Public office, private conduct

73285The allegations against Lord Sewel have generated significant media interest in the House of Lords.  This has encompassed exploring the role and functions of the House.  Much of the coverage reveals notable ignorance about the House and, in the case of Lord Sewel, the position he held.  (I don’t think I have come across any media coverage that has clearly understood the role of the Chairman of Committees.)  Greater knowledge is a good thing, but is overshadowed by the fact that it has brought out the usual brigade, not least on Twitter, who generalise from an N of 1 (‘tip of an iceberg’ and the like) and has led to various media making a link between the allegations and debate about reform of the House.  But what link?  The allegations relate to private conduct.  As far as I am aware, there was no attempt to induce him to take a particular stance of some issue of public policy.  He was not being offered financial inducements to pursue a particular cause.  The allegations as to conduct (drugs, prostitutes) are remarkably similar to those levelled against junior minister and MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Anthony Lambton, in 1973.  No one on that occasion, as I recall, made any link between his conduct and calls for reform of the House of Commons.

There have been various calls for the House to take action.  It now has powers it previously lacked.  Thanks to the work of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, we have on the statute book the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 (enabling peers to resign) and House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 (giving the House the power to expel members and extending its power to suspend members).  Whether the powers under the latter Act are utilised depends on whether there has been a breach of the code of conduct.  The code is concerned primarily with actions taken as a parliamentarian, not as a private person, but behaviour as a private person engages the code if it involves breaking the law and results in a conviction and sentence.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Busy in the Lords…

_39082269_lordsstill_300The House rose today for the summer recess.  (The Commons rose yesterday.)  It has been a busy period since the new Parliament began.  The Government has lost a number of votes.  Yesterday, the House overwhelmingly backed a motion, moved by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler of Brockwell, recommending a joint committee with the Commons to consider the constitutional implications of the Government’s proposals for English Votes for English laws.  The Government interpreted it as proposing a committee to examine alternatives to the proposals or to report on the merits of the proposals, whereas the motion was to look at consequences.  Setting up a committee does not get in the way of undertaking what the Government has proposed: the two things (implementing the proposals, a committee to examine consequences) can run in parallel with one another.  It is up to the Commons to decide whether to go along with the proposal.

As will be apparent from previous posts, select committees are up and running.  The European Committee has, for the first time, issued a ‘green card’.  (You can see details here.)  We have also got under way considering various Private Members’ Bills, the value of which is to get issues debated; the likelihood of them being enacted is usually small, unless enjoying Government support.

These developments are visible – the public can see what is happening.  The House has also introduced a change not visible to the watching public.  Whenever we vote now, our names are not crossed off by clerks on a paper list, but recorded on a tablet device.  I have done a post about it on Lords of the Blog.  We may utilise some old practices, but we also embrace the new.

The House returns on 7 September.  Like the Commons, we have a two-week September sitting, before returning for the autumn on 12 October.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Guess the town

20150711_153451I thought I would introduce a quick quiz.  There isn’t a formal prize, other than the kudos of being the first to provide the correct answer.  I recently met up with a friend to visit a town with which I am reasonably familiar.  My friend was keen to visit the birthplace of a noted public figure of the 20th Century.   I have certain characteristics in common with that person.  The town also boasts a Norton Street.  About twenty towns or cities have a Norton Street, but from the clues I have given you should be able to have a good guess as to which town it is.

I know the picture shows the name next to a No Entry sign.  The sign at the other end of the street is by a recycling shop.   Make of that what you will.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

The future of the constitution?

indexOn Friday, I spoke on the Second Reading of the Constitutional Convention Bill, a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Lord Purvis of Tweed.  Even as a measure to establish a convention, it was flawed.  However, before addressing the particular flaws, I sought to put the debate in a broader context:

“Constitutional change has occurred in recent years on an extensive scale and continues to take place. There are three distinct directions in which we can go in terms of such change. These can be subsumed under the headings of “incoherent”, “measured” and “new”.  We have had major changes in recent decades under successive Governments, but each change has been justified on its own terms.  There has been no serious attempt to look at the constitution as a constitution and consider what type of constitution we wish to achieve.  There has been an intellectual discourse on different approaches to constitutional change but the measures pursued by government have not adhered to any one approach. There has been no intellectually coherent approach adopted by government.  As a consequence, our constitution will be the sum of a range of disparate and discrete measures imposed on our existing constitutional arrangements.  Without taking action, we will continue on what is an uncharted and potentially dangerous path.

I move from the incoherent to the measured.  This is where there is some consideration of how changes fit within our constitutional arrangements. This entails reflection and dialogue, and seeing how existing and proposed changes impact not only on the constitutional framework of the United Kingdom but on how they relate to one another. No reform is exclusive to itself.  Hence, my argument, which I have previously developed, for a constitutional convocation, a body that can make sense of where we are and provide some coherent framework for understanding how further changes relate to existing arrangements and to one another.  It would provide some shape but without committing us prematurely to some new constitutional settlement.

This brings me to the third direction.  This is where we move to a new paradigm, in effect a new constitutional settlement, which may mean a codified constitution.  The vehicle that has been variously recommended for delivering this is a constitutional convention, which, to quote Black’s Law Dictionary, is: “A duly constituted assembly of delegates or representatives of the people of a state or nation for the purpose of framing, revising or amending its constitution”.  The Bill is designed to formulate a new constitutional settlement, or at least a part settlement, for the United Kingdom.  The sheer scale of change we have witnessed constitutes an argument against establishing a body that would craft a new constitution before we have had time to understand the consequences of those changes already undertaken or to which the Government are already committed.  I want us to make sense of where we are, to understand what principles underpin, or have underpinned, the changes of recent years.

We are frequently reminded of the saying, “If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here”.  My point is that not only have we not determined where we are going, we have not even determined exactly where we are.  My argument is that we need a much clearer sense of where we are constitutionally, of how the parts of the constitution as it now is hold together, if they do, before attempting to create a new constitutional architecture.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Winner of the Bagehot competition

CG6ESDYWoAIRjIPI can now reveal the winner of the Bagehot caption competition.  It was a difficult one to judge.  There was a splendid array of entries, but deciding which one had the edge over others was far from easy.  Should I favour ones that were designed to be funny or those which were clever?  I felt it appropriate to privilege those that made a link to Bagehot and/or me.  I thought the entries from Mark Shephard, Tony Sands, Cameron, and both entries of Allan Donoghue were very good and real contenders.  The first two just missed out by not being quite as snappy as the winner.  I am not sure that ken wilkinson (‘One ancient relic visits another’) has quite got the hang of the quiz in the way that Tony Sands has!  At the end of the day, after much reflection, I decided the winner, which seemed especially appropriate to the picture, was edarfour with:

The end of the old and the beginning of a new constitutional architecture: the spirit of Bagehot consulted.

If edarfour would like to get in touch, the prize will be despatched.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Who oversees the constitution?

55720I am now back on the Constitution Committee of the Lords.  On Wednesday, we took evidence from the two Cabinet Office ministers, Oliver Letwin and John Penrose, and the President and Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger and Baroness Hale.  You can watch the proceedings here.

In questioning the Cabinet Office ministers, I was concerned to tease out who in Government has overall responsibility for the constitution.  Mr Letwin has responsibility for co-ordinating constitutional reform, but that is not the same as having responsibility for overseeing our constitution.  The Lord Chancellor has a particular responsibility for protecting the rule of law and is sworn to defend the independence of the judiciary.  In the event of a clash between, say, the Lord Chancellor and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr Letwin), how would it be resolved?  Mr Letwin referred to the constitution committee of the Cabinet, but as he conceded this deals with devolution.  There is thus no minister who is, in effect, the minister for the constitution and no committee that oversees it.  All the more need, in my view, for what I have termed a constitutional convocation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

No clear intellectual case….

indexI recently took part in discussion on amendments to the Psychoactive Substances Bill, a measure introduced by Government to ban so-called ‘legal highs’.  To achieve this, the Bill bans the production and supply of all psychoactive substances, but then proceeds to exempt certain substances from the ban.  The exemptions include alcohol, which meets the criteria of a psychoactive substance as defined by the Bill and hence, without the exemption, would be banned.

It was not clear to me what the intellectual justification was for introducing a measure to ban psychoactive substances that are harmful (though the Bill introduces no concept of harm), but exempt from the ban the most harmful psychoactive substance of all.  The damage caused by alcohol, both in human and financial terms, is enormous.   Given that, I tabled an amendment to remove alcohol from the list of exemptions.  I made clear that my purpose in doing so was to give the Government the opportunity to provide its intellectual justification for the exemption.  You can read the debate on the amendment here.  As you will see, I made clear the impact of alcohol abuse.  I was well aware of practical and political arguments for the exemption, but I wanted to tease out the principled case for what the Government was doing.

The Opposition, which supports the Bill, offered no justification for the exemption, noting only that the Opposition did not support banning alcohol, and the minister, Lord Bates – who is very good, and listens and engages with the House – basically conceded that there was no intellectual case.  The exemption was a practical matter – we are where we are and banning would not be feasible and alcohol duty brings in substantial revenue to the Treasury.  The result is that the policy adopted towards alcohol abuse remains one of regulate and educate, whereas that towards ‘legal highs’ is one of banning them.  I fear the Bill is a result of the ‘something must be done’ syndrome.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments