The picture for the May caption competition shows me chairing the debate on membership of the EU with Conservative MP Graham Brady (supporting leave) and Sir Vice Cable (supporting remain). As ever, the winning entry will be the one that in my opinion is the most appropriate and witty. Some entries are occasionally appropriate to the picture, but not very witty, and some are very funny without relating that clearly to the picture. The winner as ever will receive one or more of my recent publications.
I took part in a panel discussion last night at a conference in London on ‘Challenges to Implementing the Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights: Dialogues on Prisoner Voting Rights’. The panel comprised Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, former President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hamwee, and me. Lord Phillips and I served on the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill and Baroness Hamwee serves on the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
The panel addressed Parliament’s role in responding to the Strasbourg judgments on prisoner voting. I opened by pointing out that Parliament as such had not expressed a view. The House of Commons has debated the issue of prisoner voting rights – and voted by a large majority against enfranchising any prisoners – but the House of Lords has not expressed a view, although the recent report of the EU Committee did contrast the position of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment with a recent judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) that may lead to the UK having to enfranchise some prisoners in elections to the European Parliament.
The only action taken so far by Parliament has been the appointment of the Joint Committee on the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. The report of the Joint Committee was published in December 2013 and still has not received a substantive response from the Government. It constitutes in my view the most useful summary of the history of the voting rights of prisoners as well as examining the issues of principle involved in responding the judgment of the ECHR in the Hirst case. Some MPs, as was shown in the debate in the Commons in 2011, appear to think a blanket ban on prisoner voting is longstanding. I quoted one who said it went back centuries. It actually dates from 1969. Between 1967 and 1969 there was no ban and prior to 1967 prisoners serving twelve or fewer months were entitled to vote and some did so.
The Joint Committee offered a reasoned report recommending that we revert to the position that existed at the time we signed the ECHR, namely that those serving twelve months or fewer be entitled to vote. However, as we discussed in the panel, the practical political obstacles in achieving that are substantial. Successive governments have been keen to lob it into the long grass, MPs have opposed it, and the issue – which at the time of the earlier changes of the law was not notably contentious – is now politically toxic. It creates a serious situation in terms of the UK’s standing in maintaining the rule of law. The impasse may in due course be resolved not through the ECHR route but as a result of the CJEU ruling, subject of course to what happens on 23 June…
I was somewhat surprised that the Queen’s Speech contained the statement ‘My Government will hold a referendum on membership of the European Union’. My concern is the terminology. The Government may propose a referendum, but has no power of its own to hold a referendum. It may propose one and can introduce a Bill, as it did, to provide that one is held. Parliament legislates for a referendum and the administration is undertaken by others.
The terminology is worrying in the context of the Government’s approach to constitutional issues. It reflects a somewhat sloppy approach that has characterised succeeding governments. There has been no intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change and a view, personified by Tony Blair, that the constitution is the servant of the government rather than the other way round. Schoolchildren benefit from citizenship education. Perhaps it should be extended to the Cabinet Office.
I have received my copy of Parliament: Legislation and Accountability, edited by Alexander Horne and Andrew Le Seuer. Part I looks at different aspects of the legislative process and Part 2 at accountability, including the regulation of lobbyists and the implications for Parliament of automated decision-making. I have a chapter, in Part 1, on the legislative process in the House of Lords.
How the House fulfils this task is determined by its relationship to the first chamber and its ability to fulfil it facilitated by its procedures and its membership. The House sees its role as complementary to the elected chamber. The Commons can determine the ends of legislation, so the Lords addresses the means. Its procedures differ from those in the Commons and enable it to engage in detailed scrutiny and its membership (in terms of its political composition and individual members) enables that scrutiny to be effective. The House of Commons, I contend, is characterised by the politics of assertion and the Lords by the politics of justification.
For more, feel free to get a copy of the book….
In an earlier post, I reported details of the Speaker’s Lecture I gave last November on Eleanor Rathbone, the remarkable Independent MP who sat in the Commons from 1929 until her death in January 1946. During her service in the House, she demonstrated what a determined and well informed Member, free of party constraints, could achieve.
The lecture has now been published by the University of Hull, following publication of the other two public lectures I gave last year: the Founder’s Day Lecture on another MP of the early 20th Century, Thomas Ferens, and the High Sheriff’s Lecture on Magna Carta. As regular readers will know, both are freely available. Copies of the Rathbone Lecture are available for anyone on campus – they can be collected from the trays outside my office – and anyone in Westminster: if the latter, just let me know you would like a copy or copies.
This evening I chaired a debate, organised by the Centre for Opposition Studies, on Westminster v Brussels? British opposition to the EU, with Graham Brady MP arguing the case for British exit from the EU and Sir Vince Cable arguing the case for the UK to remain a member of the EU.
As I explained in opening, I was chairing because I am on the Centre’s advisory committee and because I am neutral in terms of the present debate. I drew attention to a recent analysis which suggested that each side in the debate was appealing to its core vote and not really making a case that appealed to those who were undecided. I invited both speakers to make a positive case.
Graham Brady argued that there was no status quo option and that the EU was essentially an inward-looking institution, with fiscal integration being core to its future, even if that was not something desired by all member states. He argued exit would offer an opportunity to reinvigorate our democracy. Vince Cable challenged the argument that we could negotiate favourable trade terms with other member states. Even if we negotiated good terms with Germany, France and others may take a very different view. He made the case for access to the EU as a single unit. Industries had set up in the UK because of the access to that market.
At the end, Graham Brady asked me if I was still neutral. I had to say that I was. Some people haven’t made up their minds because they haven’t listened to the arguments. My problem is that when I hear one of the arguments advanced by one side, I can put the counter-argument of the other. The problem at the moment is that each side tends too often to speak in headline or sound bite terms, often adopting a lemon meringue approach: looks good on the outside, but when you bite it there is not much there.