I recently spoke at the University of Lincoln Law School on ‘The Future of the British Constitution?’ It was a good evening, with a large audience. The university photographer, Ben Mills, took a good number of photographs – several were ideal for the caption competition (so expect to see more in the future). I have selected this one for a late autumn competition. As ever, the winner will be the entry that I judge the wittiest and most appropriate to the picture. The prize will be one of my recent publications.
I spoke yesterday in the Second Reading debate on the Scotland Bill. You can read the speech here. As you will see, I focused on the first two clauses, not least Clause 2, which seeks to put the Sewel convention on a statutory basis. It is not unknown (though it is rare) for a convention to be transposed into statute. The most recent example, as I mention in the speech, is that governing votes of confidence in the House of Commons. Until September 2011, it was a convention of the constitution that a Government defeated on a vote of confidence in the House of Commons either resigned or requested a dissolution. This was displaced by Section 2 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 providing that if the motion that ‘This House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ is carried, then – if a new or reconstituted Government is not formed within 14 days and gains a vote of confidence – a general election takes place. The convention ceased when the Act took effect. The Act provides legal certainty.
The problem with clause 2 of the Scotland Bill is that it does not transpose the Sewel convention into statute. It simply states the convention: ‘it is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament’. This draws on the words used by Lord Sewel when announcing what became the convention. It seeks to maintain the flexibility of the convention. It is embodied in statute, but without providing legal certainty. Conventions are not enforceable in the courts. Putting the words of the convention in statute means that they may be tested in the courts.
This is a novel situation and creates uncertainty. Either the convention should remain a convention, in which case Clause 2 should be removed, or it should be superseded by the legal precision of statute, in which case it needs to be re-written (or a new clause drafted). I can see I shall be busy.
The House of Lords today saw the introduction of Kevin Shinkwin, now Lord Shinkwin (pictured right), who graduated in British Politics and Legislative Studies (BPLS) just over twenty years ago. He is the first BPLS graduate to be ennobled, though he joins a renowned Hull mafia in the House. There are peers who are graduates of, or have taught in, Hull Politics Department (Lords Parekh, Plant, Smith of Clifton, and me) as well as those who graduated from the University in other subjects (Baroness Morgan of Ely and Lords Cormack, Giddens, Hattersley and Prescott).
We now have BPLS graduates in both Houses. Neil Coyle was elected to the House of Commons in May, not the first MP to study in the Hull Politics Department, but the first BPLS graduate to be elected. So a BPLS foothold in both Houses. It is a beginning….
I much appreciate the comments I have received on the Speaker’s Lecture I gave on Tuesday on the subject of Eleanor Rathbone (pictured) and which was broadcast last night on BBC Parliament. I tend not to like watching myself on television – one reason I like doing live interviews – but I did watch this programme to make sure my points came across. For anyone who missed the programme, it will be repeated tomorrow at 4.30 a.m.!
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of Eleanor Rathbone’s death and various events are planned to commemorate her and her achievements. My lecture was not designed to add to the scholarship on her, but rather to help raise the profile of this remarkable individual. She is a role model for MPs keen to get things done. She shows what can be achieved by a combination of intelligence, determination, appreciation of process, and clear principled goals.
On Tuesday, I delivered the Speaker’s Lecture on Eleanor Rathbone. The picture shows the Speaker, John Bercow, about to invite questions following the lecture.
This year’s lecture series looks at distinguished parliamentarians over history, including Pitt the Younger, Edmund Burke, and William Wilberforce. Eleanor Rathbone is included because she was a remarkable MP. She sat as an Independent, for the Combined English Universities, from 1929 until her death in January 1946. Within her time in the House – not exceptionally long by parliamentary standards – she achieved a remarkable amount. She is credited primarily with achieving the introduction of family allowances. However, that was her most notable, rather than her only, achievement. Her far-sightedness in international affairs was something I drew out in the lecture. She was on a par with Churchill in recognising the threat from Nazi Germany and in warning what would happen unless nations mobilised against the threat. She pursued a range of causes, mostly in defence of those who were disadvantaged (such as refugees fleeing authoritarian regimes), and utilised the procedures of the House of Commons to great effect. She was regularly on her feet in Question Time and during debates.
The lecture was recorded by BBC Parliament and is being broadcast tomorrow (Saturday) evening at 9.05 p.m. You can see my earlier Speaker’s Lecture on Parliament and political parties here and that on Enoch Powell by scrolling down on the site here.
The past couple of weeks have been somewhat manic. When at the Lords, I have been lucky if I have got away from the Palace before 11.00 p.m. – actually, thinking about it, I haven’t been that lucky – with meetings or debates packed in between morning and evening. Some of the work has been in the chamber. I spoke on Second Reading of the European Union Referendum Bill. You can read the speech here. Some has been committee based. On the Constitution Committee, we are continuing our inquiry into devolution and the union. This morning, I moved to the other House to give evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in its inquiry into English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). You can watch the session here: my evidence (with Sir William McKay) commences at 10.25.
Well, it was ostensibly on EVEL. Part of the questions did indeed cover the subject and the recommendations of the Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which I chaired, and which formed one of the three options considered by Government. However, coming after yesterday’s events in the Lords – when the House defeated a statutory instrument on tax credits – the questioning opened on that. The session concluded by asking my views on the constitutional implications if the size of the House of Commons is reduced, but there is no change in the number of ministers. I gave evidence on this to the committee in the last Parliament (and indeed was appointed a specialist adviser by the committee in order to help draft the report) and members are keen to return to it given the planned reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
The fact that the questions ranged over these topics gave me an opportunity to address the problems of successive Governments pursuing a raft of constitutional issues but doing so as discrete measures without addressing their implications for other changes or indeed thinking about them within the context of the constitution as a constitution. I didn’t quite put it in these terms (though I came close), but Governments tend not to understand the constitution. We may be seeing more evidence of this shortly.
There were some impressive entries for the October caption competition. Some friends took a similar view to me, namely that it was a challenging picture, but one that produced some highly inventive contributions. The entries were impressive, making the task of selecting a winner difficult. I eventually narrowed it down to ten, before shortlisting three. Tony Sands may be pleased to know he had two in the ten.
It was a close-run thing, but the runners-up are Whovian with ‘The replacement for Tim Wonnacott on Antiques Roadshow comes as quite a shock’ and Michael Courtney with ‘Winner of the raffle for a “Red Sedan” mildly disappointed’. Both are excellent, but were just pipped at the post by the winner, Jonathan, with:
‘Now, we just need to find a fourth person, then I can be on my way’.
If Jonathan would like to get in touch, his prize will be in the mail.