Upper chamber must be elected
BRITAIN boasts of being the mother of democracy. The House of Lords gives a lie to that statement.The Lords is the very antithesis of democracy, packed with place men and woman, many of whom are superannuated politicians who have either been rejected by the electorate or who have been given a nice sinecure on the plush red benches in gratitude for an unremarkable career in the Commons.
BRITAIN boasts of being the mother of democracy. The House of Lords gives a lie to that statement.
The Lords is the very antithesis of democracy, packed with place men and woman, many of whom are superannuated politicians who have either been rejected by the electorate or who have been given a nice sinecure on the plush red benches in gratitude for an unremarkable career in the Commons.
The Government, having given the heave-ho to all but 91 hereditary peers, then promptly started to ennoble a phalanx of Labour supporters and donors to ensure its legislation was passed.
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There are many lunacies about the House. Firstly, the Conservatives have until recently had an in-built majority thanks to the hereditary element. A government should not have to barter with unelected people in order to get manifesto commitments on to the statute book.
But once a lord, always a lord. No matter what peers get up to - scoundrel or crook can keep their ermine and their titles and there's nothing that can be done about it unless a peer suffer pangs of guilt and renounce the title.
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Thankfully, Justice Secretary Jack Straw is considering throwing out of the Lords those with a criminal record - Lord Jeffrey Archer and Lord Black - and tax exiles like Lord Laidlaw. And such a step has the political advantage of removing three Tories from the upper house.
To be fair, Mr Straw and the Prime Minister have said that if any of the four Labour peers at the heart of “cash for legislation” scandal - and these include former Colchester borough councillor Lord Truscott - would also be disbarred if it is found they have committed any crime.
Welcome as this would be, it is far short of the root and branch reform which is needed for a 21st century legislature.
I support the creation of a wholly elected upper chamber. The argument against is that the wise, great and the good would not be able to sit and give the country and the government the benefit of their advice.
The loss of such undoubtedly eminent people is a small price to pay, however, for giving accountability to the second chamber. The Lords are not answerable to the voters - no other democracy in the world would tolerate such a nonsense.
There would be nothing to stop existing peers for offering themselves for election. But elected they should undoubtedly be.
Even if the Church of England remains established - and as a practicing Anglian I would not cry if it was disestablished - there would need to be a convincing argument for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the holders of the three senior bishoprics London, Durham and Winchester to remain.
The house of bishops of itself, no matter how truncated, is unsustainable. Neither the Scottish Episcopalians nor the Anglican churches in Wales or Northern Ireland are included in this cosy cartel. Roman Catholic prelates and the heads of the free churches, Jews, and Muslims do not have a place in the Lord by right.
The House of Lords is currently the main court of appeal for criminal cases in England and Wales and civil cases for the whole of the United Kingdom. The law lords will soon be making their way across Parliament Square to Middlesex Guildhall, which is being converted into a supreme court.
Once judgements are delivered from the new court, the lords of appeal should lose their right to sit in the upper house.
The House of Lords is an anachronism. Just why New Labour has been afraid of tackling this head-on is one of the oddities of the past 12 years.
There is only way to reform the institution - elect the lot under some form of proportional representation.
THE MILCH COWS THAT ARE THE CROSSINGS AT DARFORD
THE Dartford crossing of The Thames between Essex and Kent is a rich source of income for the Government, especially since the toll rose 50% to �1.50 at the beginning of the year. Despite ministerial promises that the tolls would be scrapped eventually, it seems the Department for Transport is less than keen to give up the revenue.
In reply to Chelmsford West MP Simon Burns, the parliamentary under secretary at the DfT Paul Clark revealed that the Highways Agency raked in �68,363,698.02 between April 1 2002 and March 2003. Figures in the House of Commons library show that in 2006-7, �69,096,000 was raised in tolls and in 2008-9 it was �67,322,000. Net proceeds for the two years, after fees to, among others, current operator Le Crossing Company Ltd, were �47,277,000 and �42,872,000
Lord Hanningfield, in his role as shadow transport minister in the Lord - but no doubt also wearing his hat as Leader of Essex county council - gamely asked how many vehicles used the crossing in the past four months of 2008, and what were the numbers for the equivalent months in each of the previous four years.
The minister Lord Adonis gave figures that show a marked decline in usage in the five years from 2004 and 2008. In 2004, 18,339,413 vehicles crossed the Thames between September and December, and every year this has fallen, with 17,142,515 crossings in the last four months of 2008.
What's behind this upsurge of interest in the bridge and tunnel? John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East) gave the game away by asking what progress the department had made on its study on a second Dartford crossing.
Paul Clark replied: “The Department for Transport commissioned in February 2008 a study to provide advice on the future need for additional crossing capacity in the lower Thames and identify possible future options.
“The study looks to make best use of available transport models to better understand the impacts of current and future demand, and review previous work on what can be done to improve traffic flow through the existing Dartford crossing in the short to medium term. The study work is nearing completion and we expect to receive the report of the study shortly.
“Following receipt, ministers will consider the findings and recommendations of the study, to inform decisions on options to address the short, medium and longer term transport challenges associated with current cross-Thames movements in the area.”
Given that major infrastructure projects invariably run later and way over budget, it could be at least a decade before a Thames relief crossing is opened, somewhere in the vicinity of Canvey Island, even if the money is available from either the Government or under a Private Finance Initiative.
London mayor Boris Johnson is touting a new airport in the Thames gateway area, probably on the Kent side. If this ever lifts off the drawing board, wouldn't it make sense to link a lower Thames crossing with this project, paid for out of the revenues of the current twin bridge and tunnels?