Calling Departments to account…

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the fact that I had suggested that whenever Government Departments failed to respond to select committee reports witThe 1922 Committee usually meets in Committee Room 14hin two months, the name of the Department should be listed in House of Lords Business.  This already happens in respect of Departments that do not reply within ten working days to written questions.  The Leader of the House, Baroness Evans, responded positively and said she would take the proposal to the Procedure Committee.  The Committee’s Third Report of the session was approved by the House yesterday.  The report contained only two items.  One was on the timing of Private Notice Questions, which required the approval of the House.  The other was for information.  I am pleased to report that it constituted an acceptance of the recommendation:

Noting overdue Government responses to select committee reports in House of Lords Business

3. The Government aims to respond to select committee reports within two months. The undertaking forms part of the Osmotherly Rules, which provide guidance to Government departments about their engagement with select committees in both Houses.

4. On 14 November 2017, in a Question for Written Answer (HL3234) regarding the quality and timeliness of Government responses, Lord Norton of Louth asked what consideration had been given to listing in House of Lords Business the names of Government departments that had failed to respond to reports of Lords select committees, and joint committees, within two months. In her response on 27 November, the Leader of the House undertook to submit such a proposal to the Procedure Committee.

5. We have considered the Leader’s proposal and agreed that the House should be informed of the status of Government responses to select committee reports through the inclusion of a new section in the House of Lords Business document. The proposed section is predicated upon the following assumptions:

 It will be printed in the Business once a week, every Monday.
 Only reports for which a Government response has not been received within two months will be included.
 The two-month period will be interpreted as a full two months. For example, a report published on 20 February would be due for response on 21 April.
 Only responses to reports which were published from the beginning of the 2017–19 session, and in subsequent sessions, will be included.
 Only substantive reports by investigatory and post-legislative scrutiny committees will be covered, excluding reports published for information only. Reports by domestic committees and legislative scrutiny reports will be excluded.
 In the past, extensions for submitting Government responses have often been agreed between the department and committee concerned but not necessarily on a formal basis and with no precise date set. Such agreements will in future always need to be agreed in writing and the revised date will be indicated in the list.
 Although it is not uncommon for more than one Government department to be involved in responding to select committee reports, only the lead department will be indicated.

6. The new section will be included in House of Lords Business when the House returns from the forthcoming Easter recess. We report this to the House for information.

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Restoration and renewal: moving out of the Palace

In January, the House of Commons debated whether to decant the Palace during the years when the essential restoration and renewal of the Palace is undertaken.  It agreed, by 236 votes to 220, to a full, rather than a partial, decant.  The Lords debated the issue last month.  The vote in the Commons largely took the wind out of the sales of those peers who were reluctant to support a full decant.  The House agreed with the Commons without a vote.

I spoke in the debate and in the time available supported the case for a full decant.  My principal regret was that it had taken so long to bring the issue before the House.  As I explained in an earlier post, the longer the delay, the greater the cost to the public purse.  The need to address the state of the Palace is apparent to anyone walking through it – as well as to anyone looking at the exterior – and especially to anyone who has visited the basement.  The infrastructure is a mass of pipes and wires, with no record of where a great many of them go.  We could suffer a catastrophic failure at any moment.  We certainly suffered a notable failure during the recent cold snap.  The heating failed in the committee rooms overlooking the Thames, leading some MPs to sit in a Public Bill Committee wearing overcoats.  I have just been through the corridor on the ground floor of the West Front of the Lords, where bookcases and paintings have had to be removed because of a major water leak from the Principal Floor.  Things, I suspect, are not going to get any better.

In my speech, I addressed the concerns of those who fear that if we move out, we may never return, and the wishes of those who would like us not to return, but instead move to another part of the country.  There is a commitment to return to the Palace – not least because we could not afford to restore the Palace and create a new purpose-built Parliament.  Moving to another part of the country is not feasible, not as a matter of principle, but for practical reasons.  Parliament is where it is because of where Government is located.  We could create a new capital – our own Brasilia – in the heart of England, but the cost would be prohibitive.  It is going to cost billions to restore the Palace of Westminster.  That will not be the most popular expenditure of public money.  Consider the cost of building a new centre for Government Departments and both Houses of Parliament and relocating not only 7,000 staff who work in Parliament, but the senior civil service as well, and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

Getting us from where we are to temporary locations – and those locations are not confirmed or problem-free – while the Palace is restored and then getting us back in is going to be a massive logistical exercise as well as having major implications for how the two Houses connect with one another and with how MPs deal with constituents.  It is going to be vital to have a body capable of delivering the change and doing it efficiently and effectively.  We cannot afford to get it wrong.

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The Louth by-elections

When I spoke in the debate in the Lords last month to mark the contribution made to public life by women since the Representation of the People Act 1918, one of the reasons I gave for contributing was because the second woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, Margaret Wintringham (pictured), was returned as the MP for Louth.  She was elected at a by-election in 1921.  What was notable was not only that the election saw the return of the first British-born woman MP, but was also the third out of four elections to be held in the seat in almost as many years.

In the December 1918 general election, the Conservative candidate, Captain H.L. Brackenbury won the seat back from the Liberals, having held it in the first election of 1910.  Fourteen months later, he died, triggering a by-election.  The election was won by the Liberal, Tom Wintringham.  Just over a year later, in August 1921, he died.  His widow, Margaret, was selected as the candidate to succeed him.  Remarkably, she was elected despite not campaigning at all, out of respect for her late husband.  She was re-elected in the general election the following year, but lost the seat two years after that in the 1924 general election.  The seat was won by the Conservative, Arthur Heneage, and it has remained in Conservative hands ever since.

Heneage retired in 1945 and was succeeded by Cyril Osborne.  Osborne died in 1969, triggering another by-election.  The by-election was won by one Jeffery Archer.  That may make the basis of another post…

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Getting there…

The weather in the UK this week has wreaked havoc with travel.  I managed to get back from Westminster to Hull late on Wednesday night, travelling as I normally do on the last Hull Trains service.  The train made it, eventually, sometime after midnight.  I could not help smiling, though, when the train manager apologised for the delay:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry for the delay to your service this evening.  This was caused by a late departure from King’s Cross because of the weather and because the driver needed a rest between shifts.  We were further delayed at Grantham, and at Retford, and by being diverted from Doncaster to go via Goole, and then having to return to Doncaster because of a points failure at Goole; and then at Selby because the signalman had gone home, having been told we were going via Goole.”

Given all this, the surprising thing was that we got in to Hull only an hour and 16 minutes behind schedule.  I was just glad to be back.  Full marks to Hull Trains for actually getting us through – and for their faultless on-board communication.

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The value of the House of Lords

Every so often, one sees in the press or on Twitter someone claiming that the House of Lords does not represent value for money.  This will often derive from the figures published for the annual cost of the House or  the daily allowance that may be claimed or is claimed.  Some of the criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of the figures – the cost averaged out per peer is not the figure it will cost the public purse if a new peer is created, for example – but there is a more fundamental point.  There is no clear criterion or criteria offered by which to assess value.  Some academics have sought to work out the value of peers by the number of speeches made or questions tabled, but that is to mistake quantity for quality.  Speeches or questions tell one nothing about the value of the House in terms of public good.

Two of the principal functions of the House are legislative scrutiny and calling the government to account.  In a parliamentary session, it is not unusual for several hundred amendments to be secured to Government Bills in the House of Lords.  (In the 1999-2000 session, it was closer to 5,000.)  Most of these are moved by Government, but – as the research of Meg Russell has shown – many if not most will have their genesis in amendments moved at earlier stages by backbenchers or members of the Opposition front bench.  Some of the amendments make substantial differences to Bills.  I recall the campaign to get rid of Schedule 7 of the Public Bodies Bill.  Had that been enacted, it would have thrown a large number of public bodies, including some quasi-judicial bodies, into potential turmoil for years.  How do you place a monetary value on avoiding that?   If one could, one then need to work out the value in monetary terms of all the other changes achieved by the House.

And what value does one place on good government and ensuring the Government does not become overly powerful?  The Lords has been particularly vigilant in respect of ministers seeking powers through Henry VIII provisions, enabling them by order to amend primary legislation.  I have made the point elsewhere that whereas the House of Commons is characterised by the politics of assertion, the House of Lords is characterised by the politics of justification.  It helps ensure that ministers seek to explain and justify their actions.  It can serve as an important deterrent.

The statute book may not be perfect and Government may not be about to win prizes for being the very best, but the statute book would be in a far worse state, and the quality of Government much diminished, were it not for the work of the House of Lords.  It is impossible to place a monetary value on what it does.  If one could it would help put claims about the value of the House in perspective.

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Women and Westminster

Last week, I spoke in debates on successive days.  On Monday, I contributed to the debate on women in public life – marking the centenary of the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918 – and on Tuesday I spoke on the motion to concur with the Commons in agreeing the full decant option for the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) of the Palace of Westminster.  I was expecting the first to be consensual and the second to be contentious.  In the event, Tuesday’s debate followed Monday’s in agreeing the motion before the House without a division.

As I explained in opening my speech on Monday, I decided to contribute because I thought it important that some male peers contributed, because there were one or two points I wanted to make, and because the second woman to take her seat in the Commons was Margaret Wintringham, returned as MP for Louth in a by-election in 1921.

My first point was essentially to address the sleight of hand in the motion.  It commemorated the contribution women to Parliament since 1918 and the passage of the Representation of the People Act.  I drew attention to the fact that they were distinguishable, as women have been able to stand for election to the House of Commons since 1918, but not because of the Representation of the People Act.  In the UK, the franchise and the qualifying age for election to public office are dealt with separately in statute.  The RP Act reached the statute book in February 1918.  An Act to enable women to stand for election to the House of Commons was enacted at the end of the year.  It made no mention of age and it was taken that women could stand for election at the same age as men, namely 21.  The RP Act had limited the franchise to women aged 30 and over (and meeting the property qualifications for voting in local government elections).  The reason for that was to ensure that women were in a minority in the electorate.  That consideration had no relevance to the age at which one could stand for election.  The voting age for women was lowered to 21 in 1928, thus bringing it into line with the qualifying age for election to the Commons, although (not a point I made in the debate) there is no compelling reason why the two have to be the same.  Some nations do have a higher age for standing for public office than for voting, though in my view there is a stronger argument for having it the other way round.

The other point I made was that some of the (few) women elected to the House of Commons in the inter-war years were very effective parliamentarians.  Their limited number, in what was seen as a not especially environment, may suggest they were isolated and ineffective figures.  In reality, some were doughty and effective campaigners.  I focused on the role played by Eleanor Rathbone, the subject of my 2015 Speaker’s Lecture.  As I emphasised in the lecture, she was a remarkable figure, not only in achieving the introduction of family allowances, but in her understanding of the dangers posed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.  I also drew attention to others, such as the Duchess of Athol on the Conservative benches and ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson and Margaret Bondfield, the first female Cabinet minister, on the Labour benches.

Overall, it was a good debate, with plenty of speakers.  I shall do a separate post on Tuesday’s debate on R&R, but from my point of view it was a good outcome – far better than expected.

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Legislatures and the courts: a featured piece

In an earlier post, I drew attention to my article, ‘Legislatures and the Courts: The importance of place’, published in the Journal of International and Comparative Law.  It identifies the importance of place – where institutions are based can affect the relationship between them.  It examined the effect of moving the UK’s highest court of appeal from the Palace of Westminster to the Supreme Court on the west side of Parliament Square.

The publishers have now published a list of featured articles drawn from the journal.  You can see the list here.  Mine, I am pleased to report, is the lead article.  Perhaps more importantly, the list links to the text of the article, for those who may be interested in reading it.

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