Recall of Parliament

45007Last Friday, both Houses were recalled to discuss military action in Iraq.  When the recall was announced on Wednesday, I spent some time correcting media reports that the Speaker had authorised the recall of Parliament.  The Speaker can only authorise the recall of the House of Commons.  The Lord Speaker authorises the recall of the House of Lords.   Since the war, both Houses have been recalled almost thirty times, usually to discuss an international crisis, but occasionally for other purposes – for example, tributes on the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Baroness Thatcher.

There is an interesting difference in terms of the conditions for recall between the two Houses.  Under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, the Speaker, having received representations from the Government, may recall the House if satisfied that the public interest requires it.  The Speaker cannot act on his own initiative.  In the Lords, Standing Orders provide for a recall if the Lord Speaker (or, in her absence, the Chairman of Committees), after consultation with the Government, is satisfied that that it is in the public interest.   The wording would suggest that the Lord Speaker may take the initiative.  There is a requirement to consult the Government, but no stipulation that a negative response would prevent a recall.  The likelihood of the Lord Speaker acting on her own initiative are doubtless extremely slim, but, if my reading of the Standing Orders is correct, it gives the House of Lords somewhat greater scope for assembling, despite the wishes of the Government, than exists with the House of Commons.

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The West Lothian Question: the answer is not the solution

44044Lord Irvine of Lairg, when Lord Chancellor, said that the best way to deal with the West Lothian question (named after Tam Dalyell’s constituency, but actually dating from home rule debates in the 19th Century) was not to ask it.  He had a point.  The only logical answers are to undo devolution or to move to a federal system.  The former is not politically feasible and the latter would create a totally asymmetrical federation.  Neither really provides a solution.

One possible way to deal with the problem, very much in the news, is English votes for English laws (EVEL).  This is feasible in terms of process (it is something we addressed in the Commission to Strengthen Parliament), though there are problems in terms of determining what measures to put through that process.  Another, less discussed, is not so neat in some respects, but once implemented is somewhat more robust (though the two are not mutually exclusive) – and that is to reduce the number of MPs returned from Scotland to the House of Commons.  This is in line with precedent.  When Northern Ireland had its own Parliament at Stormont, the number of MPs returned from Northern Ireland was less than its population justified.  Stormont was suspended in 1972 and then abolished.  Because the province no longer had a Parliament, the Labour Government of James Callaghan accepted that the number of MPs returned from Northern Ireland should therefore be increased and legislated accordingly.

The number of MPs returned from Scotland was reduced following devolution, but that was to bring the electoral quota in Scotland in line with England.  Scotland had acquired over time more seats than its population warranted, but that was not a conscious act to compensate for the absence of its own legislature.  Bringing the electoral quota into line with England was a change that arguably should have been made anyway, regardless of devolution.  Scotland is now on a par with England, but it has its own parliament and is set to see an increase in its powers.  There is thus a clear case for reducing the number of MPs .  There is also a practical argument for doing so.  MPs representing Scottish seats no longer shoulder the same constituency burdens as MPs in the rest of the UK, especially England.

Reducing the number would not solve the West Lothian question, but it would make it less problematic.  There would not be two tiers of MPs (though in practice there are various tiers of MPs) and hence no problems over process.  When Northern Ireland had the Stormont Parliament, MPs from Northern Ireland were the same as other MPs.  The problem that MPs from Scotland could tip the balance in some votes would remain, but that was the case with Northern Ireland MPs and was raised as an issue in the 1964-66 Parliament, the complaints coming from the Labour benches and the Conservatives arguing that the votes of Northern Irish Members were the same as those of any other Members.

As I say, it is not the neatest of solutions, but it is a practical one for which there is a precedent.  This and EVEL are not mutually exclusive, but this may be something on which progress could be made and, indeed, as in 1977-78 with representation from Northern Ireland, implemented quickly.

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You know you are old when….

imagesI shall be writing in greater length on constitutional issues shortly, but for the moment I thought I would pen a few comments on age.  It struck me that in a few years time, mention a ‘car tax disk’ to a young person and they won’t know what you are talking about.  You possibly know that you are no longer young when you can remember:

A three-penny bit

A half-penny

A ten-shilling note

National Insurance stamps

Green Shield stamps

Pressing Button B to get your money back

AA patrolmen on motor bikes with side-cars

A Roneo machine


The absence of breakfast TV

I am sure some readers (mentioning no names) can add to the list….

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Addressing constitutional issues…

Lord Norton MSP_7912After the result of the referendum in Scotland, there is much discussion as to what steps to take now to address constitutional issues.  I have variously made the case for a constitutional convention to make sense of where we are constitutionally.  Otherwise, we are in danger of going off half-cock with proposals, the consequences of which – not least for other parts of the constitution – are not thought through.

Mark D’Arcy of BBC Parliament has come up with rather a novel – some may think alarming – idea.  You can read his blog post hereThe salient passage is:

“Already wise heads are shaking in Westminster. To some, the way to change the constitution is by slow, deliberative change. Essentially the ideal process is to clone the constitutional scholar Lord Norton of Louth, sit a dozen of him down in a committee room somewhere, take detailed evidence from the wise and the experienced and ruminate upon it for months – if not years – before producing a careful, nuanced set of proposals with a ready-made consensus behind them.”

The approach finds favour with me, but whether the world is ready for another one of me – never mind a dozen – is another matter.  Perhaps we could settle for some like-minded individuals.

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The constitution in more flux?

IMG_0272Just over thirty years ago I published a book on the constitution entitled The Constitution in Flux.  It was on the reading lists of many law as well as politics courses for years.  One reviewer described the work as prophetic.   I have been pursued by publishers who have been keen for a second edition.  I have not had time to get round to penning one, largely because I have been so busy with other commitments.  There is one other problem.  If I was to do a new work, other than calling it The Constitution in Flux, 2nd edition, what could it be called?   No one has yet come up with a better name than the original.  Some students have spent ages ruminating, but not yet come up with a better title.  The Constitution in Even More Flux was one suggestion.  Others have been a variation on that theme.

Any suggestions?

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A split personality?

47573No sooner had I written a post about the mail I receive with unusual renderings of my name than I get a letter addressed to ‘Lord Norton, Professor Philip Norton MP’.

It is possible for someone who has been in one House to then serve in the other, but not to serve in both simultaneously.  Perhaps it is a case of trying to cover all the bases, but the fact that the name, or rather names, is followed by ‘Member of the Lords, House of Lords’ is rather a giveaway as to which House in which I sit.

The names I have shown in previous posts have usually been on letters received from charities.  This letter is from a professional body.  Hmmm.

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Who do they think I am?

Lord Norton MSP_0918 copyI have previously drawn attention to the variety of names by which I am addressed in mail (Prof L N O Louth, Lord Norton O Louth and the like).  I had a new one this week.  I received a letter addressed to His Excellency Lord Norton of Louth.  I thought  that was rather sweet.  In the same post, I received one addressed to Prof Lo NORT Louth.  Imagine my bemusement when I realised both came from the same organisation.  Some organisations have me on their databases under different designations, usually Professor P Norton and Lord Norton of Louth, but the scale of the difference on this occasion was rather stark.

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