Obtaining copies….

20160311_103237Further to my previous post, if any reader in the UK who is not on campus or in Westminster, and thus not able to collect copies personally, would like copies of both the Magna Carta and Founder’s Day Lectures, just send an A4 self-addressed envelope, with stamps to the value of £1.26, to me at the University of Hull (HU6 7RX) and copies will soon be on their way to you by first class mail.

In monetary terms, the booklets are free.  In intellectual terms, of course, priceless. Oh yes.

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Founder’s Day and Magna Carta lectures

20160311_103237As regular readers will know, I gave a number of public lectures last year.  One was the University of Hull’s Founder’s Day Lecture, on 23 April, which I gave on the subject of Speaking for Hull: Thomas Ferens as Parliamentarian, analysing Ferens’ role as MP for Hull East from 1906 to 1918.  I summarised the lecture in a post shortly after the event.

A second was the Magna Carta Lecture, sponsored by the High Sheriff of East Yorkshire, Jim Dick, and the University, held on 16 June.  Entitled The Continuing Relevance of Magna Carta: Symbol or Substance? it drew a large audience.   Again, I did a post summarising the theme.

A third was the Speaker’s Lecture on Eleanor Rathbone: An Independent Force of Nature, which I gave in Speaker’s House on 3 November and which was broadcast on BBC Parliament on 7 November.  Again, details can be found in my post on the blog following the lecture.

I am very pleased to report that the first two lectures have now been published by the University.  The third will be published shortly.  If anybody would like copies (I have copies reserved for dedicated readers), do let me know.  Any reader who is on campus or in Westminster is welcome to collect a copy of one or both.  I will post further details shortly for anyone who would like copies mailing.

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The winning entry is…

5063459-largeThere were some excellent entries for the caption competition.  I thought it was a challenging competition, but readers showed their usual ingenuity.  Some raised aspects I had not considered, not least barry winetrobe identifying a particular type of lodge.  (Mind you, we do have the Hull mafia.)  There were several rather good late entries, including tizres with ‘Keep smiling and hope no-one notices we’ve just unveiled the Bishop’s washing line’ – a strong contender.  Ken batty clearly decided he wanted to go one better than Tony Sands when it comes to multiple entries.  His ‘It’s curtains for Norton’ was a leading contender.  Tony Sands was a contender with his second caption, but I decided I did not want to upset the headmaster.

At the end of the day I went with my ‘laugh out loud’ test and opted for the entry that caused me to laugh the loudest when I first read it.  The winning entry is therefore Neil M with:

Is the other chap saying “I don’t know who he is. We didn’t invite him. He simply turned up with his own set of net curtains on wheels and demanded to be allowed to open something. Anything. I managed to get him outside until Security arrived”.

A recent publication will shortly be on its way to the winner.

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The March caption competition

5063459-largeI appreciate that it is time for a new caption competition, so here is the one for March.  The picture was taken when I opened the Norton Lodge at my old school, Louth King Edward VI Grammar School.  The winner will be whoever offers what in my view is the wittiest and most appropriate caption.  The prize will as ever be one of my publications.

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Tripping over names…

25412_jpgDuring a recent debate, Lord McAvoy (pictured), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, stumbled slightly in trying to recall my name and decided that when we were debating amendments to the Scotland Bill last week he should seek to correct himself.  It didn’t quite come out as he intended:

“Lord McAvoy (Lab): My Lords, for the removal of any doubt, I do not support any amendments in this group. But I am pleased to be given the chance to try again to pronounce the name of the noble Lord, Lord Louth of Norton—I have done it again—the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, because he is a profound constitutional expert and he has my total admiration and respect, and I apologise for the mix-up.”

If references to me are to be accompanied by tributes of that sort, I am more than happy for peers (or indeed anyone else for that matter) to have problems getting my name right…

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When is a convention not a convention?

20160225_174239The Government, directly or indirectly, has recently sought to address two conventions of the constitution and to do something about them: in one case, supposedly to enforce the convention and in the other to put it in statute.  In the former case, Lord Strathclyde was appointed to look at the claimed convention that the House of Lords does not refuse approval to statutory instruments and in the latter case the Government are seeking to put the Sewel Convention in statute, through Clause 2 of the Scotland Bill.  There are, to put it mildly, problems in both cases.

I have previously written about the Strathclyde Review of Secondary Legislation and why what Lord Strathclyde claimed was a convention was not a convention.  When quizzed on this when he was appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the Commons recently, Lord Strathclyde said he was not covering conventions of the constitution but ‘conventions of the House’.  As I have pointed out in evidence to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which is doing a short inquiry into the review, this is problematic for two reasons.  First, the definition offered in the review is that of a constitutional convention – they are ‘binding on those who come to agree them’.  Even if that was taken as also a feature of conventions of the House, there still is no convention as the House has not felt bound by it.  Second, if Lord Strathclyde was reviewing a convention of the House, it is not clear what authority the Prime Minister had to invite him to undertake such a review.

It is not just Lord Strathclyde that has been getting confused as to the meaning of conventions.  Ministers are also having difficulty in seeking to implement the recommendation of the Smith Commission that the Sewel convention should be put on a statutory basis.  Clause 2 of the Scotland Bill embodies the words used by Lord Sewel in 1998 in saying that ‘it is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament’.   As I pointed out during debate on the Bill yesterday, there is a difference between the Sewel Convention and the words used by Lord Sewel.   As I put it:

A convention is a non-legal rule of behaviour that is considered binding by those who are covered by it and is justified by being, as David Feldman put it, “right behaviour”. There is a moral imperative, and compliance with the rule is invariable. Invariable practice, lacking a moral base, does not establish a convention. Usual practice, as distinct from invariable practice, does not establish a convention.

Conventions develop: a precedent is set and followed and a practice is established from which there is no deviation. In addressing this House in 1998, Lord Sewel recognised that a convention is something that developed. However, his use of the word “normally” meant that what he had in mind was not and could not be a convention. What has developed is a practice, and one that has extended beyond what he said.

Clause 2, as it stands, makes no sense. Conventions may be transposed into statute, but once in statute the convention has gone; it has been superseded by statute. We saw a recent example with the convention governing votes of confidence in the House of Commons. That has been superseded by Section 2 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. There is no longer a convention. What we have with Clause 2 is the inclusion of the words of Lord Sewel in a form that does not constitute a convention but with the Government believing that it is a convention and seeking to maintain it as a convention even though enshrined in statute. I was going to say that I hope that that makes sense, but of course it does not make sense. This clause is nonsense.

This was difficult for the minister, Lord Keen, the Advocate General for Scotland, given that I was on sound ground in defining a convention.  His argument essentially went into Alice in Wonderland territory, arguing that what Lord Sewel had enunciated wasn’t a convention, but developed into a convention without being a convention.  See if you can make sense of what he said:

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, observes that that is not a convention in the conventional sense; and, of course, he is right because a convention is something that grows up and is invariably applied or employed. Where you have the word “normally”, you are saying that there can be a qualification or an exception, so, strictly speaking, in constitutional terms, the Sewel convention is not a convention. But, you know, by convention it became a convention. And that is where we are. Over a period of years, what was referred to as the Sewel convention was understood not only by the United Kingdom Parliament but also by the Scottish Government and by the Civil Service. They understood and applied the Sewel convention, albeit that in strict constitutional terms it was not a convention. They operated it successfully and without difficulty until now. Then the Smith commission decided that the Sewel convention should be put on a statutory footing. Of course, the technical difficulty is this: if you express a convention in statutory terms, it ceases to be a convention.  In a sense, we do not have that problem here because, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out, it was not a convention in the first place.

This is confused at so many levels.  The practice that developed was invariable and was recognised as a convention – dubbed the Sewel convention – and logically it is this which should be in the Bill.  That is recognised by the Scottish Government.  As one of its officials said to the Constitution Committee: ‘You need to enact the convention rather than the quotation’.  The minister’s admission that what was being enacted wasn’t a convention was rather strange given that the clause was included in the Bill in pursuit of a commitment to put the Sewel convention into statute and the clause is headed ‘Sewel convention’.  The Government have been tying themselves in knots in trying to avoid putting the Sewel convention, rather than the words of Lord Sewel (which, by inclusion of the word ‘normally’, gives it is a let-out), in statute, while claiming to be implementing the Smith Commission recommendations.

The clause remains a nonsense.  As I said in concluding, if it remains in the Bill ‘it will be a public demonstration of how not to legislate’.  It is still in the Bill.

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The difficult correspondence

44101I have commented on the number of letters received in the Palace of Westminster, but I have not discussed the nature of some of the correspondence we receive.  There is a problem not only in coping with the sheer volume, but also at times in knowing how to deal with the content.  Some letters are straightforward, commenting on policies or providing briefings on Bills.  However, letters from some individuals can be time-consuming and perplexing, and at times harrowing.

The problem is particularly acute for MPs.  They receive more letters than do peers and if the letters are from constituents they cannot avoid dealing with them.  Some correspondents are prone to write frequently, absorbing a disproportionate amount of time.  Some people who write are simply irritating, usually thinking they are the only ones who are right.  Some write on what are essentially trivial matters (that is, trivial in context – some matters that to us may appear minor may weigh heavily on some individuals) or cover issues that should be pursued with other agencies.  Some, however, are difficult to deal with because the writers are not necessarily rational.   The giveaway that there are problems is the presentation: there is the excessive use of capitals and of different coloured ink.  Another giveaway is who is copied in to the correspondence: it is usually luminaries such as the PM, UN Secretary-General, the Lord Chancellor, the Queen – the list can be a long one.

Some of the correspondence is fairly harmless and some in any event cannot be replied to as there is no return address – this in my experience tends to apply to religious tracts.  Sometimes one is sent no more than a photocopy of a newspaper article, on occasion annotated, but without any idea of what the sender expects the recipient do about it.  However, the real problem arises when someone gives their name and address and want you to take action.  Some letters start off sounding reasonable, but then become lengthy discourses on the fact that the government and other public agencies are using thought transference to control them or every public agency is engaged in a giant conspiracy to defraud them.  Some writers are eccentric, but others clearly have mental health issues.

What, then, to do about them?  In many cases, there is no need to respond as one has been copied in and is not the principal recipient.  (There is also a danger if one does respond this will trigger even more correspondence.)  Should one respond to those who write direct?   There is a particular problem, as I say, for MPs where the writers are constituents.  But what should other parliamentarians do?   Should they ignore the letters, simply acknowledge receipt, or send substantive responses?  My general rule is to steer clear, but I do wrestle with the issue.

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