Social space in Parliament

 As I reported in an earlier post, I spoke at the panel on ‘Designing for Democracy’ at the PSA Conference in Glasgow, looking at the design of Parliament.

How parliamentarians behave is shaped by their physical surroundings.  As Winston Churchill said (and as virtually every panel member repeated), we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.   After the House of Commons was destroyed by enemy bombing on 10 May 1941, the Commons moved into the chamber of the Lords and the Lords sat in the Robing Room, but the new space was laid out in the form of the original chamber.  The chamber of the Commons was rebuilt so that it was basically the same as before.  The intention, if and when both Houses move out under the proposed restoration and renewal (R&R) programme, is to recreate the chambers.

The focus in this, though, is on formal space.   By this, I mean the chamber and committee rooms, governed usually by formal rules and constituting a recognised and minuted part of parliamentary proceedings.  In my presentation, I focused on social space.  By this, I mean space not governed by formal rules and minutes and where contact between members and between members and others (such as members of the other House, staff, public) is informal – but contact that can affect parliamentary behaviour. The methodological problem is that it is not measurable, but it is important for socialisation into the institution, for information exchange, and for lobbying.

There has always been space which has been exclusive to Members – in the Commons, for example, there is the Members’ tea room, smoking room, and the Members’ Dining Room.  In the Lords, there is the Bishop’s Bar and the Long Table in the Dining Room.  The nature of the space has differed between the two Houses. MPs, for example, dine on a party basis.  Peers don’t, but rather employ the Long Table principle, facilitating cross-party contact.

These spaces have been important for political discourse and have featured in memoirs as the sites employed by political leaders to curry favour.  Margaret Thatcher, for example, would occasionally descend on unsuspecting Members in the tea room in order to find out their concerns.  It could be argued that Edward Heath’s neglect of the tea room contributed to his loss of the party leadership.

In my view the most significant change since the Palace was constructed in the 1850s took place in 2001 with the opening of Portcullis House. This was important for three reasons:

First, it meant that each MP had an individual office. (It has offices for 213 members.)  Having individual offices limits interaction with other members and, in the view of some, takes MPs away from the chamber.  This contrasts with the Lords, where members are lucky to have desk space and share offices.  No backbench peer has an individual office.

Second, and offsetting this, it has created a major social space in the form of the Atrium (pictured), with attendant meeting and eating facilities. Furthermore, this space exists at the intersection of various parliamentary buildings – it links 1 Parliament Street, Norman Shaw North and South, with the rest of the Palace.  MPs from these buildings pass through the Atrium on the way to the chamber.

Third, the social space is not confined to MPs. Peers and staff can use it; members and staff can use it to meet people from outside Parliament.

It is, in short, a major social space – crowded on most days of the parliamentary week – and one for which there was no previous parallel in the Palace of Westminster. There are meeting rooms and dining rooms, but nothing comparable to the Atrium in Portcullis House.  It is a unique social space, facilitating interaction between members of both Houses and between members and others – staff, journalists, representatives of outside organisations, and members of the public.

In my view, it has transformed the dynamics of Parliament. It has shifted the emphasis from the Palace to Portcullis House.  It is the place to be to find out what is going on and for social and unscheduled meetings with fellow parliamentarians.

When we have R&R, it will be interesting to see how it affects the impact of the Atrium. Portcullis House itself will remain open – it is not formally affected – but it will no longer be at the intersection of parliamentary life.  It will move to the edge of the temporary parliamentary estate.  Though MPs will be able to reach it without leaving the estate, that will not be the case for peers.  We will have a somewhat detached existence.

My basic point in my presentation was to draw attention to the importance of social space within Parliament and the extent to which it can affect the dynamics of an institution.  The focus of our relocation will be, as after 1941, recreating as far as possible the formal spaces in the form in which we know them.  The challenge will be in ensuring social spaces are not neglected or seen as a inconsequential to the workings of a legislature.  Social space makes a difference.

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More on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Prime Minister has announced she will be asking the House of Commons tomorrow to vote for the motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’.  She correctly stated the provisions of the Act.  She is thus ‘calling for’ an election, not ‘calling’ an election.  The decision now rests with the House of Commons.  A two-thirds majority of all MPs is required for the motion to be passed.  That majority is expected to be achieved, given that Jeremy Corbyn has said Labour will vote for it.  Indeed, he made it clear some time ago that he would support an early election, thus doubtless aiding the PM in her consideration of whether to seek an election under section 2(2) of the Act.

The Act has only seven sections and one schedule – it is no more than nine pages, including the contents page – and was enacted in September 2011.  It is not the most onerous of reads.  Yet it appears to have caught the media out in reporting the PM’s announcement.  Asking the Commons to vote for an early election is not to ‘override’ the Act, it is utilising one of the provisions of the Act.  Nor is invoking the provision a technicality.  The Opposition has said it will vote for the motion.  The important point is that it is needed in order to pass the motion.  The press gallery of the Commons is not likely to be empty tomorrow, even though the outcome of the vote is largely taken as given.  It puts the Opposition in a particularly difficult position.  It will be difficult to attack the PM for going early to the country (as previously it could have done) when it is a party to the decision.  One could envisage situations in the future when a politically astute Leader of the Opposition keeps quiet as to whether the Opposition would support an early election under the FTPA, thus giving a PM pause for thought before rushing into an announcement.

Assuming the motion is passed, the effect is to reset the clock on the timing of the next general election.  Under section 1, if an early election is triggered, the next one takes place on the first Thursday in May in the fifth calendar year after the election, unless the election takes place before the first Thursday in May in the calendar year it which it is held in which case it is four years.  The five-year provision will apply in this case.

When the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was going through Parliament, it encountered particular criticism in the House of Lords.  As a result, section 7 provides for the Act to be reviewed in 2020.  It was inserted to stave off a sunset clause.  Perhaps the House should have insisted on a sunset provision…

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A labour of love…

Or a trip down memory lane…

In an earlier post, I said how pleased I was to see that it was now possible to obtain copies of my first book, Dissension in the House of Commons 1945-74, in a softcover edition.  As I recorded, it was essentially a volume of data on dissension in the division lobbies of the Commons.  It derived from a manual study of about 3,000 division lists and at least one million names.  As one reader observed in commenting on the post, given modern computing such data nowadays could probably be obtained in an afternoon.  However, as the picture illustrates, the volume itself was more than a dataset, as it also included summaries of the debates on which the dissent occurred.

Looking through the volume brought back memories of the research entailed.  In those days, it was a case of going through each volume of Hansard, examining each division list and, if there was some dissension, recording in longhand details of the debate as well as listing the names of dissenters, and checking The Times for any coverage of the dissent.  The recollection prompted me to check my archives (aka the shelves in the garage) and look through my original files: I still have the longhand transcriptions of the debates.  The typescript material is actually more extensive than that which was published, as I also recorded data on free votes on which party members divided.

The handwritten pages I later transposed to typescript.  The manuscript of the book was over 1,000 typescript pages.  The book itself is 643 pages.

A friend not so long ago told me that I was an introvert.  This he deduced from the fact that an extrovert looks to instant gratification.  As my friend noted, I am quite prepared to engage in research for ages until I produce a result.  Given that this volume of Dissension (I produced a later one for the 1974-79 Parliament) entailed at least two years of solid research, virtually all of it spent underground (Hansard and The Times were stored below the surface in Stack 3 of Sheffield University Library), he probably has a point.

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Advising second chambers

This has been a fairly busy week – although the House of Commons was not sitting, the House of Lords was.  However, the highpoints for me were not related to sittings of the House, but giving evidence to two parliamentary committees.   The subject was essentially the same as that on which I gave evidence in January to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, namely the role of the House of Lords.

On Tuesday, I gave evidence, with Lord Cormack, to the House of Lords Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House.  We appeared on behalf of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which was responsible for achieving a debate in the House last December, when the House resolved that it was too large and that steps should be taken to see how the size could be reduced.  The result was the Lord Speaker’s Committee, chaired by Lord Burns.  We spoke to a discussion paper we had produced, which identified ways in which a reduction in numbers may be achieved in the short term (without legislation) and in the long term (by legislation).  The committee plans to report by the summer recess.

On Wednesday, I gave evidence, alongside Lord Wakeham and Professor Meg Russell, to the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernisation of the Canadian Parliament.  The Committee is addressing ways of reforming the Senate and was keen to examine the role of the Lords and its relationship to the Commons.   The evidence was given by videolink and the session was broadcast.  (You can watch the proceedings here.)  In my opening remarks, I stressed the extent the relationship is shaped by the second chamber accepting the supremacy of the elected chamber and seeking to fulfil a role that complements the Commons, fulfilling functions that the Commons may not have the time, political will, or possibly resources to carry out.  There is a recognition that the Lords does a good job and in my view this is attributable to the composition of the House (collectively – no party having a overall majority – and individually, being able to draw on peers with experience and expertise) and its procedures, which differ in crucial respects to those of the Commons.  The questions focused not least on the Salisbury convention.

There was also a concluding question about the greater voting independence of members in the UK Parliament.  I drew attention to the evidence I gave to the McGrath Committee of the Canadian House of Commons in 1984, arguing that members needed to recognise that not every vote should be treated as one of confidence.  In the UK, we got away from that erroneous view many years ago.  Canadian parliamentarians have yet to do so.

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Hull’s finest – Class of ’98

I have been sorting through some of the paperwork that has accumulated over some years – several boxes still to go – and in the course of doing so discovered some old attendance registers, including for the class of ’98.  This coincided with having been sent recently a picture of the British Politics and Legislative Studies (BPLS) Class of ’98, courtesy of Dean Bullen.

The picture shows, from left to right, Mark Davis, Christopher Rumfitt, Robert Rand, Dean Bullen, Jonathan Whitehouse, John Quinn (largely obscured by me), Rachel Carson, David Russell, Helen Simpson, Stuart Quayle, Andrew Kennedy, and Alexis Wayne.  Missing from the picture is Suzanne Norton (no relation).   Another student who did the Parliament course, but was a law and politics finalist and so joined these students in classes in 1995-6, was Tracey Crouch, now the Sports Minister.

The photograph certainly brings back memories.  I know what several of these graduates presently do, not least because I follow them on Twitter, but it would be interesting to hear from any that have not been in contact much since they graduated.

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A tragic week

The security services do a remarkable job and have managed to prevent a number of attacks on Parliament.  There is always the danger that one or more will succeed.  Wednesday saw such an attack, with a tragic loss of lives.   Whenever such attacks happen – the Palace has witnessed IRA bomb attacks as well as the assassination of MP Airey Neave within the precincts – there is a review of security, but with the recognition that Parliament has to continue operating as a Parliament and be accessible to the public.   There is the obvious concern not only with the Palace itself, but also the surrounding area.  One aspect to be considered is pedestrianizing the area around the Palace, not least St Margaret’s Street and part of Parliament Square.  As for immediate changes, these will be operational matters for the security services.

I had a fairly packed programme lined up for the week.  On Tuesday, I had my students down to Westminster for the principal field trip of the year.  It encompassed a range of events.  It is an annual event and for as long as I can remember I have organised it for a Wednesday.  This year I decided to switch it to a Tuesday as it reduced clashes with other events.  By the end of Wednesday, I was more than relieved that I had made the switch.

On Wednesday morning, the Constitution Committee took evidence from the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas.  His comments attracted considerable media attention.  (You can watch his evidence here.)   After lunch I had a meeting of the Executive of the Association of Conservative Peers and then a meeting of the Association.

It was when I got back to my office after the ACP meeting that I saw on the TV screens the events unfolding outside.  We got instructions to remain in our present location.  There were three of us in the office, soon joined by a fourth colleague.  We were in lock down for about four hours.  We were told to stay away from the windows, though given the size of the windows one didn’t need to be near them to see outside.  Eventually, armed police arrived to escort everyone on our floor to Westminster Hall.  A good many parliamentarians, staff and visitors had been taken there much earlier and then to Westminster Abbey.  (I kept getting text messages from a friend in the Abbey.)  I anticipated we may be in the Hall until  late in the evening and was just planning to send messages cancelling classes in Hull the following day when we were told it was possible to leave.  It was just in time to enable me to get to the station in time for the last train.  I decided to travel back, though did wrestle with whether that was the right decision and whether it would be more appropriate to stay, not least to be in the chamber for the following morning.

Parliament is obviously an iconic target and needs protecting.  PC Keith Palmer gave his life protecting it.  Three others died not because they were in Parliament, but because they were making their way across Westminster Bridge.   We have to do what we can to prevent such attacks and that obviously entails changes, but at the same time we have to try to ensure that we do not make them on such a scale that it means that those who seek to terrorise succeed in their aims.

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