The value of parliamentarians

In a previous post, I raised the issue of how to value the work of the House of Lords.  How does one ascribe monetary value to thousands of improvements achieved to measures passing through Parliament?  In that post, I touched upon the problems of ascribing value to individual parliamentarians.  Some analysts have sought to do it through looking at measurable activity in terms of the number of speeches made or the number of votes cast.  That, as I mentioned, is to confuse quantity with quality.  Speaking frequently in the chamber may have little impact – indeed, may be counter productive if one has a reputation for speaking too often – and there is an opportunity cost.  Sitting in the chamber may not be as rewarding as having a private meeting with a minister or questioning a witness at a committee meeting.  I have drawn attention in an earlier post to the importance of the use of informal space in Parliament: meeting informally with colleagues may achieve more than through making a speech on the public record.

During my time in the Lords, I have achieved various changes to legislation, but the main work in doing so has not been in the chamber: proceedings in the House have been the culmination of work done away from the chamber or through work in (or giving evidence to) committees.  One of my most productive periods was when I chaired the Constitution Committee of the Lords, which included using the chair’s prerogative to draft reports.  I wrote the Committee’s report on Parliament and the Legislative Process, which was accepted by the committee essentially as it stood and has been something of a template for subsequent legislative reform. Indeed, my main work throughout my time in the House has been through committee rather than the chamber.

My work, though, is minor relative to what has been achieved by some other parliamentarians, some of whom are especially adept at working to influence outcomes.  Such work, though, does not necessarily lend itself to observable decision-making.  The most effective MPs and peers can sometimes be those who do not have a high public profile.  Conversely, some who are busy gaining a public profile – a number are especially adept at gaining media attention – may not carry a great deal of weight with colleagues.  The emphasis on quantifiable activity – number of questions tabled, speeches given – may not only be misleading, but can be harmful.  MPs in particular are conscious of the attention given to such quantification, so can feel pressured to make more speeches or table questions in order not to appear to be neglecting their duties.  This can absorb time and resources of both the Member and the House – tabling questions carries a cost to the public purse – and is  time and energy that could arguably be more productively employed for the public good.

The most important question addressed to parliamentarians should not be ‘what have you done?’, but ‘what have you achieved?’   That would help focus the mind.  The importance of the question needs to be recognised, though, as much by the media and other commentators as by members at whom it is addressed.  Journalists are drawn to the easy data because it is cheap and available.  Addressing what parliamentarians have actually achieved, be it for the wider public good, local causes or constituents, is more demanding, but it a question that merits asking.  For MPs, it may also be helpful in focusing the mind on outcomes rather than sheer activity.  For members of the public, it may help them realise that there is more to parliamentarians than sitting in a chamber, heckling one’s opponents, and looking for the camera.

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Twenty years a peer…

I have previously posted about being approached to accept a peerage, as well as doing a post on selecting my title.  The peerage itself took effect on ‘the forenoon of the first day in August’ 1998.  I was introduced into the Lords on 6 October, which is when the picture is taken.

Each year, I make a mental note to do something on 1st August to mark the anniversary of the peerage.  Most years I tend to forget, remembering days after the event, by which time it is too late.  This year is the 20th anniversary of the peerage taking effect, so I have made a particular effort.  All I need to do now is decide how to mark the occasion….

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Higher education as an export

Worcester College OxfordI recently initiated a debate in the Lords on the value to the United Kingdom of higher education as an export.  This refers to transactions between UK residents and non-residents and encompasses income from overseas students in the UK as well as from campuses and programmes established in other countries by UK universities and institutions of higher education.  You can read the debate here.

The export of higher education is valuable to the UK, not only economically, but also educationally and politically.  Economically, it is one of one of the nation’s most successful services, not only in bringing in income to universities, but also to local economies.  Educationally, overseas students serve to ensure the viability of some courses, especially in STEM subjects, as well as contributing to research.  Politically, the export of HE constitutes the major source of soft power for the UK.  Graduates of UK universities are to be found occupying leading positions in government and business around the globe.  It also helps with trade as those who have graduated from UK HE institutions are also positively disposed towards doing trade with the UK.

Exporting higher education has been a success story, but it is now under threat.  We are already losing market share.  Australia may already have overtaken us as the second most successful nation, after the US, for recruiting overseas students.  We are hardly managing to exploit a notable increase in mobility among overseas students.   A rise in recruitment of Chinese students masks a significant decline in recruitment from other countries, not least India.   We cannot sustain the recruitment from the Chinese market as the 18-22 age cohort in China in set to decline.  The future, in short, does not look positive.

We are held back by policies adopted by the Home Office.  Removing overseas students from the migration figures would be a positive step.  So too would being more generous in offering post-study work opportunities.  Cutting back on post-study work opportunities in 2012 sent out the wrong signal, something exploited by our competitors who offer more attractive opportunities.  Australia and Canada are proving especially active in recruitment.  There are other steps we can take, as I outlined in my speech, including in offering more scholarships to students from developing countries to study in the UK.  Above all, though, there needs to be a culture shift on the part of the Home Office, with the UK sending out the message that overseas students are not only welcomed, but also are valued.  That message was echoed from all sides of the House.

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If it’s Wednesday, it must be Liverpool…

The semester has ended.  Some people appear to think this mean academics can have a quieter time.  If only.  The only difference for me is that once the semester ends, life becomes somewhat more varied and peripatetic.  I still have marking and administrative responsibilities – grading research projects, arranging placements – but they are complemented by a range of commitments.  This week has been especially varied.

Monday began with a talk, on the role of the House of Lords, at Kesteven & Grantham Girls’ School.  The school’s most famous alumnus is Margaret Roberts, later Margaret Thatcher.  I got to Westminster in time to attend a packed meeting of the 1922 Committee, addressed by our second female PM.  Getting through all the journalists in the corridor was a struggle in itself; as for the meeting itself, anyone used to being sardine-like in the tube has some idea of what it was like.  I am a regular attender at the 1922, not least for academic purposes.  Having written the history of the committee for its 90th anniversary, I am planning to write its centenary history.  For that reason, attendance at this particular meeting was important.

On Tuesday, I was at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) for 0900 for the opening of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) Academic Seminar on Post-Legislative Scrutiny.  It attracted a large audience drawn from a wide range of countries.  I gave a short keynote address, emphasising the importance of post-legislative scrutiny.  It is a public good and important to ensuring law is doing what it is expected to do.  As soon as the session was over, I had to rush to get to Westminster in time to contribute to an informal seminar organised by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the Commons on executive-legislative relations.  It was a two-hour meeting and as soon as it finished I had to get to another committee room for a regular meeting of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, of which I am convenor.  It was then back to the IALS for the Academic Seminar, before returning to the House for chamber business.

Wednesdays are normally devoted to the Constitution Committee and other meetings, but this week I had an early start in order to get to Liverpool University for a conference on The Heath Premiership 1970-74.  There were some interesting papers covering policies as well as Heath’s leadership.  I gave a paper on Heath and party management, addressing how he dealt with the party organisation (Central Office, constituency parties, the 1922) and his relationship with party members, both in the country and Parliament.  His poor personnel management contributed to his difficulty in getting measures through and his ultimate demise as party leader.

I returned to Hull on Wednesday evening in readiness for the University graduation ceremony on Thursday morning.  I always attend the ceremony for politics graduands.  On this occasion, I was also the presenting officer for the honorary graduand, Alan Johnson, former MP for Hull West and Hessle, Cabinet minister, and award-winning author.  The picture shows me presenting him for his honorary degree.  He has held so many offices – of the 13 years that Labour was in power, he was a minister for eleven of them – that most of my presentation was a recitation of the posts.  After the ceremony and a formal lunch, there was a reception for graduates, always a pleasant occasion, not least to meet parents and family.  Then, for the first time in the week, I was able to get on with work on campus.

Friday was an occasion for more travel, this time to Sheffield to speak at Tapton School.  Having done two of my degrees at Sheffield, it was an occasion for memories.  As with the visit to Grantham, I was speaking to the school’s sixth-form.  The students proved an engaged audience, with a good part of the session taken up with informed and germane questions.

Once back in Hull, I was able to get under way with what I needed to complete over the weekend – a paper for a conference in Brussels and speeches for two debates in the Lords next Thursday, one of which I am leading.   Never a dull moment.

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Crisis in teaching citizenship

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the problems faced in secondary schools in teaching citizenship.  I quoted from the report of the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, in which it concluded:  ‘The Government has allowed citizenship education in England to degrade to a parlous state. The decline of the subject must be addressed in its totality as a matter of urgency.’

Given the seriousness of the issue, I tabled a question asking how many teachers of citizenship in secondary school were qualified to teach the subject.  The minister, Lord Agnew of Oulton, provided a very full answer, and credit to him for doing so.  It is chilling:

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Lord Agnew of Oulton:

In November 2016 there were 4,800 teachers in state funded secondary schools teaching citizenship. Of these we estimate that 8.7% had a relevant post A level qualification in the subject. A relevant post A level qualification is defined as a first degree or higher, BEd degree, PGCE, Certificate of Education or any other qualification at National Qualifications Framework level 4 or above in either citizenship, international relations, international, EU or UK politics or political theory.

There are also 10.6% of citizenship teachers with post A level qualification in history that prepare teachers well for teaching British citizenship.

The source of this information is the annual school workforce census. The census collects the post A level qualifications of teachers and the curriculum taught by teachers for around 75% of secondary schools. As the return is incomplete and the number of citizenship teachers is fairly small there is some uncertainty around the proportion provided and therefore we estimate there may be a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2%.

Information on post A level qualifications held by teachers, in the subject they teach, is published in Table 12 of the school workforce in England statistical publication. This is attached and available at the following link:

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/school-workforce-in-england-november-2016.

The data for November 2017 is expected to be published in June 2018.

Table_12_Highest_post_A_Level_qualifications (PDF Document, 47.5 KB)

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Even if one includes those with post A level qualifications in history, there are still approximately eight out of every ten citizenship teachers who are not deemed to have relevant post A-level qualifications.  The select committee recommended that the Government establish a target of having enough trained citizenship teachers to have a citizenship specialist in every school.  These data show we are nowhere near achieving that.

As I argued in my previous post, citizenship education matters.  It can contribute significantly to the health of our political system.  Yet there are no strong incentives for schools to take it seriously.  Utilising teachers who have no relevant qualifications to take citizenship classes has the potential to be worse than not having any classes at all.  The situation is far worse than I expected.  Until schools have reason to take it seriously, it is not likely to get better any time soon.

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Responses to select committee reports

As regular readers will know, the House of Lords recently agreed a proposal that I put to the Leader of the House, namely that Government Departments that failed to publish their responses to Select Committee reports within two months of publication should be named and shamed in House of Lords Business.  (This already happens with Departments that are overdue in answering written questions.)  You can find the details in my earlier post.

The results of the change can be seen in today’s Business, where one finds the following:

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Reports awaiting a Government response after two months

The Government has undertaken to respond in writing to the reports of select committees, if possible, within two months of publication. Only in exceptional circumstances should a response be deferred for more than six months after the report’s publication. If it appears likely that a response may be received later than two months of publication, the department concerned should write to the Committee explaining the reasons and indicating the likely timetable.

Communications Committee UK advertising in a digital age (1st Report, HL Paper 116), (response due 11 June, response expected 30 June) [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport]

Citizenship and Civic Engagement Committee The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century (HL Paper 118), (response due 18 June, response expected 28 June) [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government]

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I hope this will have the desired salutary effect.  The fact that Departments have indicated when they expect to produce their belated responses – dates that are now in the public domain – is useful and Departments are unlikely to want to have a reputation for tardiness on the public record.

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Portrait caption competition winner

There were some splendid entries for the portrait caption competition.  There were recurring themes, not least in relation to cakes and tea.  There were entries that may possibly be seen as appealing to my vanity.  More than one were based on the portrait of Dorian Gray.  (Let’s just say I found these rather appealing.)  barry winetrobe was especially on good form: ‘Lord Fowler: “As the selection of the next Lord Speaker  is a foregone conclusion, the House has had his portrait done in advance”.’  The entry of Dean B made me laugh – ‘Is Lord Fowler saying: “Did you hear about the one-armed fisherman?  He caught one this big”‘ – even though the joke is one that may not be having its outing for the first time.  Mark Shephard sought to raise the intellectual tone and relate the picture to the four R’s, introducing a new one.   Regular readers will not need to be advised as to the four R’s.

However, the picture that I thought was especially funny and related well to the picture was (not for the first time) the first to be submitted.  Helen Whittaker wins with: ‘And here we have a fine example of the Upper House selfie’. 

If she would like to get in touch, the prize will be on its way.

I might add in respect of The comfy chair lives on reference to tea, although the sittings for the portrait were lengthy (2-3 hours at a time), they were liberally interspersed with tea breaks.

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