Another of those days

Wednesdays tend to be my busiest days – though given some upcoming parliamentary business that may change.  Yesterday was a fairly typical day in that it was full and varied.  I was in shortly after 8.30 a.m. and left at 10.20 p.m:

10.15: Meeting of the Constitution Committee.  As Baroness Jay is not able to be present throughout, I chair the meeting.  We agree a report on the Public Bodies Bill,  raising serious concerns.  We take evidence from the minister, Mark Harper, on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.  He is on top of his brief and deals well with our questions.  We will be preparing our report on the Bill next week.

After lunch, I attend the weekly meeting of the Association of Conservative peers.  I then head to 4 Millbank to record an interview for the BBC ‘Week in Westminster’ programme.  Peter Riddell chairs and Lord Tyler and I discuss how the Lords will deal with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which has now cleared the Commons and will have its Second Reading in the Lords on 15 November.

I return to the House in time for a ministerial briefing on the Public Bodies Bill, which is having its Second Reading next Tuesday.  The minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and his officials outline the Bill and then virtually drown in a barrage of criticism.   The Bill is seriously flawed in constitutional terms and this is made clear by peers from all parties.

The meeting finishes in time for me to get to the weekly meeting, at 5.30, of the 1922 Committee – Universities minister David Willetts is speaking on his announcement earlier in the day on student finance. 

I then chair the weekly seminar with my students.  This week’s speaker is Robert Rogers, Clerk Assistant in the House of Commons, who explains the role of the Clerks and the current management structure of the House.  There are several questions, the last being a bit like the light-hearted question at the end of Question Time: is the wig you wear in the chamber uncomfortable? 

I use the evening to catch up on paperwork.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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11 Responses to Another of those days

  1. dave thawley says:

    LN says “The Bill is seriously flawed in constitutional terms and this is made clear by peers from all parties.”
    Are you allowed to/willing to give us your opinion on why the bill is flawed in constitutional terms. It would be good to have your understanding so I can better follow the debate.

    Cheers
    Dave

    • Croft says:

      That so many quangos are established via primary legislation and are barely alterable without the same is not obviously a very streamlined system and seemed almost designed to mire the process in legal dispute. I can’t see a general power – I’ve not had a chance to read all the bill yet – to alter any quango, with a safe guard of either a negative or affirmative resolution procedure, worries me greatly.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: Orders will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, but this is essentially inadequate for what is proposed. At least in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 there is provision for super-affirmative orders. This Bill lacks many of the safeguards that are contained in this Act. These I would regard as necessary but not sufficient.

    • Lord Norton says:

      dave thawley: If you click the link to the report of the Constitution Committee, you will see the objections expressed. The Bill has what are termed ‘Henry VIII’ provisions, enabling ministers to change primary legislation by order. Such powers should only be authorised in exceptional circumstances, and the circumstances here are not extraordinary. Parliament has established various bodies by statute – that is, after detailed debate and consideration – and this Bill seeks to give ministers the power to get rid of them through an order-making power. What is more, the Bill lists a large number of bodies in Schedule 7 which could be subject to this order-making power at any point in the future. These are bodies that were established to operate independently of government, yet will now have hanging over them the prospect that at any moment a minister could introduce an order to move them to a category for abolition or merger. It’s not exactly a means of protecting their independence.

      • Croft says:

        “It’s not exactly a means of protecting their independence.”

        . Considering the legislative log jam the present need to use PrimaryL to alter many bodies effectively perpetuates them almost regardless of their performance or expired function simply on the issue of parliamentary time. Not I suggest desirable. As to independence, it seems to have become the default argument against accountability or change.

        Looking at the super-affirmative procedure I’m not really clear how it is more than marginally better. So minister have to take very slightly longer to consult but it’s not as though it actually requires a super majority or anything that alters the basic parliamentary arithmetic.

        Indeed reading from the parliament site the scrutiny is a joke:

        “The final stage of the parliamentary process in respect of legislative reform orders that are subject to the affirmative or super-affirmative procedures is the consideration by each House of a motion to approve the draft order. The procedure followed in the House of Commons, …will depend on the Committee’s conclusions concerning the draft order:

        • if the Committee recommends unanimously that the draft order should be approved, the question is put forthwith, without debate

        • if the Committee’s recommendation that the draft order should be approved is made only after a division in Committee, there may be up to an hour and a half’s debate on the motion to approve the draft order

        • if the Committee recommends that the draft order should not be approved, there may be up to three hours’ debate on a motion to disagree with the Committee’s report, following which, if that motion is agreed to, the motion to approve the draft order is put forthwith, with no further debate.”

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I am not aware that there is a legislative log jam at the moment and, even if there was, that is not an argument for making it easier for government to hold the sword of Damocles over the heads of bodies that were established specifically by statute to be independent of government. The bodies set up by statute are accountable. (See the Constitution Committee report on the Regulatory State.) The reason they were established was to create them at arm’s length from Government. If you look at some of the bodies listed in Schedule 7, you will appreciate why this is so. The super-affirmative resolution is somewhat better than the affirmative resolution procedure but utilising an enhanced procedure is, in our view, necessary but not sufficient.

      • Croft says:

        If there is no log jam why with regularity do you see ministers or their acolytes complaining about bidding for limited legislative slots in parliamentary time. The number of acts passed seems to have dropped by 1/3 (~60 to ~40 pa) in the last fivity years but the size of acts and the numbers of SI has exploded out of all proportion to the difference.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I did say at the moment. The volume of legislation has increased over time. There are not more Bills, just longer (and more complex) Bills. The biggest increase has been in respect of secondary legislation, so it is not clear how adding to that volume through this Bill will enhance accountability to Parliament. Apart from the constitutional objection, the provisions do not in any event deliver on the PM’s stated aims in respect of non-departmental public bodies.

  2. Howridiculous says:

    Dear Croft,

    Lord Norton is right to point out that the Bill as drafted (i.e. inclusive of Schedule 7 and its related clauses) cannot deliver on The Prime Minister’s stated objectives for those public bodies that even he and the Government acknowlege are needed.

    In addition, during his statement about quango reforms on 14 October, Francis Maude commented that all public bodies will be subject to triennial review to ensure that the previous pattern of public bodies often outliving the purpose for which they were established is not repeated. Therefore, it would surely be better for the Government to introduce a Public Bodies Bill every three or four years than for Parliament grant to Government now the Henry VIII powers which it is seeking to acquire for those bodies in Schedule 7.

    On a wider point, it beggars belief that the Government, pledged as they were to increase the strength of Parliament and decrease the power of the Executive in relation to it, could a) introduce such a Bill and b) not foresee that by doing so they would provoke such controversy. It comes to something when a minister and his officials are virtually drowned in criticism from all sides of the House and reveals I would argue a fundamental ministerial and official lack of understanding of our sytem of governance and Parliament’s place in it.

    Howridiculous.

  3. Sooo … is the wig uncomfortable or not?

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