October caption competition

Wroxton sedan chairAs the new month starts tomorrow, here is the picture for the caption competition.  It shows me during part of my guided tour of Wroxton Abbey – a feature of the Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians – drawing attention to the sedan chair which is housed in the Abbey, but which has no obvious link with the building.

I thought it was quite a challenging picture, one that should draw out the best in the imagination of readers.  As always, the reader to come up with what in my opinion is the wittiest and most appropriate caption will be the winner.  The prize as ever will be one of my publications.

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Is the Lords becoming more liberal than the Commons?

43995I have in a previous post drawn attention to the change that took place in the House of Lords on the issue of same-sex marriage.  The House has moved over the past decade from being resistant to measures designed to advance gay rights, such as lowering the age of consent and repealing Section 28, to being willing to endorse change and to do so by a substantial margin.  I reflected in that post of why the House had changed so notably over that period.  However, it strikes me that the change is notable not only in a historical sense (the change over time), but also in a comparative sense.  The comparison is with the Commons.

The Lords used to be resistant to attempts by the Commons to achieve change.  The lowering of the age of consent, for example, was achieved by use of the Parliament Act, the Commons getting its way over the resistance of the Lords.  However, consider the position today.  The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill got through the Commons by 400 votes to 175, although more Conservative MPs voted against it than voted for it.  In the Lords, it was carried by 390 votes to 148.  There are two points of comparative relevance.  First, the majority in the Lords was not only substantial, but higher than that achieved in the Commons.  Second, every political grouping in the House produced more members voting for than against.  This included the cross-benchers as well as the Conservatives.

Now fast forward to this year and the Assisted Dying Bill.  A Private Member’s Bill, it was debated in the Commons earlier this month. It was rejected by 330 votes to 118, a majority of 212.  When introduced in the Lords last session by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, a vote took place on an amendment that was seen as designed to frustrate the Bill by opponents.  The amendment was rejected by 180 votes to 107, a somewhat unexpected victory by supporters of the Bill.

One has to be careful in reading too much into two votes, but the contrast merits reflection.  In the 1960s, the Lords was seen as a liberal House: the law to decriminalise homosexuality could be seen as having its origins in a motion moved by the Earl of Arran and peers somewhat unexpectedly endorsed the decision of the Commons to abolish capital punishment.  As Peter Richards wrote of the social reform legislation of the period, ‘the Lords, on balance, have assisted rather than impeded reform’.  After going through a rather conservative era, is the House reverting to what it was half-a-century ago?

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Making progress on reform

indexThe House on Tuesday debated four motions relating to reform of the Lords.  The lead motion was moved by the Leader of the House, Baroness Stowell, recognising the case for incremental reform in dealing with the size of the House.  There were 45 speakers, so there was an advisory speaking time of six minutes.  So good were peers in sticking to the time that we actually finished ahead of schedule.

I spoke and emphasised the need to start with a clear recognition of why reform is necessary – we accept the House is too large, but almost take that as given – and need to put size in context.  Electors attach even more importance to the way in peers are appointed.  I also made the point that the various reform options were not mutually exclusive.  There is some support for an age limit, but that is a reform with the politics left out.  Imposing an age limit of 80 would work to the disadvantage primarily of the Conservatives and the cross-benchers.  I drew attention to the case for intra-party elections after each general election.  You can reach the speech here.

It was clear from the debate that there is recognition that we need to act and that no one reform will achieve anything close to unanimity.  Various references were made to the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which Lord Cormack and I founded and run, and the fact we are working on an options paper.   Some reform may be achieved through resolution of the House, or through developing conventions, and others will require legislation.  The Government have effectively handed the issue to the House.  As I mentioned, the political will exists in the House.  We have already achieved reform – the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015.  The obstacle to incremental reform has not been the Lords, but successive governments; we have had to persuade them to support, or at least not oppose, the legislation.  This time, the Government is willing to listen and make progress.

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Legislatures matter

WestminsterI was on a panel on Wednesday evening to discuss the subject of legislative strengthening.  Held in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) room in the Palace of Westminster, it was designed to bring together people interested in the subject in order to form a Westminster ‘community of practice’.  Greg Power, of Global Partners Governance, opened with a presentation on best practice in parliamentary strengthening.  Tim Kelsall, of ODI, then offered a sceptical view, challenging the emphasis by aid donors on legislatures, arguing there was not a clear connection between legislative strengthening and economic growth.

I followed and stressed the centrality of legislatures to political stability.  I distinguished the desirability of legislative strengthening and its achievability.  I made the point that you can have parliaments without parliamentarianism.  You can create the structure, but it needs to be core to a vibrant civic culture.  I reiterated points I made in evidence to the International Development Committee earlier this year.  One needs to tailor aid to the needs of each recipient.  There are problems in adopting a tick-box approach and expecting  measurable and quick returns.  In helping encourage a supportive political culture, one has to invest for the future.   There has also been a problem in that different donors have sometimes imposed conditions which conflict.

As I said in my evidence to the committee, there needs to be greater discourse between donors and a targeting of resources where they may have most effect in contributing to a participant political culture.  Parliaments are core to political stability and such stability is to the benefit of the global community.  It is in our interests to help legislatures in developing nations.

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What studying at Hull can do for you…

25228_jpgFormer students of mine have been doing well recently.  BPLS graduate Rosie Corrigan – she was still an undergraduate at the time – became the youngest mayor in the country.  At the general election, BPLS graduate Neil Coyle defeated Simon Hughes to be elected MP for Bermondsey.  After the general election, the splendid Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, was appointed Sports Minister.   In the Queen’s Birthday Honours, Jonathan Pearse, special adviser to the Leader of the Opposition in the Lords, was awarded an  MBE.  In the recent dissolution honours list, BPLS graduate Kevin Shinkwin – a leading figure in the charity sector – received a peerage.  Another BPLS graduate, Ramesh Chhabra – former special advisor to George Osborne – was appointed OBE, as was another politics graduate, Ben Williams, who ran the Liberal Democrats Whips Office in Coalition.  The latest to make the news is Tom Watson (pictured), elected as Labour Party Deputy Leader.

There are not the only former students to achieve success in politics, nor the only students to receive recognition in pursuing good work outside of politics.  Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, for example, holds the OBE.  Another John Fallon, CEO of Pearson, not only did his degree at Hull but was recently given an honorary doctorate by the university.

Watch this space…

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Choosing the referendum question

Ballot-Paper-300x150The Government has agreed to the recommendation of the Electoral Commission that the question in the referendum on membership of the EU should be between ‘to remain a member’ or ‘leave’ the EU.  This is in place of a yes/no question.

This was a very welcome announcement.  I was pleased for two reasons.  One was that it was not likely to have occurred had I not achieved a change to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill as it was going through the Lords in 2000.  The Bill as introduced created the Electoral Commission, but did not give it a role in recommending or commenting on the question in any referendum.  I moved an amendment to give it a role.  The Government accepted the point and moved its own amendment to give effect to what I had proposed.  The Commission has tended to be proactive in proferring its view on proposed questions.

The second reason is because I have always argued that questions should offer a choice between two mutually exclusive propositions and not between a yes or no response to a particular question.  There is a bias in favour of a yes response, whatever the question, because of people wanting to be positive.  It is notable that a Comres poll in June found a 27-point lead for ‘yes’ over ‘no’ to the question as to whether Britain should remain  in the EU.  A question asking whether we should ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ produced a lead for remaining in the EU of 18 points.  It would have been interesting to see the result of the Scottish referendum had the question been ‘Should Scotland remain a part of the United Kingdom?’  (Some Unionists were not best pleased when the Government conceded the question that was put.)  Had the intention remained to employ a yes/no question in the EU referendum, opponents of remaining in the EU would have been well advised to press for a ‘Should the UK withdraw from the EU?’ question.

However, when some years ago I argued the case for two propositions, avoiding the bias favouring a ‘yes’ response, the then Chair of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, said they preferred a ‘yes/no’ question because of ease of campaiging: electors were lobbied to vote yes or vote no.  One can see that with some issues it may be less than voter-friendly to create two fairly complex propositions.  However, with the EU referendum, a ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ choice is clear and lends itself to straightforward campaigning.  It is good to see a change of heart.

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Does size matter?

44587A total of 45 new peerages were announced today.  As it is a dissolution honours list, it is not surprising that it is notable for the number of former MPs included, not least those who have served in Cabinet, such as William Hague, David Blunkett and George Young, and distinguished long-serving members, such as Alan Beith.  Not all are politicians.  The list includes a former student of mine, BPLS graduate Kevin Shinkwin, who has been active in promoting disability rights since he graduated.  The breakdown in party terms (Conservative 26, Lib Dem 11 and Labour 8) means the net benefit to the Conservative ranks is seven, not exactly likely to make the difference between winning and losing in many divisions.

However, the focus of discussion has tended to be the effect on the size of the House.  It contributes to the Topsy-like nature of the House.  I have made the point before that we are too large in terms of membership.  The size is a problem in both cosmetic and practical terms.  The cosmetic aspect derives from those who never attend.  They place no burden on financial or physical resources, but they are a problem in that they are members who make no contribution.  They inflate the size of the membership to no effect.  The practical problems derive from those who do attend.   There is not space for all peers who wish to attend Question Time or the big debates.  They add to the cost of the House.  If the new creations are regular attenders, they could add in the region of £750,000 to £1m a year.

My own view, reflected in the provisions of the Steel Bill, is that the House should work towards a membership that is below that of the House of Commons.  In the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber (the body responsible for promoting not only the Steel Bill, but also what became the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords [Expulsion and Suspension] Act 2015), we are exploring ways to achieve a reduction in the size of the House.

However, we need to keep things in perspective.  The House of Lords Reform Act 2014, enabling peers to retire, has already had an effect.  The number of peers who have left under the provisions of the Act now stands at 32.  The net effect of the new creations is thus not as great as otherwise it would be.  Furthermore, the Act removes peers who never attend during the course of a session.  That will take effect next year.  Being crowded for space in the chamber is also the exception and not the rule.  In most debates, finding a seat is hardly a problem.

We need to keep in mind the work of the House.  The primary consideration should be quality, in terms of the House fulfilling the functions expected of it.  The House adds value to the political process, not least in scrutinising legislation.  It is able to do so by virtue of a membership that is distinguishable from the Commons in terms of experience and expertise.   The latest peerages tend to have political experience.  We need to have creations that have expertise, not least those whose expertise is current, as well as those with experience outside the world of politics.  To refresh the House with such people, without continuing to grow and grow, we should and will continue to pursue ways of reducing the overall size of the House.  But in doing so we should simply be driven by a fixation with numbers.  We need to reduce quantity without sacrificing quality.

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