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Baroness Nicholson: A democratic Lords may mean disabled people have a weaker voice

Nicholson EmmaConservativeHome doesn't normally publish pieces from people from other parties but Baroness (Emma) Nicholson of Winterbourne raises this morning the possible consequences for disabled people of a largely elected Lords. Baroness Nicholson was once a Tory MP but defected to the Liberal Democrats. In this article she suggests that the effect on disabled people has "not really been considered" by the Deputy PM's office.

The draft Bill on House of Lords Reform at least acknowledges - even while failing to refute - some of the key arguments made by opponents of constitutional vandalism. Yet one invaluable feature of today’s upper house has been seriously overlooked, and not just in the Bill itself. The Deputy Prime Minister’s office, which is supervising the drafting of the Bill, has also failed to give it proper consideration.

I refer to the large body of disabled peers, who represent all parties and none. Their active presence in the Lords is essential if we wish to preserve the high quality of debate and unique expertise which is the special property of our Second Chamber.

A large proportion of our society is disabled, and this figure is set to grow as longevity increases. By 2020 a third of the UK’s population will be over seventy. The disabilities that arise through old age, as well as by accident or birth, are set to become ever more relevant to questions of public policy. Now, more than ever, it is vital that the insights of disabled people are embedded in the legislative process.

Yet replacing the Lords with elected ‘Senators’ would have the opposite effect, for it would shut down the main route by which disabled people can directly participate in Parliamentary politics.

Disability can be exhausting life, and the physical energy needed to fight and win an election makes serious demands of any candidate. At election time sleep-starved prospective parliamentary candidates cover many foot miles a day to canvass doorsteps, deliver leaflets and attend meetings, often in venues that would be unsuitable for wheelchair access or other forms of support. Quite simply, the frenetic pace of electioneering would be beyond the capacities of many disabled colleagues currently doing valuable work in the Lords.

I raised these points a few weeks ago with the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. Their response was that the issue had not really been considered, and besides disabled people could always go and sit as appointed crossbench peers.

As I pointed out, this suggestion is demeaning and discriminatory, for it implies that disabled people should be excluded from party politics - as though they lack the deep convictions about how a society should be governed that membership of a political party represents.

Instead of seeking to wipe out disabled involvement in Parliamentary politics we should be congratulating the Appointments Commission for the excellent job it has been doing to date.

Those who wish to tamper with the British Constitution have failed to understand that democracy is not just about winning elections, it’s also about ensuring a fair hearing for the views of all citizens, regardless of who is in power. The irony is that in seeking to make the Lords more democratic Nick Clegg may make it less representative.


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