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The Right Thing
The House of Lords is the strangest institution. It really is.
If you hadn’t already known that, it was laid bare in the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall documentary which showed a world of archaic custom and privilege. It was jokingly described by one Liberal Democrat peer as “the best day care centre for the elderly in London” and much of the BBC footage seemed to put flesh on the bones of that one-liner. There are peers who regularly turn up at the House of Lords who haven’t spoken in the chamber for decades and those that do turn up have sometimes been found to be nodding off on the plush red benches. Personally, I quite like some of the quaint eccentricity, but even the most ardent traditionalist would agree that this institution needs radical reform.
But I certainly wouldn’t abolish it as many have suggested over the years.
The purpose of the second chamber of Parliament is to hold the greasy-pole politicians in the commons to account and scrutinise laws to make sure they are fit for purpose. And in recent years we have seen an awful lot of laws that haven’t been fully thought through knocked into shape by the Lords. Although there are legions of peers who do little, there is a core of hardworking Lords and Ladies who really work their ermine socks off. And every so often when the Commons has reverted to tribal posturing, the Lords have something more interesting to say.
As in the case of migrant workers and the Brexit bill.
The Lords sought to push through an amendment to the Brexit bill which would guarantee the right of EU citizens already resident in the UK ahead of the Great Horse Trade that the Government will now embark upon with Brussels. The Government were content to leave it all in the air, and not “declare their hand” before sitting down to negotiate with their EU counterparts. The Lords thought it was far fairer to remove this doubt for people already living here in the UK.
Without going into the pros and cons of immigration, the importance of foreign-born workers in our economy is self-evident. The health service is heavily dependent on migrants, from hospital porters to consultants. As a boy brought up in the fruit and vegetable food picking and processing heartlands of East Anglia I can vouch for the necessity of the Eastern Europeans that come and work in our fields. And here in Bath so many foreign nationals are the backbone of the tourist industry that this city relies upon. As I heard recently; “Bloomin’ Foreigners! Coming over here and giving us decent customer service…!”
As ever, it’s more complex than it first appears. If they adopted the Lords amendment the Government would immediately have to define what “already working in the UK” meant (five years, five months, five weeks, five minutes?) and who was welcome or not (criminals, benefit claimants, family members?). Tricky choices. I’m glad we leave this stuff to politicians.
However this ends up (and the Government don’t seem to be up for changing their stance), I doff my hat to the Lords for seeking to do what they considered to be the right thing. Sometimes the right thing is inconvenient, expensive or requires some loss of face, but doing the right thing is ….well, the right thing!