Talking of parliaments

I returned last night from Switzerland, having given the keynote speech at an international conference on capacity building in parliaments.  It was organised by the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments (ASGP) and Monash University and attracted a good number of Speakers of Parliaments as well as parliamentarians and parliamentary officials.   The focus was on how to improve the capacity of parliamentarians to do their jobs.

I was concerned to go beyond looking at the mechanisms of how members do their job and stress the need to craft capacity building programmes specific to each nation: they need to be tailor made and not off-the-peg.  I sought to generate a framework for analysing needs, distinguishing between what members do collectively and what they do individually, and between their tasks in relation to the executive and their tasks in relation to the citizen.  I also stressed that without political will there was little point in generating programmes and resources.  I emphasised that this needed to be generated not only at the level of the member but also at the level of the executive.  Governments need to grasp that a legislature that delivers what people expect of it is not a threat but rather an essential means of underpinning the legitimacy of the political system. 

That gives you a flavour of what I said.  Travelling by train proved ideal.  Not only was I able to get on with work but the scenery was stunning.  I opted to go via Geneva and the train from Geneva runs along the length of Lake Geneva, going through Lausanne and on to Bern. 

Got back in time for today’s debate in the Lords on the Steel Bill.  Despite demonstrating our capacity at times to get in a procedural muddle, we actually made good progress and got through committee stage.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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9 Responses to Talking of parliaments

  1. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,
    Charles de Secondat Baron of Montesquieu is in my view still an unreplaceable text for the principal issue you bring forth. Out of date as that may be Aristotle’s Politics is another such text that grapples with that point. The Federalist Papers by Jay, Hamilton and Madison also have important discussions of the topic. I think that this is one of the great issues of our time — I truly do.
    As per my earlier comment on your Switzerland post:

    I think this book makes some rather useful points. It is not an easy principle to put in practice well but it is a worthy effort necessary to human civilization…

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: One of the points I stressed was that legislatures are multi-functional and functionally adaptable bodies. They have consequences for their respective political systems going beyond that of saying no to the executive (which generally is not something they do); even some legislatures in non-demoncratic regimes fulfil functions going beyond that of formally giving assent. In systems where people may be becoming frightened of decisions being taken at an international or global level, the legislature may become more rather than less significant as a conduit for the voice of the people.

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton,
        You and I would not agree on everything in any detailed colloquium but I do refer to something as Nortonian in my own mind precisely when it deals with what your reply mentions. Despite how little I still have read of your work I see you as being pre-eminent in the history of the world in delineating the ideas of Scrutiny-Legislation Proper- Representation-Council-Counsel as facets of the legislature. While this is not a case of using new jargon and in fact you seldom use the last two words I think you have most clearly made this point in the last 3000 years at least. In addition, our discussions have certainly clarified my own views as to these exact matters. While I know you resit being a pure theorist and might dislike the honor I believe that is your greatest theoretical achievement as I have seen it.

  2. pp549 says:

    I was quite impressed at how Lord Steel managed to handle the debate, neatly avoiding what seemed to be clear attempts at talking out the bill with the over a hundred amendments to part 1 of the bill by reversing the order of consideration. And he still secured the Appointments Commission in the bill!

    Of course, it’s a long way to go yet before the coalition’s attempts at Lords reform reach the Commons but it would clearly show the strength of feeling in the House if, by some miracle, the Steel Bill could get to the Commons.

    • Lord Norton says:

      pp549: Yes, the day went extremely well. The two votes demonstrated the strength of support in the House for the Bill, sending a clear message not only to opponents of the Bill but also to the Government. Support came from a majority in every grouping in the House – the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties and the cross-benches. What is noteworthy also is the number of hereditary peers who voted to get rid of the by-election provision for hereditary peers.

  3. Chris K says:

    If you ever fancy giving a ‘keynote speech’ to the Imperial College History Society (also open to the political societies and the ever popular Tea Society too to make up numbers) do let me know!

    Off-topic: Any ideas on how the changes to the law of succession will come about (assuming there is unanimity at the CHoGM)? Will its coming into force depend on the 15 other Realms’ parliaments all agreeing (can a bill be written that way?), or will it be passed and come into force here regardless, and we just hope that none of the others drag their feet or vote against it?

    On-topic: If the Steel Bill is passed, I for one will be sad to see hereditary by-elections end.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Chris K: I spend a great deal of time speaking at schools and universities, not least their politics socities (or similar bodies). If the Imperial College History Sociery would care to invite me to speak, I shall be happy to do so.

      On the succession, each nation which has the monarch as head of state will need to change its law. It will be problematic if not all agree, but I gather agreement has been reached.

      On the hereditary by-elections, don’t forget that if they go we will not lose the existing hereditary peers who are members – and it does not preclude hereditary peers coming in as life peers. We do, after all, have far more than 92 hereditary peers in the House. Several have been brought back as life peers.

  4. D Jones says:

    Lord Norton,
    I can’t seem to find your contribution to the conference on the ASGP website. Is there a link I can follow to find your paper?

    • Lord Norton says:

      D Jones: Apologies for the delay in responding. The text should be on the conference website shortly. It will also bew appearing in due course in ‘Parliamentary Affairs’: there will be an issue carrying the papers from the conference.

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