Does size matter?

44587A total of 45 new peerages were announced today.  As it is a dissolution honours list, it is not surprising that it is notable for the number of former MPs included, not least those who have served in Cabinet, such as William Hague, David Blunkett and George Young, and distinguished long-serving members, such as Alan Beith.  Not all are politicians.  The list includes a former student of mine, BPLS graduate Kevin Shinkwin, who has been active in promoting disability rights since he graduated.  The breakdown in party terms (Conservative 26, Lib Dem 11 and Labour 8) means the net benefit to the Conservative ranks is seven, not exactly likely to make the difference between winning and losing in many divisions.

However, the focus of discussion has tended to be the effect on the size of the House.  It contributes to the Topsy-like nature of the House.  I have made the point before that we are too large in terms of membership.  The size is a problem in both cosmetic and practical terms.  The cosmetic aspect derives from those who never attend.  They place no burden on financial or physical resources, but they are a problem in that they are members who make no contribution.  They inflate the size of the membership to no effect.  The practical problems derive from those who do attend.   There is not space for all peers who wish to attend Question Time or the big debates.  They add to the cost of the House.  If the new creations are regular attenders, they could add in the region of £750,000 to £1m a year.

My own view, reflected in the provisions of the Steel Bill, is that the House should work towards a membership that is below that of the House of Commons.  In the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber (the body responsible for promoting not only the Steel Bill, but also what became the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords [Expulsion and Suspension] Act 2015), we are exploring ways to achieve a reduction in the size of the House.

However, we need to keep things in perspective.  The House of Lords Reform Act 2014, enabling peers to retire, has already had an effect.  The number of peers who have left under the provisions of the Act now stands at 32.  The net effect of the new creations is thus not as great as otherwise it would be.  Furthermore, the Act removes peers who never attend during the course of a session.  That will take effect next year.  Being crowded for space in the chamber is also the exception and not the rule.  In most debates, finding a seat is hardly a problem.

We need to keep in mind the work of the House.  The primary consideration should be quality, in terms of the House fulfilling the functions expected of it.  The House adds value to the political process, not least in scrutinising legislation.  It is able to do so by virtue of a membership that is distinguishable from the Commons in terms of experience and expertise.   The latest peerages tend to have political experience.  We need to have creations that have expertise, not least those whose expertise is current, as well as those with experience outside the world of politics.  To refresh the House with such people, without continuing to grow and grow, we should and will continue to pursue ways of reducing the overall size of the House.  But in doing so we should simply be driven by a fixation with numbers.  We need to reduce quantity without sacrificing quality.

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Winner of the montage caption competition

thatcherdebateThere were some splendid entries for the caption competition.  Some were notably innovative.  I had difficulty deciding which topped the others.   I eventually narrowed it down to three, but others  met the ‘laugh out loud’ test.  The three played on the montage in different ways.

The winner is Whovian with:  ‘Lord Norton regretted agreeing to the production team of University Challenge arranging the conference room’.

I think it fairly obvious why the caption appealed.  The runners up are Neil M and Tony Sands, each with a different, but very funny, approach to the montage.   They just ran ahead of the other entries.  Everyone who contributed merits a commendation.

If Whovian would like to get in touch, the prize will be on the way.   Now to start looking for an appropriate picture for the next competition…

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The Lords deserve better…

_42544443_lords_bbc203The Electoral Reform Society has published a short document entitled House of Lords: Fact vs Fiction, which claims to shatter myths about the House of Lords.  It does no such thing.  ‘Far from being a chamber of experts’, it declares, ‘the Lords is more often a chamber of ex-politicians’.  The problem with this statement is that it derives from equating expertise solely with cross-bench peers.  Expertise is not confined to the cross-benches, but can be found in all parts of the House.  Nor is it a chamber of ex-politicians.  By the document’s own figures, almost two-thirds of peers are not drawn from backgrounds in representational politics or working for the parties (‘ex-politicians’).  Cross-benchers who aren’t affiliated with a political party, we are told, ‘only account for 23% of peers’.  Only?  Only?  How many other chambers have almost a quarter of their membership not affiliated with a political party?  There are factual inaccuracies.  Hereditary peerages do not in all cases ‘pass to the first born son’, as doubtless the Countess of Mar (and the now retired Lady Saltoun) could explain.  There is no recognition of the leadership roles assumed by women peers.  We are told that various claims are made about the House (as on representativeness), but without any source being provided for these claims.

The finding most seized upon by the media, though, is that in the last session £100,000 was claimed in attendance allowances by peers who did not take part in any divisions.   This has been reported uncritically, including by broadsheets such as The Daily Telegraph, with no attempt to explain or engage with the finding.  It is taken as inherently problematic.  Why is this taken in isolation of peers’ contributions to debates, to question time, and to committees?  It may be relevant if a peer makes no contribution at all, but isolating voting behaviour tells us very little.   The House will be sitting for two weeks in September.  There will be question times and debates throughout.  It is possible that there may not be a single vote.

There is a grudging acknowledgement that ‘the Upper Chamber, at its best, performs a crucial role in scrutinising and revising government legislation and providing a check on prime ministerial power’.  It actually does more than this.  It is important that the distinctive contribution made by the House, having a beneficial effect that is difficult to quantify in economic terms (what price preventing enactments that could have disastrous consequences?) but which cannot be achieved by the alternatives variously put forward, is recognised.  There is a case for reform to address issues of size and political balance, but one needs to put the benefits alongside the problems.  There is a powerful case to be made for the House of Lords and it is important that it is heard.

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Caption competition: a montage

thatcherdebateFor this month’s caption competition, I thought I would make it a little more challenging than usual by using a montage I was sent from the debate in which I participated just over a couple of years ago at Lancaster University.  (You can see a video of the debate here.)  Mind you, experience suggests whenever I think a task is challenging, some readers immediately demonstrate that for them it is no such thing.

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

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Phrases one should never use…

There are various phrases whose use generally irritates me intensely.  One of the most irritating is ‘There is no smoke without fire’.  Of course you can have smoke without fire.  The phrase is used by people who want, or are inclined, to believe some claim that has been made, but cannot be bothered with something as tiresome as evidence.  Then there is the saying ‘You have to keep cycling, otherwise you fall off’.  No, you don’t.  You simply apply the brakes and put your foot on the ground.  You only fall off if you never learned to ride a bike in the first place.

One that one tends to hear whenever there is some scandal affecting MPs or peers is: ‘They are all at it’.   I have heard this said in the light of the Lord Sewel affair.  Some media used the Sewel story as the basis for discussing Lords reform, not least in the context of the large size of the House.   Yet how many people claiming peers ‘are all at it’ (whatever ‘it’ is) have researched every one of the near 800 members?

No doubt readers can add to the list….

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To tweet or not to tweet?

untitledSocial media are now a pervasive feature of life.  They have notable benefits.  Some research suggests that young people are so engrossed in social media that it has resulted in a drop in crime.  Their use enables people to engage with the wider environment (even if at times at the expense of their immediate environment).  It can counter loneliness.  It can help spread important news quickly.  There are downsides.  Some people may become addicted to it.  It may be used to abuse others.  It can result in people making public comments that they may wish they had kept to themselves.

The positives generally outweigh the negatives.  I find Twitter helpful for keeping up with news, for hearing people’s views on issues (though not taking them necessarily as representative of anyone other than those making them),  for valuable links provided by academic colleagues in politics and law,  for learning about other people, and for humour.  There are some gifted commentators who use Twitter and some whose quick-witted observations are brilliant.  Laughter is good for you, so I now follow Eurovision on Twitter – it is one of the funniest nights of the year.

I tend to write tweets regularly.  A good number, probably most, are never sent.  This is in part because I am tempted to send witty responses to some tweets, but I am wary of gaining a reputation for making funny comments.  I have seen some politicians become known primarily for witty one-liners, which then undermines their reputation for making serious contributions to debate.  I am also wary in case my comments are misconstrued and have unintended consequences.  I find it helpful to leave a gap between writing one and sending it.

My general rule is if in doubt, don’t send.  On odd occasions, one gets through.  I sent one yesterday which was meant as a comment on the police and their public relations.  (‘If you’ve been burgled, we likely won’t turn up, but if you want to claim you were abused by someone who’s now dead please do get in touch’.)   It clearly touched a chord and was quickly retweeted and favorited by many readers, including some lawyers and a former senior police officer.  That, though, didn’t stop me worrying in case it was misinterpreted.  One or two responses reinforced my worry.  There was the added concern for me in that it was outside my area of expertise.  Whereas some parliamentary colleagues will comment on virtually any topic (in my view diluting their effectiveness), I usually confine myself to my areas of specialisation.

Blogs have the benefit of enabling one to develop one’s views at greater length than in a tweet and, the longer the time taken in composing them, the more opportunity one has to reflect on them.  Short blogs, though, are not necessarily those written quickly.  My shortest posts, rather like short speeches, are probably the ones that have taken the most time to compose.  And this is shorter, notably shorter, than it was a few minutes ago…

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Scholars and parliamentarians

CKyhLASW8AAYWsZAs regular readers will know, I organise the biennial Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, which provides an opportunity for academics to present findings likely to be of practical interest to parliamentarians.  It also facilitates extensive dialogue between the two.  The Workshop is co-sponsored by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, through whose good offices we are able to recruit members from parliaments around the globe.

I organised the first Workshop in 1994 at the Berlin Science Centre.  All the rest have been held at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, an ideal venue for a gathering of this sort.  The Twelfth Workshop was held this weekend and drew participants from around the globe, including from nations as diverse as Greece, the USA, Poland, China, Bangladesh, Italy, Mexico, Kenya, Bahrain, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia.  There was a particular emphasis on development and what constitutes an effective parliament.  I opened by drawing attention to one Workshop panel some years ago when a parliamentarian asked the first question of a panellist, which was ‘What use is that to me?’  Paper givers remained sensitive to the ‘so what?’ question.

This year’s Workshop was different in that it was held in an odd numbered year, following the Eleventh Workshop last year: we have altered the sequence to avoid clashing with the biennial conference of the International Political Science Association.  (IPSA means something different to political scientists than it does to UK parliamentarians.)   It was also notable for the excellent attendance, not only in total, but also throughout the sessions.  We had some impressive panels.

I opened the Workshop by saying that I left each Workshop thinking how excellent it was and looking forward to the next one, but as the next one neared, with all its organisational demands and complexities, I thought this may be the last one I organised.  I left this one thinking how excellent it was and looking forward to the Thirteenth in July 2o17.  In one year and eleven months….

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