Strengthening Parliaments

Committee The International Development Committee in the Commons is undertaking a brief inquiry into public funding of programmes to support legislatures in developing nations.  I was invited to submit evidence and my submission has now been published.  It can be read here.  The material draws on my work on legislatures, but also my discussions with parliamentarians, not least at the biennial Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians.

Legislatures are often the poor relation of aid programmes and, where there is support from donors, it suffers from lack of co-ordination – some impose conditions which clash with those of other donors – and often a tick-box approach.  There is also a tendency to view legislatures without reference to the political systems in which they exist.  Focusing on structures is not sufficient to achieve the long-term goal of reducing or eliminating corruption and establishing a vibrant political culture.   Creating a Public Accounts Committee, for example, is important – and is something than be ticked off as an achievement – but by itself will not generate a culture within and beyond the Parliament that sustains an effective legislature.

Legislatures are crucial to a democratic system, but there is the danger of neglecting them or, when recognising their significance, treating them as discrete and detached entities.  They should be at the heart of any support programme.

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Sustaining higher education

Lord NortonI chair the Higher Education Commission, which draws together figures from politics, business, and academe.  I co-chaired our most recent inquiry into the financial sustainability of higher education.  The report – you can read it here – was released yesterday and attracted notable attention in the press.  It was the lead story in the Independent.  I  did lunchtime interviews for The World at One and Radio5 Live, as well as a recorded interview.

The report argues that the present situation is not sustainable, at least not in terms of the criteria we advance.  However, there is no magic bullet.  We identified and assessed six options, ranging from a tweaking of the existing system through to lifting the fee cap and differential fees.   Each has its merits, but each also has its drawbacks.  Our task was not so much as to provide the answer, but to get an informed debate.  The danger otherwise is that it will be seen as a problem, but too difficult to tackle.  Our starting point was that higher education in the UK is among the best in the world and that we need to ensure that it remains so.

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Electors’ freedom of choice

lordnortonThe Wales Bill, presently completing its passage through the Lords, prohibits anyone from serving as both an MP and as a member of the National Assembly for Wales.  The provision (clause 3) was agreed between the parties and was about to go through without debate.  I put down an amendment to remove the clause.  I am against outlawing dual mandates on the grounds that they infringe the freedom of electors to choose who they want to represent them.  If they are happy to have the same person represent them in more than one assembly, that is a matter for them.  It may be difficult to carry out both roles – the practical argument (advanced by assertion) used to justify the clause – but that is a matter between electors and elected, not something to be forbidden by law.

You can read my speech hereAs you will see, no one really engaged with the issue of principle, other than in one case trying to translate the difficulties of the jobs into a matter of principle.  I knew I would not get anywhere – the responses were pretty much what I indicated would be the case – but I hope my intervention gives pause for thought.  At least afterwards some peers did recognise what I was getting at and also appreciated that there is a value in having members who can keep one legislature aware of what is happening in another.

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Fixed-term Parliaments and votes of confidence

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAJust over a week ago, I was speaking at a conference in Oxford held to discuss the passage and consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.  My paper addressed the Act and votes of confidence.  There were notable changes in the move from the commitment in the Coalition Agreement to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and in the passage of the Bill.

The agreement made no reference to votes of confidence.  The Bill as introduced included votes of confidence, seeking to maintain the previous forms of votes of confidence – explicitly worded votes of confidence, those to which confidence attached by declaration of the Government, and those deemed to be implicit votes of confidence.  There was no definition of a vote of confidence – it was to be determined by a certificate of the Speaker.  This created substantial potential problems, with the result that the Government accepted a backbench amendment that provided that a vote of confidence was confined to an expliclity-worded vote of confidence (‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’).  If passed, and if within 14 days a new (or reconstituted) Government cannot be formed a gain a vote of confidence, a general election takes place.

The changes to the Bill had the effect of removing a significant power from the Prime Minister.  He can no longer say ‘confidence attaches to this issue and if defeated on it, an election will follow’.  The premier is thus denied an important means of maximising voting strength.  The reult is not to strengthen the House of Commons – it already had the power to carry a vote of no confidence – but recalcitrant backbenchers.  This could prove a major problem in the event of a serious split in the Government’s ranks on an issue central to its programme.

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The power to expel

lordnortonThe House sits on various Fridays to consider Private Members’ Bill.  On 24 October, the third and final Bill under consideration was Baroness Hayman’s House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspensions) Bill.  It is a modest measure to give the House the power to expel or suspend peers, over and above the limited power of expulsion given by the House of Lords Reform Act 2014.  If it gets on to the statue book, its real success will lie in how little it is used.

Because of the time taken up by the preceding two measures, we had a limited amount of time to discuss the Bill – the House tries to rise by 3.00 p.m. or shortly thereafter – so members kept their contributions short.  What was notable was that everyone who spoke supported the Bill.  I was the last backbench speaker.  You can read my contribution hereThe minister, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said that the Government did not have a settled view on the measure.  Why not is not quite clear, given that – as I pointed out in my speech – all three main parties have previously signed up to its provisions.

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Parliamentary co-operation

B0I43-qIYAAFSR0Just over two weeks ago, I spoke at a conference, on ‘The National Assembly for Wales: Studying the Welsh Legislature’, at the Welsh Governance Centre in Cardiff.  I gave the keynote lecture and spoke on ‘Making sense of diversity – The National Assembly: A framework for analysis’.  I drew on analyses on legislatures, including previous work I have done on assessing the legislative effectiveness of legislatures.

I addressed challenges facing legislatures and the challenges facing the National Assembly for Wales.  The latter I discussed in the context of devolution, newness, and size.  On the first of these, I quoted John Kincaid: ‘Devolution’s key challenge is not so much dividing powers as it is sharing powers.’  This also extends more broadly to co-operation.  There is the danger of legislatures missing out.  In a dynamic environment of multi-level governance, there is the danger of executives developing institutional links, but with legislatures not developing similar links.  As the Silk Commission has recognised, there is a need to think about ways of engaging.  The challenge, as the Commission recognised, is ensuring that inter-parliamentary engagement, and not just inter-governmental engagement, is strong.  Co-operation between parliaments within the UK is developing, but there is a case for ensuring that it has a more established basis.

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‘This boy’s a fool’…

maxresdefaultThe entries for the October caption competition demonstrated readers’ wit and attention to detail.  Several produced entries based on Anthony Barnett’s hand gesture, others the look on my face, and one or two very individual observations.  I thought some of those based on the hand gesture were especially innovative.

Not for the first time, choosing a winner was difficult.  It was a close run thing between several entries.  However, based on those which made me laugh most the moment I saw them, there is a winner and a very close runner-up.  The latter may reflect my particular sense of humour.

I decided that the winner was barry winetrobe with:  Lord Norton thinks ‘This boy’s a fool’.

The runner-up is ken wilkinson with: ‘Lord Norton left shell-shocked after Mr Barnett’s glove puppet is caught streaking’.

The other entries were not far behind.  A copy of one of my books will shortly be on its way to the winner.

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