What happened in the House of Lords in 2022?
As so many reviews of the year will say, what a year 2022 was. And not in a good way.
From the perspective of the House of Lords chamber, it feels like a blur, and when I look to Hansard to find I made 421 contributions to its records, perhaps that’s no surprise. Add into that 195 written questions, seven “Learn with the Lords” sessions with schools, countless meetings of All-Party Parliamentary Groups and briefings, no wonder I’m left struggling to think how I can sum up my year in Westminster.
I went to the extremely useful Parallel Parliament website as a guide. It tells me in a slightly scary page how many words I’ve contributed to each of the Bills that have been through the House in the session of Parliament that started in 2019.
And since Parliament is – arguably – mostly about making laws, I’ve decided to use that as a guide. (You can also find a more comprehensive listing of Jenny and my work on Bills here.)
Looking at the top five 2022 Bills in terms of words contributed, I come up with the Health and Social Care Act, the Elections Act, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding – so-called) Bill, the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Those listed as Bills are still ongoing, the Acts are in force already.
You might be wondering at the lack of explicitly environmental legislation in that list, but that’s explained by the top Act over the session – the Environment Act – being from 2021, and the third, the Agriculture Act, from 2020. Number two on my list is the Financial Services Act – and another one of those, I’m afraid to say, with its dangerous continuing ideology of “competitiveness”, is going to be a big part of 2023, barring further political turmoil.
That demonstrates something about the nature of being member of the Green Party group in the House (with my fellow member Jenny Jones). We don’t control the agenda, or the timing when issues are addressed. Mostly we’re reacting to what the government puts before us.
The timing of that is out of sync with most media coverage of issues, which overwhelming focuses on the Commons. So people will often ask me on social media “why aren’t you talking about this or that Bill?” The answer is often that it won’t be with us – on our radar or focus – for months.
There are exceptions to this – what are known as “Lords starters”, Bills that begin with us. Traditionally these have been fairly simple Bills, but that’s not the case with either the Schools Bill, which effectively collapsed and may never reappear after its main clauses (on which I commented for Green World) were gutted by strong Conservative opposition in the Lords, and the ongoing Energy Bill, on which my strongest focus is the push to support community energy.
It’s appropriate that the Elections Act comes top of this list, for of all the government’s dreadful legislative moves this year, it is potentially the most structurally significant. With its introduction of voter ID (voter suppression straight out of the US Far Right playbook), the government takeover of the Electoral Commission and much more. It is a huge blow towards any shaky claim that the UK has to being a democracy.
In December, we passed the Regulations applying voter ID to the local government elections in 2023, despite it being less than six months’ before the poll, generally considered as an absolute minimum for electoral changes. Greens supported a Lib Dem attempt to throw them out, unfortunately Labour did not.
That pairs with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its repression of the right to protest. It could have been much worse, but for the Lords finest hour of 2022, when it defeated the government 14 times – a record – in throwing out major elements of the Government’s attack on the right to protest. Although the Government is bringing many of those straight back.
We finished the Health and Social Care Act at the start of the year, but when I look back to my final contribution to debates on it, focused explicitly on domestic abuse services, it also raises what remain my serious concerns, the continuing stealth privatisation of our NHS, being attacked from so my different angles. (The trespassing of private testing and health provision companies that started with Covid, back with deregulation rushed through for that, is something I’ll be coming back to in 2023.)
The Skills and post-16 Education Act saw in debate, if not outcome, demonstration of another strength of the Lords. Former education minister after former education minister got up to acknowledge that they hadn’t sorted out vocational education. And the consensus, from all sides of the House, was that this Act wouldn’t succeed where they had failed. Sadly, I think that’s right. My main focus was to try to get some acknowledgement from the government that the chance to learn skills should not be narrowly focused on jobs. Rather I said that there are many skills, from food growing to community organising to caring, that our society urgently needs to build, that need to be widely deployed.
I didn’t get support from any side of the House for that, but it is a battle that goes on. For there’s one thing that’s terribly clear after three years in the Lords – there’s always another Bill coming along to refight the same issues you were struggling over last time.
And I’m partially reassured by the fact that some of the things I was saying just a few years ago, treated as radical then are now heard from all sides of the House, including the government benches, from acknowledging that the cleanest, greenest, cheapest energy that you can have is the energy you don’t need to use, to a grudging acceptance that the focus on exam outcomes is doing great damage to the education of young people.
But as we head into continuing debate on the Genetic Technology Bill, with its fundamentally flawed approach that threatens to repeat many of the disastrous impacts of the “Green Revolution”, I have to point out that some mistakes cannot be reversed. Once a genie is let out of the bottle, it cannot be trapped, and the world on so many issues, is at or near points of no return, environmentally and socially.
We can’t wait for others to catch up with Green thinking – we need Greens making the decisions for a future where we live within the environmental limits of this fragile planet while giving everyone a decent life. That’s why a big part of my 2023 will be focused on completing my new book, Change Everything: Common Sense Politics for the 21st Century.
Natalie Bennett’s new book is crowdfunded with Unbound. You can help make it happen, and get your name inside it, for £10 upwards.
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Image credit: Alex Drop – Creative Commons