrassing waste of time. In fact, this next vote is working up to be as shocking an example of undemocratic chicanery as you might normally expect from Robert Mugabe, Joe Stalin, or even that old tyrant Tony Blair himself.

Because among the 27 people standing for an election you have no say in is a chap called Viscount Hailsham. It might mean more if I tell you he was known as Douglas Hogg while agriculture minister under John Major and as the disgusting little oinker who wanted us to pay for his moat to be cleared in the 2009 expenses scandal.

At the time he was a backbencher, moonlighting profitably in his second job as a well-paid barrister, but who nevertheless felt it necessary to ask the taxpayer to pay £18,000 for his gardener, £1,000 to mow his lawn, £671 for a mole catcher, £40 to tune his piano, £200 to maintain his Aga and a whopping £2,115 to have the moat around his medieval manor house cleared.

He insisted all was reasonable, of course, but he managed to avoid finding out if the voters felt the same by standing down at the last general election, thereby removing his snout before he could be punched in it by the proles.

Two years on, he reapproaches the trough from another direction and asks his fellow poshos to let him into the Lords, where he can expect a daily allowance of up to £300 plus travel, subsistence, subsidised food and drink, travel expenses for his wife and the occasional paid-for, foreign junket.

And who decides whether he gets the gig? A few dozen other Tory peers, and probably the Tory Prime Minister will be listened to if he quietly asks them to back or drop a candidate. Which makes the whole thing a bit of a farce not much different to the PM just appointing a chum in the first place.

So the 'reforms' we've got involve the rich, white man in charge telling rich, white men who to vote for among a narrow field of rich, white men not one of whom, were he to seek the approval of the people whose laws he will be making, would get many votes.

There was an attempt to reform the Lords last year, but it failed for the simple reason that the people making the decision were MPs and most of them are unlikely to vote for the end of a MPs' retirement home where they hoped to coast to a halt on £300 a day and two-hour lunches.

Plus, the plans were full of holes. Nick Clegg wanted the peers to serve 15-year terms and who in their right mind agrees to do any job for that long? He was also prepared to let a fifth of the Lords be appointed by politicians, which still means the government of the day could sway crucial votes with their placemen.

Unfortunately since then he and David Cameron appointed another 80 life peers - their personal picks of people guaranteed to do as they're told - which means the Lords now has 900 members and is second in size only to the upper chamber of the Chinese parliament.

Most of them do not even bother to turn up to work most days. Lord Coe's spoken only three times since 2009.

There are two ways to reform the House of Lords and ensure oinking viscounts, ex-ministers and celebrities don't get to pollute the national pond of public life long after they last added anything useful to it.

The first is to have the upper house entirely elected, in the middle of a government term so that opposition is at its greatest, and to have those candidates chosen entirely outside the party political system. Every single Lord and Lady would be an independent, voted in by people who thought they'd be good at scrutinising the government rather than toeing anyone's line.

I'd quite happily pay £300 a day for that, plus travel and junkets. Some people reckon the costs would rise, but then again so might the usefulness.

The second is six tons of gunpowder in the basement.

 Let's ask the hogs which they'd prefer.