When is an answer not an answer?

I have just had an answer to a question I tabled a couple of weeks ago.  I asked the Government “further to the answer by Lord McNally on 1 December (HL Deb. col. 1474), what is the empirical basis for the claim that the House of Commons has come to ‘a settled and consistent view’ on the need to reform the House of Lords.”

The answer from Lord McNally is: “In March 2007, the House of Commons voted in favour of a fully or substantially (80%) elected second chamber, and against a wholly appointed second chamber.  In addition, all three main political parties committed in their Manifestos to reform of the House of Lords.  The Government believes that it should move forward on this issue.”

The only problem with this answer is that whatever it is an answer to it is clearly not my question.  The last two sentences have no relevance to the question and it is not clear how MPs voted on one particular occasion can constitute a settled and consistent view of the House of Commons without placing on those words a weight they cannot bear. 

Any suggestions for a follow-up question?

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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29 Responses to When is an answer not an answer?

  1. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    This question and post relates rather closely to you current post in the LOTB context on the Henry VIII rules and the concerns they raise for constitutional governance. I am afraid that to some degree your own arguments and habits may be your enemy here. You seem very much to focus on British constitutional experience in the last five hundred years as something to be considered either a source or else a closed set in such matters. In reality when many countries have set up written constitutions after the fashion of the United States they are rather attmpting to recapture that segregation of whim and settled law in which Britain (both England and Scotland) were largely formed but which have been asked to run largely on inertia and minutiae of protocol for centuries. Without some real differentiating standard of this kind the UK cannot really discuss the question you ask very intelligently.

    I imagine a written constitution would seem to Your Lordship to be something really anathema. Let us use a a law school hypothetical of the worst kind and say I discovered the Invincible Gun and chose to use my omnipotence to invade the UK. Being me, I do not believe a settled and mature country is to be reconstituted from scratch. One thing people forget about the United States is that there are fifty much longer and more changeable Constitutions that govern almost everything and the US Constitution is brief, enduring and limited. But both kinds of constitutions are much more protected from change than mere statutory provisions. A British Constitutional Charter imposed by an enlightened monster would have to first have as articles a number of documents such as the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights (of the late seventeenth century), the Treaty of Union and a few other documents. Then there would have to A Bill of Settled Ammendments and A Bill of Settled Procedures. It would not be something one came up with all from scratch. Of course mostly in my hypothetical I would need to be sure I got lots of flash things and pretty girls provided for as a divine right. That legality would be for the lawyers to work out. The point is that such a restatement is difficult without a Dictator and Revolutionary crowned or not like William the Conqueror, Henry VIII or Cromwell, Napoleon or even Washington or Bolivar. However, Britain has gone a shockingly long time without some force laying out clearly “these are A type things and these are B type things” and not paying fully the piper. Politics truly must be a game. Although so much is on the line the thing must remain a game. Rules can be changed but not by players playing the game or else the game is finally doomed.

    • Lord Norton says:

      franksummers3ba: Is your comment designed for another post? I am not sure what it has to do with the failure of a minister to answer a question!

      • franksummers3ba says:

        Lord Norton,
        Perhaps it rambles a bit. My point is, without being too broad, I believe there is sufficient Constitutional crisis in Britain at the moment that it impedes the minister answering what a settled opinion of Commons on a constitutional matter is in fact. To merely assert that is simply pugnacity so I sought to show the defect from which Lord M. operates. There is no answer and perhaps it hurts his position more than any other major position to draw attention to that fact.
        Your Lordship may largely disagree with my point but that is my point. Your questioned minister obfuscates the fact that a crisis leaves him not merely mistaken but truly with no availabe answer in the epistemological tiring philosophical way.

      • Lord Norton says:

        franksummers3ba: The minister could quite easily have shut up and not made an erroneous claim. He only said it as a substitute for advancing any serious argument for what the Government proposes. It was not so much the product of a constitutional crisis as a failure to think seriously about what is proposed.

      • franksummers3ba says:

        Lord Norton,
        I respect that you are engaged in the actual debate and care very much about its health in existing parameters. I respect that unique perspective of the scholar-legislator. Like you I respect schloarship but her defer to what President Teddy Roosevelt said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

  2. djb13 says:

    “Further to HL…, what definition is the government using of the term ‘settled’, and how does the government believe that this definition relates to the one given by the Oxford English Dictionary?”

  3. Carl.H says:

    Dear Lord McNally,
    As we have a Government consisting of a coalition who did not have a manifesto and the fact the 2007 vote was a singular vote in a period of history and most of those members do not now sit. Does the noble Lord not feel that perhaps one should gain a consensus of the Commons before committing to any such course of action, which will of course be put to referendum as it is a costitutional issue of great importance ?

    Does my noble Lord percieve any problems with regard to the referendum on reform during this time of drastic cuts ? Remembering the cost of such would be as was quoted I believe by you as being £30m.

    I wonder does my noble Lord feel that the public would see such a constitutional issue as a conflict of interest on the parts of both Houses ?

  4. Croft says:

    Constitutionally seems a flawed argument. The historic release of prisoners held by order of the house, session orders and the like were all deemed to lapse on the end of a session or parliament. Indeed the idea that resolutions of a previous house are binding on a new government is constitutionally absurd. You would have to spend months every time a government changed undoing every motion the previous government won in order to not be bound by them.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: Absolutely. In any event, a motion of the House does not bind the Government of the day to introduce legislation, never mind a future Government, and no Parliament is bound by previous Parliaments – otherwise, Governments would have problems reversing the actions of their predecessors!

      • djb13 says:

        In fairness, I think Lord McNally is trying to make a political rather than constitutional case here. What I think he isn’t taking account of is the fact that the Lords has changed significantly over the last two decades, so the debate needs to, if not start from scratch, at-least change significantly.

        In all honesty, if you have been able to ask me a decade and a half ago, if I favoured abolition of the House of Lords, I’d have agreed. Keynes’ famous quote applies here: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

  5. Croft says:

    Just reading the comment of the Lords Constitution Committee on 5yr parliaments. As we know that the 5 years has everything to do with the need of the coalition to get past the economic crisis before they go to the voters they will not back down on the length. Has the LCC considered measures to limit the power of the extra year – for instance preventing the use of the parliament act in the last year?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: The Parliament Act would only have effect in relation to a measure rejected by the Lords in the fourth (or preceding) year of a five-year Parliament. If the Lords reject a Bill in the final year of a Parliament, there is not much a Government can do about it. Do you mean the Act should not be applicable to measures rejected by the Lords in the fourth year?

      • Croft says:

        My understanding was the providing a bill had its second reading in the commons the 1 year timer had started so you could presently complete much of a bill in year four and invoke the parliament act in year five and the Lords couldn’t veto it. Is this not your reading of the wording of the 1911/49 act? In order to maintain the same level of veto by the lords then it seems to me you should not be able to use the veto in year five irrespective of when the 1 year trigger had started.

        this provision shall not take effect unless [ one year has elapsed] between the date of the second reading in the first of those sessions of the Bill in the House of Commons and the date on which it passes the House of Commons [ in the second of these sessions.]

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I agree, that was the point I was making. The Bill would still have to be introduced in the fourth session.

  6. Carl.H says:

    A constitutional point if I may.

    We`ve seen the 1689 Bill of Rights attempted to be used in Court as a defence recently, how much of that is still valid ? If there have been alterations to it through acts, could one follow this through in one place or would one need a BSc in Law, the appropriate library resources and a few years free ?

    Would his Lordship prefer to see a written constitution – and I don`t mean one written by him, though I think him amply qualified to participate in it`s production.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: The 1689 Bill of Rights still applies in terms of the courts not questioning proceedings in Parliament. I do not favour a written constitution, which is why I shall be scrutinising with a very critical eye the draft Cabinet Manual which has just been published.

      • Croft says:

        “The 1689 Bill of Rights still applies in terms of the courts not questioning proceedings in Parliament.”

        Since the Bill of Rights envisioned the courts having no power in this area the very fact they are determining what constituted the proceeding of the house – rather than the house itself – I rather think they have run a coach and horses though the intent of the Bill.

  7. ladytizzy says:

    The Labour Manifesto 2010:

    “To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable in referenda on reform of the House of Commons and House of Lords, to be held on the same day, by October 2011.
    .
    .
    .
    We will ensure that the hereditary principle is removed from the House of Lords. Further democratic reform to create a fully elected Second Chamber will then be achieved in stages. At the end of the next Parliament one third of the House of Lords will be elected; a further one third of members will be elected at the general election after that. Until the final stage, the representation of all groups should be maintained in equal proportions to now. We will consult widely on these proposals, and on an open-list proportional representation electoral system for the Second Chamber, before putting them to the people in a referendum.”

    The Conservative Party Manifesto 2010:

    “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence.”

    Nope, not seeing a commitment to a fully elected HoL in either manifesto, nor a commitment to reform. I wonder what he means?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: Given that the content of the manifestos was irrelevant to my question, he appears to be digging greater holes for himself. Ministers tend to overlook that the manifestos says different things on the Lords.

  8. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton.
    The question I could ask trying to place myself in your position might be a bit leading (that is including a smiple statement of the facts with an interrogatory) but it might be:

    “Seeking to clarify a previous question for myself and the Noble Lords here Iwould like to ask the minister to explain how the vote to which I have just referred may embody or constitute a settled sentiment or position of the House of Commons and in his response would as the Minister to explain how allowing such seeming ephemera — which I remind the Minister and Noble Lords was not an Act, did not make it into the policy expressions of party manifestoes, did not result in the issuance of a certain bill
    and was not published as the direction of Her Majesty’s Government in the Gracious Speech– how allowing such seeming ephemera to be settled sentiment could fail to entirely confound our constitutional principles? I would ask in addition whether there is in fact a theory of constitutional law which can be put forward to allow for such an interpretation?

    • Lord Norton says:

      franksummers3ba: Many thanks. The content is spot on, even if the first sentence may create problems if one tries to deliver it orally!

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton,
        it is indeed long. But again I am no thief. The Southern Senatorial Filibuster is probably the genre into which I lapsed. It is one to which I have ties by blood, region and education….

      • Lord Norton says:

        Frank W. Summers III: That’s true, you are operating in a well-established tradition. It is perhaps just as well that Strom Thurmond is no longer with us.

  9. Paul Myners says:

    The quality of answers to Written Questions has generally been poor in the last session. There are exceptions – Lord Howells, Earl Howe and Lord Hill spring to mind. But most Ministers appear to leave drafting to Officials who, in my experience, regard their role to be to miss the point of the question and repeat previously used phrases.

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