I am conscious I have not posted anything recently. It has been a busy week. Among the highlights were:
* Attending the Speaker’s Lecture on Monday, when John Redwood MP spoke on ‘Parliament and economic policy’, arguing that Parliament was more effective in calling government to account when there is disagreement than when there is consensus.
* Chairing the Parliamentary University Group ‘Frontiers of Knowledge’ lecture on Tuesday, in the River Room of the House of Lords, at which Professor Rana Mitter, of Oxford University, spoke on the history of China’s relationship with Japan. It was a fascinating lecture, well attended, not least by peers.
* Speaking on Wednesday to students from the University of Ulster on the role of the House of Lords and lecturing on Thursday morning to students at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire on the role of the House of Commons.
* Speaking in a debate in the House on Thursday afternoon on the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. You can read the speech here. I welcomed the report, but argued against those recommendations that in my view were not necessary to protect either House in fulfilling its essential functions.
* Chairing a Parliamentary Studies lecture this lunchtime, in which Sarah Petit (Clerk of the Public Accounts Committee) spoke on ‘Parliament and Scrutiny’, and hosting a reception this afternoon to mark 25 years of the Hull parliamentary placement scheme. The reception was well attended by current students as well as an array of graduates. When students begin the four-year British Politics and Legislative Studies (BPLS) degree, I always tell them that the four years will fly by, each year going quicker than the one before. The same applies to the 25 years of the scheme – it doesn’t seem like a quarter of a century since I organised the first placements. Then I organised placements for three students. I am in the process of arranging placements this September for thirty.
I was spoilt for choice in determining the winner of the caption competition. A good number certainly passed the test. There was Princeps Senatus’ splendid, and very British, play on words. DF Rostron deserves a commendation for the quantity and the quality of his entries – each one would have been a worthy winner. Tony Sands is close to following in his footsteps. (His first entry is possibly not that far from the truth!) I couldn’t help laughing when I first read Mario Rabaiotti’s ‘It was Lord Norton, in the Library, with the hole punch’. And Barry Winetrobe is clearly following in Princep Senatus’ footsteps from the previous competition. Some of my friends probably assumed ‘The University asked to see a small sample of what I published last year’ would win the competition on the spot – and it almost did. Dean B managed to identify two books that will never be found on any of my bookshelves!
Which then is the winner? It was a close run thing, but I decided that the winner by a hair’s breadth was the first to be submitted. Matt Korris wins with:
[David Attenborough voice-over] ‘And here we find a prime example of the political academic, content in his native habitat, surrounded as he is in his nest of books and journals. This home has been painstakingly built up over a period of many years, and he must be careful that his enthusiasm for expansion doesn’t lead to a devastating literature landslide that would trap him inside permanently…’
If he lets me know which book he would prefer (Eminent Parliamentarians or The Voice of the Backbenchers), I will arrange for it to be delivered. The other contributors may take pride in the fact that they were so close to winning. They may also take heart in that another competition will be along in the not too distant future.
Every time I am close to announcing the winner of the February caption competition, some late entries arrive. A number are real contenders. The entries have been notable for their quantity and their quality. However, we are now in March, so I shall be announcing the winner tomorrow. I think there is one entry that has just edged it, but there are a good many that qualify for the silver medal. And there are a few hours remaining for very late entries…
UDATE: And still more entries – some very good ones.
A number of people have asked me when the next caption competition is being held. They include someone who enjoys the competition even though never offering a caption. So, by popular demand, here’s the February competition. The winner will be whoever provides what in my opinion is the wittiest caption for this photograph. The prize will be a copy of either Eminent Parliamentarians or The Voice of the Backbenchers.
Both Houses of Parliament have tended to be chamber-oriented, a feature of Westminster-type parliaments. It is only relatively recently that each has become more specialised through the use of permanent investigative committees. Committee work increasingly occupies the time of members. Members of the public, and indeed journalists, don’t always appear to recognise the fact that, if neither chamber is sitting (or debates not well attended), this does not mean that MPs and peers are not at work. It is not helped by the fact that the website Theyworkforyou.com does not incorporate committee attendance in its data, a point of increasing annoyance on the part of MPs.
Much of my parliamentary work has tended to be in committee rather than in the chamber. The year before last I was on three committees, each meeting on succeeding days: the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and the Constitution Committee. Last year, I was on two: the Joint Committee on the Draft Voter Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. The time-consuming aspect of the work is not just attendance at meetings, but also the preparatory work. The papers for meetings can be substantial. I recently tweeted a picture (see above) of the papers for a meeting of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
Apart from being a member of committees, I have also spent time on the other side of horse-shoe table, that is as a witness to various committees (most recently the Public Administration Select Committee and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons, the Joint Committee on the Draft Deregulation Bill, and – after I ceased to be a member – the Constitution Committee in the Lords). At one point, to assist the committee in writing its report on the size of government, I was actually appointed as a Specialist Adviser to the Public Administration Committee.
My point here is to stress the significance of committee work of Parliament. What goes in the chambers is important, necessarily so, but that is only part of a much wider – and an increasingly wide – picture. In the Commons, MPs also have onerous and time-consuming constituency work with which to contend. Westminster is a hive of activity. What goes on in the chamber of each House is but part of it.
On Tuesday, there was Question for Short Debate (QSD) in the Lords, initiated by Lord Bew, the new chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It was on the Committee’s most recent survey on public attitudes towards conduct in public life. It does not make for the most encouraging reading.
The number of speakers was such that, apart from Lord Bew and the minister, we each had three minutes. I have summarised my short speech in a post on Lords of the Blog: it can be read here. For those interested in seeing the full debate, it can be read here. My concern was how we can raise trust, going beyond ensuring that politicians comply with the seven principles of public life (the Nolan principles). That is the starting point, not the end point.
My Speaker’s Lecture on 21 January addressed the relationship of Parliament and political parties. My argument was that parties need Parliament and Parliament needs parties. Parties are necessary, but not sufficient, for Parliament to fulfil its key functions. I addressed the problems deriving from the nature of party competition today - essentially simply attacking the other side - and the bidding war between the parties to gain electoral support.
As those who were present or who have watched the lecture will know, one part did raise a laugh. In illustrating the problems with having members who have no party commitment, and hence receive no voting cues from the whips, I used the example of Vernon Bartlett, Independent MP for Bridgwater from 1938 to 1950. He took the high-minded approach that he would only vote on matters he understood. Unfortunately, a great many issues came to a vote. When he was busy sat in the Library, dealing with constituency correspondence, and the division bells rang, he had no idea which way to vote. The policeman on duty outside the Library used to put his head round the door and shout ‘Division’, even though it was obvious there was a division. Bartlett admitted in his autobiography: ‘This so embarrassed me that occasionally I went and locked myself in the loo until I guessed that the vote was over and the debate had been resumed.’ He went on: ‘It was not for this, I admitted to myself, that the electors of Bridgwater had sent me to Westminster, and I learned to neglect the policeman’s warning.’
Parties do have their uses.