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Young humanists debate diversity in the House of Lords

BHA participants after the debate.

On Friday over 20 young humanists, hand-picked by the British Humanist Association (BHA), spoke in the House of Lords how to increase diversity in Parliament. Every year the Lords holds such a ‘chamber debate’, with this year being only the ninth time ever that non-peers have been allowed to speak in the chamber. As well as the BHA, the debate also featured participants from Girlguiding UK, 3FF, Humanist Society Scotland (HSS), and a number of schools

Participants took one of three sides in the debate:

  1. Do nothing: It would be impossible to have an MP or peer represent all races, genders, views, etc.
  2. Improve the current process: Political parties and groups should ensure candidates are representative of the diversity of the population.
  3. Make it happen: The House of Commons and the House of Lords should be ‘topped up’ with additional seats to provide MPs and peers to represent under-represented groups.

Each side had three ‘key speakers’ who opened and closed the debate, and these included Alice Fuller, Young Humanists Coordinator, and Hari Parekh from the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS). Alice and Hari spent the day preparing for the debate in Lords committee rooms, while the rest of the participants enjoyed a guided tour of Parliament.

BHA representative Helen Chamberlain speaking in the Lords.

BHA representative Helen Chamberlain speaking in the Lords.

The debate, which is now viewable on the Parliament website, featured an incredible number of highly articulate and thought-provoking speeches from a diverse range of participants. Alice pointed out that ‘If Parliament were representative, we would have 130 more women MPs, twice as many Black, Asian and minority ethnic MPs and 50 times more disabled MPs’, while another BHA representative, Owen Winter, noted that some 120 constituencies at the last general election had no female candidates at all. A number of speakers challenged the continuing anachronism of having 26 seats reserved for bishops in the House of Lords, while others pointed out the contrast between the recent House of Commons vote against legalising assisted dying and the overwhelming public support in favour suggested that a more representative Parliament would also be a more progressive one.

The debate was possibly the first ever in either chamber where the first nine speakers were all female. It was also the first ever where someone used the phrase ‘ex-Muslim’. BHA speaker Aliyah Saleem, of Faith to Faithless, spoke out against lazy identity politics and opened up about her experience as a hidden minority within a minority. Aliyah used her slot to highlight the unique issues of persecution that ex-Muslims face, particularly in many other parts of the world.

Hari Parekh spoke last in the debate.

Hari Parekh spoke last in the debate.

Others pointed out the high underrepresentation of mothers in Parliament, including those with young children. ‘If you are planning on having a child in the next five years, why would you run for Parliament?’ asked Young Humanists’ Kathleen van Geete. BHA speaker Glenn Hicks also pointed out the lack of diversity monitoring with respect to MPs and Lords, noting that simply gathering that data would be a good place to start.

One of the Girl Guides who spoke, Annelise Thomlinson, quoted a study that said that at the current rate of progress, girls born last year would have to wait until they are pensioners to see a gender-balanced Parliament. But perhaps the biggest cheers went to Charley Jarrett, an organiser for the Conservative Humanists group and a BHA representative, who spoke out against the automatic right of seats for bishops in the Lords. Charley’s comment that ‘we’ll have equality when there are as many mediocre women elected as there are mediocre men’ also attracted rapturous applause.

Notes

For further comment or information contact BHA Campaigns Manager Richy Thompson on 020 7324 3072 or at richy@humanism.org.uk.

BHA participants who spoke in the debate included Alice Fuller, Lauren Quigley, Kashmire Hawker, Saope Soko, Adam Pike, Charley Jarrett, Aliyah Saleem, Jesal Sheta, Nishith Chennakeshava, Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan, Kathleen van Geete, Owen Winter, Sam Mace, Helen Chamberlain, Glenn Hicks, Imtiaz Shams, Rebecca Connolly, Joe Moss, and Hari Parekh. HSS participants Conor Marlborough and Lynne Ramsay also spoke.

Watch the debate: http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/4eb5495f-5d82-4c9e-8da2-acfdfed49568

Read more about the debate on the Parliament website: http://www.parliament.uk/business/lords/get-involved-with-the-lords/outreach-programmes/lords-chamber-event/2015-chamber-event1/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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