Portrait caption competition

I am conscious that it has been some months since I posted the last caption competition.  Now is probably a good time for a bit of light relief before I resume posts on serious issues, including reverting to some issues on which I have posted recently.

More than one person has suggested that for the competition I should use the picture of the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, unveiling my portrait at the end of last year.  I realise that there are certain risks in pursuing that recommendation.  The ultimate safeguard, I suppose, is that I determine the winning entry.

As usual, the winner will be the reader who offers what in my view is the wittiest and most appropriate caption.  The prize will be one of my publications or possibly even a print of the portrait; or possibly both.

Feel free to submit your entries….

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Lords reform: 1911 all over again….

Every so often, the issue of reforming the Lords comes to the fore.  In recent weeks, we have witnessed calls for reform or even abolition.  When I was interviewed for the BBC Week in Parliament programme last week, I made the point that the calls were similar to those that were heard in 1910 and 1911, following the rejection by the Lords in 1909 of Lloyd George’s budget.

Then, as now, the debate did not derive from first principles, based on what role one ascribed to Parliament and the place to be taken by the second chamber.  The debate last century was not one either of principle or popular demand.  The general public, as Roy Jenkins observed in Mr Balfour’s Poodle, ‘remained as unexcited as it had been throughout the long struggle’.   The issue that largely shaped one’s stance on Lords reform was that of Irish home rule.  That was the burning issue of the day.  The Lords was seen as an impediment to achieving home rule.  If one was in favour of home rule, the Lords was an undemocratic barrier to necessary reform.  If one opposed home rule, the Lords was an essential constitutional bulwark.  It was the issue of home rule that led to the collapse of the constitutional conference convened in 1910 and dominated debate on the Parliament Bill.  The avowed aim of the Bill, declared Lord Deerhurst, was ‘the passing of a measure to give Home Rule to Ireland’.

Fast forward to today and we see the debate over Lords reform shaped largely by the stance taken on Brexit.  If one is in favour of Brexit, one objects to the role played by the Lords in passing particular amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.  If one opposes Brexit, the House is fulfilling its essential role of scrutinising legislation.  The stance of the House has created mixed feelings for some politicians who dislike an unelected second chamber, but support its stance on the Bill.  There is again no discussion of reform derived from first principles, nor any great obvious popular surge for reform.  Those demanding change draw attention to the fact that over 160,000 people have signed a petition calling for abolition of the Lords.  For some reason, they do not emphasise the petition signed by over 4.4 million that called for a threshold to be applied to the EU referendum.

The calls for reform, as has tended to be the case over the years, focus on form and not function.  People advance their schemes for reform – a House of x number, elected by y method.   What someone thinks is an original idea is often one advanced already by a good many others.  I get frustrated by the number of times I get proposals for a House chosen indirectly by professional bodies, the proponents believing their idea to be original.  The fact that they believe it be original reflects the fact that they have not bothered to do any serious research.

This is one of the most annoying aspects of calls for reform.  They derive from no informed study of function or indeed of value.  I have previously drawn attention in a post to the problems of valuing the work of the Lords.  Critics often look no further than the cost of administration, making no attempt to assess the value of the work of the House.  They often focus on the chamber: how many are attending and are they clearly alert; how many speak?  As with the Commons, this ignores what is going on in committee and offices.  One might have cause to worry if members of both Houses spent most of their time in the chamber.  Both chambers are increasingly specialised, working through committees, and the issue of value also applies here.  How does one ascribe value to constructive dialogue between committees and ministers that results in changes to public policy?

In sh0rt, debate on reform needs to be better informed.  What we have witnessed has been debate that is largely superficial and, one might add, premature.  There is as yet no conflict between the Commons and the Lords.  The Lords have passed  amendments which the Commons have yet to consider.  It is only if the Commons reject some, and the Lords seek to insist, that there is a problem.  MPs are not expected to reject the nearly 200 amendments brought forward by government to meet points raised by committees or individual peers, which it is accepted have strengthened the Bill and helped avoid pitfalls or uncertainties consequent to the UK’s exit from the EU.

And if I hear one more politician misstate the Salisbury convention…

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The importance of citizenship education

Each session, the House of Lords appoints four ad hoc select committees to undertake inquiries on specific topics.  In the first part of the current two-year session, one has been on citizenship and civic engagement.  Its report, The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, was published last month.  It is a substantial document and can be read here.

I have a particular interest in citizenship education.  Although it is on the national curriculum, schools lack the incentives to take it seriously and so often fail to devote adequate resources to ensure it is taught effectively.  The committee provides a damning critique (pp. 27-43), concluding:  ‘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.’

Citizenship education can fulfil an invaluable, indeed necessary, role in ensuring we have a citizenry that understands our political system, not simply its structure, but why it matters to everyone.  As the committee notes, ‘citizenship education can also go some way toward mending the democratic inequality that exists in society’.  James Weinberg of Sheffield University of Sheffield told the committee: ‘We have evidence … that citizenship education, where it is done effectively and consistently, can predict political efficacy, participation and levels of knowledge.’

My experience is that where politics is taught at A-level, it is taught well and often with enthusiasm, producing some highly informed sixth-form students.  Unfortunately, not all schools offer Politics A-level and in any event it is an option, taken usually by a small number of keen students.  It is therefore crucial to ensure that citizenship education is well taught to all pupils.  However, there is little to ensure schools take it seriously.  As the committee recorded, there is a need for specialised teachers and for ‘a restoration of the status of citizenship as a subject worth teaching’.   It recommended that the Government establish a target of having enough trained citizenship teachers to have a citizenship specialist in every school and that citizenship qualifications ‘feature active citizenship projects as a substantial part of the qualification’.

In the view of the committee, there should be a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from primary to secondary education, inspected by Ofsted to ensure quantity and quality of provision.  ‘Ofsted should give consideration to this in deciding whether a school should be rated as Outstanding’.

This would be a step forward.  If something schools are expected to do does not contribute to Ofsted ratings or to their place in league tables, they tend not to take it that seriously.  Schools may give lip service to the importance of citizenship education, but they need incentives to ensure it is delivered effectively.  Parliament needs to be alert to what is required and pressing Government accordingly.  There will be a cost  in order to ensure the resources are there, but it is essential to a healthy polity.  At a time when politics is increasingly marked by tribalism and sound bites substituting for debate, the more the need for a politically literate population.

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The EU (Withdrawal) Bill – not our finest hour

The House of Lords has completed Report stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.  We have Third Reading next week.

The House has not exactly wrapped itself in glory in dealing with the Bill, at least in the chamber.  In my speech on Second Reading, I made the point that the House had taken its eye off the ball when passing the EU Referendum Bill.    On that occasion, peers spent too much time discussing the merits or otherwise of EU membership and not enough focusing on the detail of the Bill.  (To listen to some peers now, you would think we had nothing to do with approving the provisions for the referendum.)  I fear we have repeated the same mistake with this Bill.

I concluded my speech on Second Reading by arguing that:

In essence, the Bill needs to be amended to strengthen the position of Parliament, to provide certainty for the courts and to meet the concerns of the devolved Administrations. We simply cannot afford to get this wrong. Those who have argued against Brexit today are not necessarily doing their cause or this House any favours. They are diverting us from our core task—the task that alone now falls to us: to scrutinise thoroughly and forensically the provisions of this Bill. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted.

Regrettably, we have allowed ourselves to be diverted.  Time has been taken up with amendments that are not really within the scope of the Bill – they have dealt with policy issues that should be addressed consequent to passage of the Bill.   We have had speeches throughout that are little more than Second Reading speeches, expressing views about the merits or demerits of withdrawing from the EU.  The result has been time-consuming unfocused proceedings.  There is considerable dissatisfaction among peers and a feeling we need to tighten up on self-regulation.  There is a world of difference between self-regulation and personal indulgence.

Media attention has focused on amendments carried by the House against the government.  These have played to general ignorance about the House and its role in the legislative process.  The defeats mask what positive work the House has done on the Bill, much of which has taken place away from the chamber.   While proceedings in the chamber have not done us any favours, committees of the House have been engaged in a constructive dialogue with the government.  The Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have been in regular discussion with ministers.  The engagement has generally been positive, the ministers recognising the value of points raised with them and being willing to bring forward amendments designed to improve the Bill.   The result has been a string of government amendments – a total of just over 200 have been agreed, 170 of them at Report stage in the Lords.  They address in particular the three areas I spoke of in my Second Reading speech.

In short, the House in its public facing role in the chamber has not swathed itself in glory.  Indeed, I regard it as something of a disaster.  Behind the scenes, it has been doing important and constructive work.  Unfortunately, media attention has focused on government defeats – which tend to be written up as definitive, rather than invitations to the Commons to think again – rather than on important and agreed changes that have strengthened the Bill.

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Another myth… Michael Martin and the Speakership

The death of Lord Martin led to the media quite pervasively repeating the myth that was propagated at the time that he resigned the Speakership of the House of Commons, namely that, to quote one newspaper, he was ‘the first Speaker to be pushed out of the role since Sir John Trevor in 1695.’  This is, to put it kindly, historically inaccurate.  As I pointed in a post on Lords of the Blog when he left the Speakership, he was the first since 1835, not 1695, to be forced out.

In 1695, Sir John Trevor did not resign as Speaker.  He was expelled from the House.  He was not the last to be forced out.   Two other Speakers in succeeding centuries were denied re-election: Sir Fletcher Norton in 1780 and Sir Charles Manners-Sutton in 1835.

It is not clear where this myth originated.  It is on a scale with the equally inaccurate claim that Mhairi Black was the youngest MP in more than 300 years when first elected in 2015.  As regular readers will be only to well aware from earlier posts, that is out by a similar time scale to that of Michael Martin’s departure.

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John Bercow at Hull University

The Speaker, John Bercow, was in Hull today to deliver a Parliamentary Studies Lecture on ‘Why Parliament Matters’.  The University is one of twenty accredited for the delivery of such lectures by clerks of both Houses and the Speaker’s was the last of this semester’s lectures.  Addressing a packed lecture theatre, he argued the case for strengthening the House of Commons in relation to the executive as well as making the membership more representative of those it sought to serve.

He noted that before he became Speaker in 2009, it was rare for Speakers to grant an Urgent Question.  Since his election,  he has granted 460, designed to bring ministers to account on the pressing issues of the day.  He welcomed reforms of recent years, not least the election by the whole House of select committee chairs, the election by the parties of members of the committees, and the creation and work of the Backbench Business Committee.  He also advocated government business being scheduled by a business committee and favoured reform of the way in which Private Members’ Bills were considered, allowing the House to vote on them rather than being talked out.  He was open to the idea of proxy voting.

He also emphasised the importance of education – he was instrumental in achieving the building of the Education Centre near the House of Lords, in Victoria Tower Gardens – and the value of outreach.  He enjoyed visiting universities and saw such visits as an important part of his job.

For the Speaker, this was a return visit to the University, having previously been the guest speaker at the Politics Department’s 50th anniversary celebration. On both occasions, he drew attention to the fact that as an undergraduate he drew on the work of a particular Hull academic…

Photographs by Mike Park.

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The political organisation of Parliament

I realise I did not do a post about another recent publication of mine.  This redresses that oversight.  I have a chapter on ‘The political organisation of Parliament’, in Exploring Parliament, edited by Cristina Leston-Bandeira and Louise Thompson.  The book, published by Oxford University Press in February, is designed as a wide-ranging text on Parliament.

Political parties are crucial to the effective functioning of a legislature.  Yet very little is written about how they are organised.  The main organisation historically has been the whips, though their role is often misunderstood.  They are primarily managers and communicators.  They facilitate cohesion rather than force it.

The 20th Century saw the development of a party infrastructure, with both main parties meeting weekly, with elected officers, though with some notable differences between the two (the PLP comprises all Labour Members; the Conservative 1922 Committee comprises private Members, though ministers may now attend).  Each has developed backbench groups covering policy sectors.

I also discuss parties in terms of Anthony King’s modes of executive-legislative relations.  The opposition mode has been the dominant mode in British politics, though the cross-party mode has become more relevant in recent years, as has the non-party mode in respect of all-party groups.  The inter-party mode became significant during the period of coalition government.  However, the one that matters most for the party in government achieving its goals is the intra-party mode.  Backbench MPs have become more independent in their voting behaviour in recent years.  The high point of party cohesion was the mid-1950s.  Nowadays, ministers have to make sure that their backbenchers are on side.  Party infrastructure provides a means for hearing, and sometimes absorbing, their concerns.

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