On Monday, just after 3pm, something happened in the House of Lords that will affect tens of thousands of people for decades to come. Lasting no more than two sentences in length, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, a wonderfully eccentric and passionate cross-bench peer asked a simple question, and received a simple answer now recorded forever in Hansard with two simple words: ‘Bill passed’.
With that, one of the smoothest and fastest Bills ever created jumped its final Parliamentary hurdle on its journey to become law. The Bill, first introduced in the Commons a mere eight months ago by Gavin Barwell MP, seeks to deregulate unfair discriminatory laws against jurors, MPs and company directors on grounds of undefined mental health – arguably one of the last forms of legalised discrimination.
Those two words mean that, in the very near future, should any of us ever be mentally unwell then we will not be automatically barred from participating in civic life – a fundamental right and honour.
I’ve written before about the electoral power that can be wielded by the Conservatives if they were to grasp the thorny issues around social morality, but if the last few months are anything to go by then they appear to be listening. The Conservative-led administration controversially introduced the vote on equality in marriage law for homosexual couples. Chris White’s little-covered but hugely radical Public Services (Social Value) Act is championing a ‘money isn’t everything’ approach to government finance, with vast implications for social enterprise and public services. Edward Timpson is reforming adoption practices to ensure that children receive the best possible placement and care.
Reform is not just the purview of Ministers. As well as Barwell, other backbenchers are working just as hard to champion social equality. Rob Halfon, hot from his successful campaign for fairer fuel duty has now set his sights on the restoration of the 10p tax rate; Andrea Leadsom’s work on childhood early intervention targets support on working families; Damian Hinds is fighting to help those affected by excessive payday lending rates; Nick de Bois and Steve Barclay’s ongoing successes with knife crime and dangerous driving respectively, supporting victims over criminals. These few examples of reasonable, progressive campaigns are being carried out without the aid of a Ministry, demonstrating the immense influence that backbenchers can have on day-to-day life.
This week, Barwell’s Bill joined a growing list of successful backbench Conservative-led projects that are pioneering equality and fairness.
The amorphous reality of ‘social morality’ necessitates that it’s not an easy Chimaera to tame; but if some backbenchers can do it then in theory there is no reason why others cannot. The inherent power in compassionate Conservatism lies in trusting the realities of individual choice and supporting a framework for that to thrive. Fighting for equality and fairness in law is a huge part of that challenge, and one the Conservatives are starting to flex their muscles with.
Those two words inscribed on Monday ratifying the Bill may seem a bit anticlimactic – but their symbolism both socially and politically should not be ignored. There’s work to be done, and we shouldn’t be afraid to tell the country how we feel.