The issue of whether or not prisoners should have the right to vote is highly contentious and the previous and the present Government would rather the issue had not arisen. Given the continuing pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, the Government have produced a draft Voter Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, which is being considered by a Joint Committee. As regular readers will know, I serve on the committee. I have variously reported on our activities, including the visit to two prisons. The week before last, we took evidence from the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe. On Wednesday of last week, we had our final evidence-taking session, when we heard from the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling. Anyone interested in the session can watch the proceedings here. The opening shots give some indication of how ministers usually turn up with a retinue of officials. The minister’s answers, or in some cases non-answers, reveal the conundrum he faces.
As we have completed taking evidence, our task now is to prepare and agree a report. We have until 18 December to do so. Given the contentious nature of the issue, and the fact that our members are drawn from different viewpoints, it is going to be an interesting exercise.
The membership of the House of Lords is growing and in the view of many in as well as outside the House is too large. There are problems in terms of the total membership as well as resource issues in terms of the active membership. Various proposals have been advanced to reduce the size. While these are discussed, Number 10 continues to announce the appointment of even more peers.
Reducing the size of the House was addressed in the original Steel Bill, the Bill now being pursued in this session by Baroness Hayman. I drafted the Bill and what it seeks to achieve is a House smaller in membership than that of the House of Commons. It is an issue to which the House will shortly return. I usually participate in the ballot for Thursday debates and I have been successful in that for 12 December, when my motion to call attention to the case for reducing the size of the House of Lords will be debated. Unless we take some action, the House will simply continue to balloon in size.
In a recent post, I mentioned the Question for Short debate I initiated on commencement orders. As regular readers know, I am concerned by the number of Acts passed by Parliament which have provisions that have never been brought into effect. If you want to know just how extensive, and what I have proferred as the solution, you can read the debate here or, if you wish to watch the debate – and get some idea of how Grand Committee operates – you can see it here: scroll to 2 hours into the coverage. As I signal in the debate, I plan to pursue the issue.
This month’s caption competition attracted some excellent entries and I have had difficulty deciding a winner. They were all potential winners. At the end, I decided there was a tie for first place and the two winning entries are:
Tony Sands: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I am quite confident that after another decade of detailed discussion and work in committee, the coalition partners will be this close to agreement on the issue of House of Lords reform’.
barry winetrobe: ‘Reform of the legislative process, and growing use of IT at Westminster, means that the average Bill bundle is down to about this size’.
If the two winners would like to get in touch, each will receive a copy of The Voice of the Backbenchers.
Picture by Mike Park, university photographer.
Today we had a lecture, on legislation, delivered by David Slater, a clerk in the Public Bill Office in the House of Commons. It is one in a series provided by Parliament, Hull being one of thirteen universities selected to host such events. In our case, the lectures complement our existing teaching on Parliament. During the question and answer session, I chipped in with various observations. The picture shows me making a point. Can you come up with an appropriate caption? The reader who provides one that in my opinion is especially apt and amusing will win a copy of one of my books – as well as the kudos of winning.
I have had a fairly busy parliamentary schedule this week. After teaching on Tuesday, I got down in Westminster in time for the first day in Committee on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. I had several amendments tabled. I was in the chamber throughout the proceedings, other than for getting something to eat during the dinner-break business. I variously spoke, especially in support of my argument to shift the emphasis from lobbyists (or rather a few lobbyists) to those being lobbied. As I pointed out, the words ‘transparency of lobbying’ in the short title were inaccurate, as it was not about transparency of lobbying. My attempt to shift the emphasis drew support from Labour and cross-bench peers (I was the only Conservative contributing frequently), but the Government was sticking to its defence of a rather friendless Bill. You can see proceedings on the Bill here. We finished proceedings shortly after 10.00 p.m.
I was in early on Wednesday morning for a 9.00 a.m. start for the Joint Committee on the Voter Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. We took evidence from the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, former Norwegian Prime Minister, Thorbjorn Jagland, and then from Attorney-General Dominic Grieve: they were impressive and it proved a valuable morning’s session. I then have a string of meetings - the executive committee of the Association of Conservative Peers (ACP, the full ACP, and the trustees of the History of Parliament – followed by what for me is the main business of the day: giving evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Deregulation Bill. There is a massive Henry VIII provision in the Bill, enabling ministers by order to get rid of any Act or part of an Act that in their judgment is of no practical use, and providing for only a limited form of parliamentary scrutiny. I had already put in a memorandum to the committee and I spoke to it. After my evidence, the committee saw the relevant ministers – Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin, and Michael Fallon. I am told afterwards that their defence of the provision was less than persuasive.
In the evening, I attend the tenth annual History of Parliament annual lecture, given by Baroness Hollis on the suffragettes and whether their aims have been realised. It is a stimulating lecture.
Today the main business for me has been initiating a Question for Short Debate (QSD), in Grand Committee, on commencement orders. Regular readers will be aware of my interest in the subject. I drew attention to the waste of parliamentary time and the problem of the public understanding that what is in an Act of Parliament is not necessarily the law. There are 147 Acts passed between 1997 and 2010 which have provisions that have not been brought into effect. One Act in its entirety has not been commenced. I advocated repealing provisions not commenced five years after an Act has been passed. There were helpful speeches from two backbench colleagues, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville and Lord Cormack, and from the Leader of the Opposition, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon. The minister, Lord Gardiner, gave a not unsympathetic response and was keen to ensure that what was said was fed into the Good Law initiative. It is something I will need to pursue if anything is to happen.
Certainly a more productive week than last…
On Saturday, I spoke at the Royal Scots Club in Edinburgh to the Scottish and Northern England branch of the Hull University Alumni Association. The talk was titled ‘The Scottish or the English Question? The future of the Union’. I looked at what may happen consequent to the referendum in Scotland next September. If there is a ‘yes’ vote, then this raises especially what may be termed a United Kingdom question and a Scottish question (how will assets and responsibilities be divided, what will be the future of the UK as such, how will Scotland cope within a fiscal and monetary union?). My focus, however, was what happens in the event of a ‘no’ vote. Given that the main parties appear agreed there will be a further transfer of powers to Scotland (‘devo max’), what will be the consequences in terms of English attitudes? Survey data show a substantial dissatisfaction in England (not confined to the North) with what is perceived as favourable treatment for Scotland and a growing sense of Englishness. The self-ascription as English is now pronounced, well outstripping (except in London) those who regard themselves as British. There is also a dissatisfaction with how the country is governed, but no agreement on what the answer is to this: the status quo does not carry majority support, but neither does any one of the alternatives (regional government being the least preferred). In the event of a no vote this sense of Englishness and dissatisfaction is likely to grow. Ironically, a yes vote, with Scotland ceasing to be part of the UK, may possibly stem this or even see it receding. With a no vote, there will be an interesting challenge to how we muddle through. That, perhaps, is a very British response.