The academic term may have ended, but I am still the throes of marking as well as speaking on a range of topics – not least Magna Carta, peers’ voting rights, and Brexit, though not necessarily in that order – and chairing the first meeting of the new inquiry by the Higher Education Commission.
Monday morning was taken up explaining the British political system, and where we now are with Brexit, to a delegation of provincial legislators from Guangdong in China. Given the content, and simultaneous translation, it was quite a challenging exercise. I had to go from speaking to them in the Lords to the British Academy to participate in a conference, organised by The UK in a Changing Europe, on ‘Brexit and the Constitution’. I was part of a panel (pictured) discussing ‘What kind of democracy: representative, direct, deliberative?’ My brief was to address some of the difficult questions that Brexit process poses for Parliament. It enabled me to return to the theme I developed in Bingham Lecture in Oxford in May, as summarised in my earlier post. I drew out the challenges posed for representative government by referendums and transient majorities in Parliament.
On Tuesday, my principal task was chairing the Higher Education Commission. We were getting our latest inquiry under way, examining the experience of disabled students in higher education. As chair of the Commission, I co-chair each of the inquiries, with my co-chair being someone with a particular expertise in the subject. For this inquiry, I have two co-chairs, Lord Blunkett and Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby (pictured). As Lord Blunkett reminded everyone, we go back a long way, having been politics undergraduates together at the University of Sheffield. It proved to be a productive scoping session, with some new commissioners who have experience in the subject. We will hold our first evidence session in September.
Yesterday (Thursday), I was in Hull to speak to High Court judges from different provinces in Pakistan (pictured), on the continuing relevance, or otherwise, of Magna Carta. This is part of a regular judicial training programme held at the University for judges from Pakistan, organised by Professor Niaz Shah. I speak on each programme, developing points from my 2015 High Sheriff’s Magna Carta lecture, summarised in a blog post at the time, in which I identify claims made for Magna Carta and explain why they are not valid. The charter is more significant for its symbolism than its substance.
This morning (Friday), I was back in Westminster to speak in the Second Reading debate on the Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill – the subject of my preceding post – to enable peers to vote in parliamentary elections. I noted that there was not exactly pressure for change, be it from inside or outside the House, and indeed made reference to the responses to my previous blog post. On the issue of principle, I drew out that if the argument was that we were denied a fundamental right, then so too were those in prison. Prisoners cannot vote and Members of the Lords, rather obviously, have significant privileges which prisoners do not. We have a voice in Parliament. Although four backbench speakers supported the Bill, against two speaking against, it was notable that those supporting the Bill sat down to silence.
In replying to the debate, the sponsor, Lord Naseby, said he would organise a protest outside the House in support of peers having a vote and noted that the fact that there were only two responses to my blog post may tell one something about the blog. He has clearly never taken part in a caption competition.
That has not been the only Bill before the House this week. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill has attracted somewhat greater attention and returns to the House on Monday, when we also begin committee stage of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill. There are also other political events next week likely to distract us…