The disappearing snail mail….

This is my annual post on mail received in Parliament. As regular readers know, at the start of each year I table a parliamentary question asking how many items of correspondence were received in the Palace of Westminster in the previous year (and, of these, what proportion was received in the House of Lords).  I have just received the answer to the one for 2019.

The data continue to demonstrate a notable decline over time in paper mail received.  As you will see (below), the number of items has declined from over 4.7 million in 2005 to just over 1.2 million last year.  It is not clear what explains the fluctuation in the percentage estimated to be received in the House of Lords; there may have been an actual decline or some change in methodology for calculating the percentage.  As will be apparent from the list, the figure is a rather rounded one each year.

The figures for 2005 onwards are (with the percentage going to the Lords in parenthesis):

2005  4,733,000 (estimate) (20%)

2006 4,789,935  (no % given for the Lords)

2007  4,199,853 (20%)

2008  4,135,144 (15%)

2009  3,540,080 (25%)

2010  3,082,187 (25%)

2011  2,691,576 (25%)

2012  2,544,019 (25%)

2013  2,490,256 (25%)

2014  2,234,763 (25%)

2015  2,200,504 (25%)

2016  1,652,317 (30%)

2017  1,633,770 (30%)

2018 1,519,939 (30%)

2019 1,254,748 (15%)

The figures exclude parcels, courier items, and internal mail.

No data are kept on the volume of e-mails flowing into the Palace, so it is not possible definitively to show the extent to which e-mail correspondence has expanded massively, with parliamentarians’ in-boxes being flooded on a daily basis with requests, invitations, opinions and sometimes abuse from a whole range of people (in some cases, the same people – some write on an almost daily basis and are the bane, if not of the MP’s life, then of someone in the MP’s office). With e-mails being easy to compile and cheap to send, it is possible for an individual to mass mail parliamentarians in a way that was difficult and expensive in days before the Internet.  (Letters had to be individually addressed and stamped.)  It is not unusual to be copied into e-mails sent to ministers and other prominent figures.  Sifting the important and relevant from the rest is now a major resource exercise.

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Making sense of the constitution

The atmosphere in both Houses is markedly different from what it was last year.  The political situation has been transformed.  There is a sense if not of normalcy, then at least of some stability.  One of the manifestations of this has been the publication of recess dates up to October.  Members can actually plan ahead for more than a week or so.

I am one of the beneficiaries of this relative stability in that it has enabled me to complete the manuscript for Governing Britain.  It has just gone off to the publishers.  As those who follow me on Twitter will know, in the latter half of last year I was having to revise the manuscript on a weekly, sometimes a daily, basis.  Now the election is out the way, we can move to production.

As I explain in the preface, the purpose of the book is neither to provide a comprehensive introduction to the constitution of the United Kingdom, nor offer prescriptions for change. There are various works that already do one or both. Rather, it draws out questions thrown up by the changes of recent years. They are questions that in some measure break the silence of the constitution.  They are elucidated through examining the principles underpinning the constitution, primarily parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, constitutional conventions and practices, the extent to which they are contested and how they shape the relationships at the heart of government.  The focus is on features that are ambiguous or misunderstood and the implications of recent constitutional and political change.

The book is being published by Manchester University Press in May.  I will post more details before it appears on the shelves.  Information can also be found on the publisher’s website.  As you will see, it is being published at what I think is a very reasonable price of £16.99 and in good time for the new academic year – and in very good time for Christmas!

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Westminster v York

The media have been carrying reports that the Government is considering a proposal to move the House of Lords to York or some other ‘northern’ city.  (Apparently Birmingham has also been mentioned, which admittedly is north of London.)  I have done various media interviews and briefings on the subject.

Interviews that were meant to be short went on for some time, primarily because of the number of problems I identified. The most obvious is the fact that the House is one house of Parliament and Parliament exists within a parliamentary system of government.  The legislature and executive and inextricably linked.  Parliament is where it is because of where government is.  If you move one part, you essentially need to move the whole.  It would make more sense from a constitutional (though not a cost) perspective to craft a new seat of government, akin to Bonn or Brasilia, rather than move one part.  Ministers are drawn from and remain within Parliament.  They have to be present to get the Government’s business as well as answer for their policies and actions. Ministers do not exist as discrete entities; they need civil servants to brief them and provide administrative support.  Extracting one House from the process would require a fundamental reworking of the functions of that body, with consequent implications for the whole system of government.

There are also problems if members of one House are detached from the other.  Each benefits from the interaction with members of the other.  One gets valuable political intelligence from talking to members of other House; it facilitates planning strategies for achieving changes to legislation and cross-chamber alliances.  Separating the two may make life easier for Government if that contact does not take place.

There are then all the practical problems.  What about the logistics for civil society in making representations to the second chamber in addition to making representations to departments and the first chamber?  And then there is the cost.  There is the capital cost (land, buildings – not just the chamber, but offices for members, officials, members’ staff, security, support personnel and media) which may not be insubstantial (don’t mention the Scottish Parliament) and then the running costs, which would be additional to the existing costs of running the Palace of Westminster.  At Westminster one has the benefit of shared services, such as security and IT.  The Palace of Westminster will need to be maintained in any event (World Heritage site) and we are already committed to the R&R programme.

The motivation for considering a move is to enhance public engagement with politics.  How this would help with engagement in any substantial way is not explained.  It is not clear how the cost could be justified, not least given that Parliament is investing considerable resources already in enhancing public engagement, not just in terms of disseminating information, but also in providing the means for members of the public to feed in their views to inquiries and the legislative process.  This investment is a worthwhile investment and something that could be enhanced with even more resources, which would cost less than wrenching one part of Parliament out of the system as well as being more effective.

The proposal does not appear to have been thought through….

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The start of a new decade?

The BBC, as they did ten years ago, are offering reviews of the past decade, believing 1 January 2020 is the start of a new decade.  The new decade starts on 1 January 2021, just as the new millennium started on 1 January 2001.

Not one to lose an opportunity, I may as well repeat what I wrote on Lords of the Blog ten years ago, which no one at the BBC read or, if they did, they decided to ignore it.

The Victorians celebrated the start of the twentieth century on 1 January 1901.  On 31 December 1900, The Daily Telegraph published an article by Sir Edwin Arnold on ‘The Departing Century’.  Christmas 1900 was referred to ‘as the last of the century’.

Given this, I tabled a question in 1999 asking why, for official purposes, the start of the twenty-first century was being celebrated ninety-nine years after the start of the twentieth century was celebrated.  The Government Deputy Chief Whip, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, replied and conceded that the Government accepted that the new millennium started on 1 January 2001.  However, he said, ‘many people wish to celebrate during the year 2000’.  Consequently, it was decided in 1994 that the Millennium Commission would fund projects throughout 2000 ‘and into the new Millennium’.  An additional bank holiday was allocated for 31 December 1999 ‘in recognition of the celebratory nature of the Millennium’.

My question was picked up by The Daily Telegraph, which did a story on it and provided some historical context.  As it recorded, ‘The problem over dating the Millennium arose because early monks who established the system of Anno Domini did not include a year 0.  However, the historical date of Christ’s birth is put by most scholars as 4 BC, which means the real Millennium probably fell in 1996.’

The article also went on to point out that the brass ‘prime meridian’ line at Greenwich, which was to feature in the celebrations, was actually 100 metres away from zero longitude as measured by global satellites, as a result of which the start of the new year could be out by one-third of a second.  It was thus able to conclude that ‘It could be argued that the Third Millennium is to be celebrated at Greenwich on the wrong meridian at the wrong time and in the wrong year.’

Anyway, back to when the new decade starts.  A decade is ten years and one can take any year to reflect on the past decade.  But short of doing this every year, one might have expected the BBC to take its cue from the official recognition of when the new millennium started.  If Lord Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, was still alive, it would, for one thing, be a miracle (he would be 130), but one suspects he would have been firm on the matter.

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And the winner is…..

No, not the general election – we know who won that – but the caption competition.  The competition, unlike the election, has been a close-run thing.  There were several very inventive and amusing entries, all meeting the ‘laugh out loud’ test, with the result, not for the first time, that it has been difficult to decide a winner.

In the event, there isn’t a single winner, but joint winners.  I have avoided going down the Turner Prize route and awarding it to everyone as a collective enterprise.  Instead, we have a joint prize and two commendations (okay, runners-up ):

The commendations go to Angela Morris with ‘And the prize for best floral display goes to…’ and Matthew Oliver with ‘Controversy on the big screen as VAR gets involved’, which was clever and contemporary and, despite being football related, something I understood.

The joint winners are David Chase with  ‘Lord Norton was bemused by the request to have him judge the rose nipple-protector fashion show’  and Neil M with ‘Is Ken reminding this year’s Musical Chairs finalists of the rules, having had to disqualify one contestant for sitting before the music stopped?’   Both were both funny and related well to the specifics of the picture.

If each would like to get in touch, a recent publication will be on its way.

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What makes for an effective parliamentarian?

Contributing to a panel at the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) 68th Westminster Seminar, on effective parliaments, I identified what I see as the five essential elements for parliamentarians to be effective in carrying out their jobs.

1) Powers. The principal, and core defining, power of a legislature is to give assent to measures of public policy and demands for money. Legislatures are not so much law-making as law-assenting institutions.  The capacity to say no to the executive is what gives them leverage in fulfilling other functions.

2) Resources. Members need resources, both individually and collectively.  They require administrative and research support, independent of their parties and the executive. That usually entails support for their own offices and research support, not least in terms of a parliamentary library and research service.

3) Skills. There is no point in having powers and resources if members lack the skills to utilise them.  This encompasses a grasp of how to utilise procedures as well as to debate, to question and to know how to research sources and understand the importance of information provided.

4) Political will. Members may enjoy powers, resources and skills, but they are of little value if there is not the political will to deploy them.  Members have to be prepared to question and, if necessary, challenge their own party and government to achieve desired outcomes.

5) An understanding of what is expected of them, collectively and individually. To do their job effectively, parliamentarians need to have a clear understanding of what the job is.  Some appear to be extremely busy doing things, but without actually achieving anything.  Without a clear job description, there is the danger of doing a range of activities, but without focusing on what is core to being a parliamentarian.

What, then, is the job of the parliamentarian?

Legislatures are defined by their assent-giving capacity, not by an ability to create coherent measures of public policy

Rather, their tasks comprise principally:

1) Sustaining the government. This is especially important in parliamentary system, where the executive is derived from elections to the legislature and the government rests on the confidence of the parliament, or elected chamber.

2) Scrutinising. Most measures of public policy originate with the executive.  A core task of the legislature is to subject legislative proposals, demands for money, and the administration of government to sustained – and public – examination.

3) Influencing outcomes. Legislatures can say no to government.  That coercive capacity may be rarely employed, but it underpins a persuasive capacity.  Members may deploy their various powers, skills and resources to affect outcomes, to ensure ‘good’ law is enacted, that money is spent prudently and appropriately, and government conducted effectively, efficiently and honestly.

4) Ensuring the views of citizens are heard. Enoch Powell once observed that that the task of Parliament is to ensure that the people, through their representatives, speak to the government and the government speaks to the people. Parliamentarians can ensure that the voices of the people are heard.  Parliaments have a valuable safety valve function.

The challenge to parliamentarians, not least those in the majority party, is to recognise that being an effective parliamentarian does not necessarily conflict with being a loyal party member.  MPs tend to privilege the interests of party over the role of the institution of which they are members.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

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By popular demand…. a caption competition

At a time of bad weather, dark nights and a general election campaign, there may be a case

for  a bit of light relief, so time for another caption competition.  This picture (suggested for the competition by Ken Batty, who is giving the oration) is from the degree ceremony at Regent’s University in July, when I was installed as a Honorary Senior Fellow.

As usual, the winner will be the reader who offers what in my view is the wittiest caption and most appropriate in the context of the picture.  The prize will be one of my recent publications.

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