Fixed-term Parliaments Act – again

45007I have just been reading the article, ‘Who governs Britain?’ by Simon Heffer in the latest issue of The New Statesman.  He falls into the category of those who get wrong the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.  He thinks that if a Cameron Government faced a new Parliament, lost the vote on the Queen’s Speech and then resigned, Ed Miliband would have 14 days in which to get a Queen’s Speech through, otherwise there would be another election.  Er, no.  The Government would have to be defeated on the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’.  No other wording counts.  Only if defeated on that motion, and that motion alone, is the 14-day provision triggered, within which a new government has to be formed and gain a vote of confidence from the House or else an election takes place.  The resignation of a government does not trigger the 14-day provision.  It leaves open the potential for negotiations which are not time limited – indeed, they could go on and on and on…

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February Caption Competition

The picture for this month’s caption competition is of me illustrating a point to students from the Open University.  As usual, the winner will be the reader who offers what in my view is the wittiest and most apposite caption.  The prize will be a copy of one of my recent publications.


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Annoying phrases…

newspapersSomeone in a recent Tweet opened with ‘There is no question that..’ which immediately irritated me as it was on an issue where there clearly was a question.  It reminded me of phrases that annoy me.   Readers may well add others.  (I was going to write ‘No doubt readers will add others’, but as I cannot be sure they will the comment would not be strictly accurate.)   Here are some of those that annoy me intensely:

Everybody does it.

This is the one that probably annoys me more than any other.  It is frequently used in an attempt to deny personal responsibility: ‘I did it, but then everybody else does it, therefore it’s acceptable or at least not as bad as if I was the sole culprit’.  Recently, a football team owner or manager was accused of making racist remarks, including in reference to Chinese people, and sought to offset the guilt by saying of the particular word ‘Everyone at some time has used it.  Anyone who says they haven’t is a liar’.   I have never used it and I don’t appreciate being called a liar.  My views on the particular individual are probably not printable.

Everyone’s talking about it.

This is variously used by advertisers: ‘the film everyone is talking about’.  The phrase is arguably less annoying in that it is clearly an exaggeration and not meant to be taken literally.   Nonetheless, when I hear or read it, I think ‘I’ve never heard of it and have not spoken about it to anyone, so everyone isn’t talking about it’.  However, probably not something to take up with the Advertising Standards Authority.

As a matter of fact….

This appears to be used by people who aren’t relying on fact, but rather assertion and who may not be on the most solid of grounds.

There is no question….

This likewise is variously used by people in situations where there is some element of doubt.  It appears to be used to bolster opinion rather than establish fact.

I am also not too keen on the insertion of superfluous words (‘I myself believe’ for ‘I believe’) – a message on the screen in the Lords recently announced that a debate was ‘now imminent’ (as opposed to being ‘later imminent’?) – but that is probably enough for now.  I may add others as I encounter them.  Readers are welcome to add their own entries.

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In rabble-rousing mode…

lordnortonOn Tuesday of last week, Report stage of the Recall of MPs Bill was taken in the Lords.  The Bill has not proved universally popular.  I was variously on my feet, contributing to debate on a number of amendments.  The last amendment to be debated was mine, providing for the Act to be reviewed after 5-6 years.  One peer, Lord Howarth of Newport, thought that I may be pursuing something that could be rabble-rousing.  Obviously, my reputation goes before me.

Unfortunately, the Government were not proving accommodating, either on my amendment or those moved by other peers.  I did not pursue the amendment.  It was rather late in the evening.  Even if I was in rabble rousing mode, there was not much rabble to be roused.  I may, however, return to the issue at Third Reading.

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What if?

0b16b0a3-b600-368f-b615-8d38b43851c5I don’t normally engage in ‘what if?’ reflections, but one has variously struck me.  Alan Turing (pictured) is credited with making a major contribution to shortening World War II by two years or more as a result of his work at Bletchley Park.  Indeed, Baroness Trumpington, who worked at Bletchley, is convinced that without his work we would have lost the war, with the Germans succeeding in starving Britain into submission.  Turing was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency.  His security clearance was revoked.  This point is generally overshadowed by the fact that he subsequently killed himself, but it is very relevant for reflecting on what might have been.  Where would we now be if Turing had been arrested and convicted in 1939?

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Parliamentarianism in Europe

indexMy first publication of 2015 has now appeared.  It is a chapter on ‘Continuity and change in parliamentarianism in twenty-first century European politics’ in the massive (984pp) Routledge Handbook of European Politics, edited by Jose Magone.  The chapter identifies the extent to which the latter half of the twentieth century saw a consolidation of democratic parliamentary systems in Europe and addresses the challenges faced by, and the opportunities afforded to, parliaments in the new century.  The challenges are those of globalisation, supra-national decision-making, the development of a rights culture, and demands for greater engagement.  The opportunities comprise engagement with electors and collaboration between legislatures.

My second publication is a short article in Politics Review, due out next month, on whether the UK constitution provides an effective check on executive power: I received an advance copy of the magazine today.  I already have six other publications (five chapters and one journal article) in press for publication, five of which are scheduled to appear this year and the other may well appear before the end of the year.  I am at work on two other publications: a chapter and a journal article.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that just before Christmas I realised I had not published a book in 2014 and did not have one scheduled for 2015.  I think I had better start thinking about my next book.  A successor to The Constitution in Flux is a runner – assuming I can come up with a catchy title!

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Is there a need to reform trial by jury?

1211397834_80_177_117_97I spent the first two weeks of the year on jury service at Southwark and Blackfriars Crown Court (pictured).  It was a fairly time-consuming exercise, even though court sittings could be described at times as leisurely.  Part of the time was spent waiting and part of the time was spent worrying one might be selected for a case expected to last for several weeks.  I almost got selected for one expected to last ten weeks.  In the event, I served on the jury on three short trials.

Knowing I was doing jury service, a colleague in the Lords, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, a former member of the Supreme Court, sent me a copy of the High Sheriff’s Law Lecture he gave at Oxford University in 2010, entitled ‘Are Juries a good thing?  The jury is out’.   In the lecture, he raised some fundamental questions about the value of juries.  He recognised the range of experience brought by those selected for jury service, and various other merits attached  to trial by jury, but took the view that they were not necessarily especially good at convicting the guilty and acquitting the innocent.  He noted that the conviction rate was some 70% in magistrates’ courts and 60% in jury trials.  He saw long and complex trials as particularly problematic.  He also saw it as a defect that juries do not give reasons for their verdicts.  It is now an offence, under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, to disclose what went on in the jury room  – which is why I am confining my comments to the principles of trial by jury and to the way the process operates.

I can appreciate Lord Brown’s doubts, not least in respect of long trials.  My concern is more immediate and practical.  It concerns the process of calling people for jury service.   The selection is necessarily random, drawing names from the electoral register.  The result is that some people are called for whom giving up two weeks is difficult.  Some people who are keen to do jury service are never called at all.  When I mentioned to one or two friends I was going on jury service, their response was ‘You lucky thing, I wish I was doing that’.  I did not exactly share their enthusiasm.  There are people who would not only be happy to serve on a jury, but also be willing to serve on one lasting several weeks.  If their services could be tapped, it would save time when it comes to jury selection.   Given the commitments that people have, selecting jurors for a long trial can be problematic.

I am now giving thought to how we can maintain the basic principle of drawing people at random for jury service, but at the same time drawing on the services of those who are keen to serve, especially in trials that may be lengthy.  Watch this space.

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