Sunday, 31 January 2010

What's the cost of regulation?

There are those who oppose government regulation. They claim that such "interference" is costly - and against everyone's interests - except the bureaucrats who are paid to, and gain power from, enforcement. But is this claim justified?

Consumer Protection and "Health and Safety" rules come under constant attack. Yet they are designed to protect. Isn't that one of the main reasons for having Government - to protect members of society from wrongdoing? Heaven forbid that we return to the days when life was cheap and thousands were maimed or killed because of unsafe working conditions. (My great grandfather was one who was killed in an accident in the mines). There are plenty of unscrupulous people out there - and failure to regulate the activities of bankers has cost us all dearly in recent months.

In a recent edition of TS (Trading Standards) Today - the following argument was made

Opinion: People who believe consumer protection regulation is costing British business millions of pounds a year are mistaken, argues Tony Allen.

Read the article here.
What do you think?

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The European Parliament

Like the US Congress, but unlike the British Parliament - the European Parliament does its most important legislative work in committees. When a proposal is made it is allocated to the relevant committee - who then appoint a member as the rapporteur. Their job is to consult with other members; EU Institutions; and others in order to prepare a report which the committee can adopt. The Plenary sessions then debate and vote on the committeee's report.

The list of committees - with links to details of their work and documents - can be found here.

In my view the best guide to the European Parliament is by Richard Corbett, Francis Jacobs & Michael Shackleton. Further details can be found here. Much information is also available on the European Parliament's own website

Friday, 29 January 2010

The US Constitution

Copies of the US Constitution are readily available. I have a number of inexpensive copies of the document - bought when I have been visiting the USA. Online there are a number of sites which
give the text. The House of Representatives site is available here.

An annotated Constitution is available here, which has been prepared by the Congressional Research Service. This has great detail - if you wish an outline of the main structure of the Constitution, one is available here.

It can be very useful to study the US Constitution, and not only if you are a US citizen. For students of constitutions generally it is a useful model. It is short, sharp and to the point. The structure is clear and logical. It may not be perfect, but does set out a structure of checks and balances.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

SOTU Reactions


These were some of the reactions to last nights State of the Union speech (links)

A Journal kept for 500 years!

This month marks the anniversary of the House of Lords Journal. The very first entry is dated 21st January 1510. Until the end of March that first journal is on display in the Royal Gallery. My wife and I went to see it yesterday. This, and all subsequent journals are held by the Parliamentary Archives.

According to the Parliamentary website - "The Journal is the legal record of the proceedings of Parliament. Both the House of Lords and the House of Commons produce a Journal for each session. It is not a word for word record of everything spoken, but is a description of all the decisions taken. In the House of Commons, the Votes and Proceedings are consolidated into the Journals on a sessional basis and these form the authoritative record of the decisions of the House. In the House of Lords, the Journals are compiled from the Minutes of Proceedings by the Clerk of the Journals office ."

The Lords Journal for 2007-2008 can be read here.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Tonight's SOTU

Tonight (or in the arly hours of tomorrow morrow morning if you are on the eastern side of the Atlantic), President Obama will give his annual "State of the Union" Address to Congress. The Constitution Article 2 Section 3 requires that the President "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient". The first SOTU was given by President Washington, but Jefferson ceased the practice of a speech to Congress because he felt it was too monarchical. Until 1913 the SOTU was a written message sent to, and read to Congress by, a Clerk. President Wilson re-established the practice of an annual joint address - which includes both information of the state of the Union and an outline of the President's legislative agenda.

The speech will be broadcast on most news networks. C‑SPAN’s LIVE coverage starts with a historical look at Presidents in their first year in office (8pm/UK 1am), followed by the President’s address (9pm/UK 2am). Then, the Republican response by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) and viewer reaction.

Liaison Committee Report

The Liaison Committee has today produced its response to the report of the House of Commons Reform Committee, "Rebuilding the House". The Liaison Committee is made up of the Chairs of the Select Committees. In the past it was a driving force for select committee reform. More recently it has been the forum for questioning the Prime Minister. The whole report is available here.

Its conclusions are

1. We support the proposal relating to the division of Chairs between the parties. (Paragraph 6)

2. We endorse the proposal for the election of Chairs by the whole House, and agree that it should be done on the basis of the two-year experiment proposed by the Reform Committee. (Paragraph 7)

3. We support the Reform Committee’s suggestion of the need “to provide for the situation, should it ever arise, of a committee where the members altogether lose confidence in the elected Chair” . (Paragraph 8)

4. We support the recommendation for the election of members of select committees in accordance with the general principles of transparency and democracy advanced by the Reform Committee. (Paragraph 11)

5. We support the aim of seeking to set up the principal select committees within six weeks of the opening of a new Parliament. (Paragraph 12)

6. We support the proposal for the exclusion of Ministers, opposition frontbenchers (except possibly for the smaller parties) and Parliamentary Private Secretaries from eligibility for membership of select committees. (Paragraph 13)

7. It would be a token of good faith in any government’s expressed wish for Parliament to be seen as independent of the executive if the steady spread of patronage were to be halted and reversed. If it does not happen voluntarily, the House should consider taking steps to enforce it. (Paragraph 14)

8. To fit in with the proposed new system of elections, any member of a select committee whose cumulative attendance during a Session is below 60% should be automatically discharged at the end of that Session on the basis of a report made by the Clerk of Committees to the Speaker. The Speaker would have discretion to waive the application of the rule in cases such as ill-health, etc. New elections should be held to fill the vacancies so created within two weeks of the opening of the next Session. (Paragraph 16)

9. We support the proposal to reduce the average size of select committees. (Paragraph 18)

10. We support the proposal to rationalise the number of select committees. (Paragraph 21)

11. We consider that no proposal for changing the Standing Orders relating to select committees should be able to be moved by a Minister unless the Liaison Committee had been consulted and given time to report its views on the proposals to the House. (Paragraph 25)

12. We welcome and endorse the proposals for the creation of “House time” controlled by a backbench business committee as a major opportunity to change the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive. (Paragraph 30)

Filibuster Reform

The Filibuster is a honoured safeguard of the rights of the minority against the majority. This safeguard has existed at Westminster and in Congress - though weakened in all but the Senate. The reason that filibusters have become more difficult (or impossible) to mount in most chambers, is that abuse of the filibuster led to decisions to reduce the power.

It remains in the Senate - and is there under threat for the same reason. A tool designed for rare occasions has become the everyday tool of resisting the overwhelming majority. The Irish Nationalists in the 19th Century weakened the rights of minorities in Parliament for ever, over a cause that is no longer an issue. Demonstrating is one thing, but when a legislative body is unable to function, action needs to be taken. Unless some Senators start treating this exceptional power with respect, they will force changes that will hurt minorities, and the Senate itself - forever.

This article appeared in "The Hill" last week.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Election Counts

Many MPs and political activists (and the Press) are concerned about the trend towards counting ballots the following day - rather than, as has been the custom in the past, immediately the polls have closed.

The following answer to a Written Question was published -

Mr. Evennett: To ask the hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission what information the Electoral Commission holds on the number of election counts that are not planned to commence on the evening of polling day in the general election.

Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for counting ballot papers at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library.

In summary, as of 7 January 2010, returning officers for 586 out of 650 constituencies had provided information. Of these, 52 currently do not plan to count ballot papers on the evening of polling day at the general election. A further 17 have indicated they may defer counting in the event that the general election is combined with local authority elections, and 187 were still undecided.

Constitutional Issues

This Thursday the House of Lords will be debating two issues

"The case for further political and constitutional reform"

and the Report of the European Union Committee on Codecision and national parliamentary scrutiny. The report is available here.

Yesterday's debate on Equality Bill and Religious Organisations

Yesterday the House of Lords continued its consideration of the Equality Bill. They discussed the controversial Schedule 9 Part 1, 2 - Religious requirements relating to sex, marriage etc., sexual orientation. This has led to a flurry of letters received by Peers.

The whole Bill can be accessed here. Yesterday's debate can be read in Hansard from column 1197. There were votes on

Amendment 98 - agreed to 216-178
Amendment 99 - agreed to
Amendment 99A - disagreed 174-195
Amendment 100 - agreed to 177-172

The amendments are listed here

Committees at Westminster

I'm back to Westminster today. I'm pretty sure that I won't get an opportunity to sit in one of the many committees taking evidence today, as I have the backlog of the last couple of weeks to deal with - but I do hope to spend more time at these hearings. As recent posts should make clear - I regard the oversight work by committees as one of the most important tasks carried out by a legislature.

The calendar of committee meetings are available via the following links


The current list of House of Commons select committee inquiries is available here. The House of Lords inquiries are listed at the document linked to above.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Teachers

I saw this on youtube (thanks to a tweet from CQ Researcher) - I hope you enjoy. It is funny, but contains great truth.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Is Politics Corrupt? or is it corrupted?

Increasingly the view is heard that politics is corrupt. I hear this view expressed when campaigning on the doorstep; on blogs and Facebook, and in media coverage of the political scene. However expressed the basic tenet of this views seems to be that politics itself, by its nature, is corrupt. Therefore - ANYONE involved in politics is just in it for themselves (at best) or seeking to exploit opportunities for self-enrichment. We would be better off without politicians.

Apart from the gross generalisations involved in this viewpoint, and that the only 'solution' is to give up on representative democracy, I don't belief that it is a valid position to take. Amongst people that I have worked with or had experience of, most of the politicians have been readier to put others interests before their own - and are more trustworthy. People really do go into politics to try and make the world a better place - and most of those involved in politics could have gained more money if they had concentrated on working outside politics.

Of course there are exceptions. I met John Stonehouse MP - and he went to jail, but then I've met others who also behaved criminally - and they were never politicians. There are individuals who are selfish, self-centered, and ready to abuse whatever power they have - but I've met plenty of those working in universities (I have been an academic for 20 years); in financial institutions (my first jobs were in a bank and building society); in shops (I've also served in shops); and in churches.
I don't buy the argument that politicians are necessarily corrupt or have corrupt tendencies. Where politicians have committed corrupt acts - or have failed to act in the interest of the people they were selected to represent - their 'partners in crime' have often come from business. We should condemn the ethics of the politician who takes money or favours - but the ethics of some businesspeople must be challenged too. We may hate lobbyists - but they are the middlemen. The attitude that "I have a right to special influence over decision making because I have money" is wrong. MPs, MEPs, Congressmen & Senators should represent business - because company owners; small businesses; employees are constituents - but they are not the only ones. It is not that politics is corrupt, but that money can corrupt the political system and those who are players in it.

The ethics of the legislature are often more stringent than that of the market place. We condemn politicians who "take us to war" (LBJ & Tony Blair for example). Both will be remembered for the wars they took their countries into - and the death and destruction which followed. Their achievements have been overshadowed by that. Yet those in the tobacco industry; or who have pushed foods that have caused cancers; obesity; diabetes are not held to account - and they are responsible for many more deaths.

There is a need to keep the ethics of the marketplace out of politics. That's why I am so disturbed by this week's decision by the Supreme Court. It's why I worry about the increasing need in some countries for politicians to go to private donors to finance their election campaigns.

Our legislators should represent us - and exercise oversight over those who make decisions which affect others (which means oversight of business as well the public sector). If there are people who are prepared to sell goods which may harm or kill their customers - government should be able to regulate. I do worry about the calls from business to reduce government regulation. I don't believe in regulation for regulation's sake (and I regard one of the most important truths to be 'power tends to corrupt.... - and have met many 'jobsworths' who are prepared to push people around; give bizarre interpretations to 'rules'...) - but I see a fundamental reason for having government, is that it should protect people from the violent; the criminal and the unscrupulous.

So, I don't believe that politics is necessarily corrupt. Good honest government is to our benefit. I believe we should always be questioning - always seeking answers to oversight questions - but cynicism is destructive. Something is wrong with modern politics - but a viewpoint that starts with the premise that all politicians are corrupt isn't going to solve anything!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Ethics Blackout Periods

It's a sad fact (remember Acton's dictum "power tends to corrupt...") that setting up procedures for ethics complaints have themselves been abused. A meritless complaint against a candidate would be made in the run up to an Election - not only distracting the campaign of the victim-candidate, but reducing support from the electorate.

As a result the Office of Congressional Ethics will have to abide by new rules this year. During a "Blackout Period" it will be barred from forwarding any recommendations to the House of Representatives Ethics Committee. Rule 17A (i) of the Committee states that

(i) The Committee shall not accept, and shall return to the Board, any referral from the Board within 60 days before a Federal, State, or local election in which the subject of the referral is a candidate.

This will mean that where a candidate faces a primary election (most are in May) and then the General Election in November there are two blackout periods - March-May and September to November.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Money Talks

While I was on my way home from Washington the Supreme Court came out with its decision in
CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION.
It is a very important decision - which will have a big impact on the conduct of elections, and politics generally in the United States. The Court, in a 5-4 decision overturned earlier precedents. There will be congressional hearings on the issues arising from the decision. As well as raising issues about the role that corporate money can play in elections - this decision should pose questions about the power of Supreme Court justices, and whether the Court is playing a role far beyond what the Constitution intended.

The judgement can be read here.

Comments on the decision can be accessed via the following links -


The Hill(1) and the Hill (2)
Politico
The Atlantic
Sudha Krishna

A Walk Through Balls Bluff Battlefield

Further to the blog published yesterday about Balls Bluff, this video shows a walk through the battlefield site. Further details of the Ball's Bluff Battlefield Regional Park can be found here.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Columbia MD

I live in the "New Town" of Milton Keynes - now over 40 years old, and a great place to live. The planning of the city was influenced by similar developments in the USA. Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of the US "New Towns", Columbia in Maryland. It is between Washington DC and Baltimore. Like Milton Keynes there are landscaped lakes - a large central mall - and 'villages' with their own community and neighbourhood shopping areas.

I look a couple of videos as I drove around the city. By the time you read this I should be back in Milton Keynes.





Balls Bluff

I wrote a post about the battle at Balls Bluff in August 2007. Press here to visit that description and explanation of the battle.

Last weekend I returned to the site, which has been much improved in terms of signs and clearing of undergrowth, that I last came to in 1999. The significance of the battle was not its size, but the death of Senator Baker - which led to the establishment of the congressional 'Committee on the Conduct of the War'. The tragedy of the battle is made clear as you look around the site. It was a pointless skirmish - which led to the deaths of 223 soldiers. A faulty intelligence report led Brig. General Charles Stone to send troops up the near cliff like sides of the Potomac. Trees were misidentified as a set of confederate tents. The battle involved close range firing in a wooded area. The Union force sent by Stone was virtually destroyed. A surviving casualty was Oliver Wendall Holmes, who become one of the greatest Supreme Court Judges.



The spot where senator Baker was shot and killed

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Confederate Cemetery on Manassas Battlefield



Further information about the Groveton Cemetery can be found here.

A visit to Manassas

At the weekend my good friend John Dickert and I made our latest visit to a major Civil War Battlefield. Over the years I have had the privilege of taking these trips with John during my visits to the USA.

This visit took us north to the battlefield of Balls Bluff - and then southwards to Manassas - the site of two battles - both lost by the"North". There is a lot of information about the battles - the first (which was the first major battle of the civil war) was fought in July 1861; and the second in August 1862 - on the internet. I particularly recommend

The National Park Service
Civil War Album
Civil War Preservation Trust

During the day I made a few video recordings showing key places on the site













Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Prospects for Electoral Reform

The Guardian this morning reports on a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on which disagreements were highlighted over electoral reform. The article can be accessed here.

Britain now uses a variety of voting systems. Elections to the House of Commons have retained the "First Past the Post System". With a large number of parties contesting seats - and diffusion of votes (It is now 60 years since Labour and the Conservatives took nearly all the votes cast at a General Election) - anomalies can arise. A party can win a "landslide" victory with an ever declining percentage of (a) votes cast (b) total electorate.

For more information on the debate - visit the website of the Electoral Reform Society. It is an active campaigning organisation for change - so no claim can be made for impartiality - but the debate cannot be avoided.

What's happening in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts is often regarded as THE centre of American liberalism - and yet pollsters are suggesting that the State may fall to the Republicans in today's special election. This isn't just an embarrassment - it would mean that the Democrats in the Senate lose the ability to stop filibusters (60 Senators are needed - because of obstructionist practices by the minority - that, rather than a simple majority has become the number needed to move any business.)

There is a Republican tradition in Massachussets, it has had mainly GOP Governors in recent years - but it would be a shocking loss for the Democrats.

First indications should come when polls close at 8pm (EST - 1am UK/2am European time). A useful guide to the evening, and what to look for can be accessed here. It has written by staff from 'Politico'.

The Senate of the 1790s



When the US Constitution came into force in 1789 the Federal Government was established in New York City. The Senate met on the second floor of Federal Hall. In December 1790 it began a ten year stay in Philadelphia - in what is now the upper floor of 'Congress Hall' - a building close to Independence Hall.

The Senate chamber - and the adjacent committee rooms - can be visited by the public.

A list of the first Senators and Representatives can be found here. Of the Senators who served in the First Congress - William Paterson (NJ) William Grayson (VA) and John Walker (VA) - only served in New York.

Monday, 18 January 2010

I am now into the final few days of my visit to Washington DC. I shall have to get an iphone for my return to the UK! There are a number of "apps" which are available -

The Sunlight Foundation has just launched an application which gives

Live Floor Updates - Updates from the House and Senate floor as they happen.
Key Documents - Critical reports and memos as they are published online by the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service, Office of Management and Budget, party policy committees and more!
Whip Notices - Daily and weekly notices from the House Majority and Minority Whips.
Hearing Schedules - Schedule of upcoming committee hearings from House and Senate.

C-Span has apps which allow you to listen to proceedings

and there is a Congressional Directory available called "Congress in Your Pocket"

Sunday, 17 January 2010

What does 'Oversight' mean?

One of the most important functions that we expect our legislators to perform is that of oversight. Henry Waxman has said in a recent interview "It illustrated to me that Congress doing oversight is as important as legislation and can often highlight a problem, as was done when we held hearings about steroids and about how sports leagues weren't doing what they needed to do to put a stop to it. It can also simply restore the checks and balances that our Constitution had envisioned to get facts." I am currently reading his excellent, and dare I say it, inspiring, book, "The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works". I will be discussing issues and examples from the book in future posts.

The Congressional Research Service has produced an excellent guide to what Oversight is, and how it can practically be achieved. This is produced for the use of Members of Congress and their staff - but its ideas can be of use to anyone in a representative position - and to every citizen.

To read/download the Congressional Oversight Manual press here.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

National Constitution Center



Details of the Center are available at http://constitutioncenter.org/. I spent a couple of hours there during my, all too short daytrip to Philadelphia. I hope to revisit (many times) in the future. There are excellent exhibits which tell the history of the US - and the central role of the Constitution. Whether you want to learn about the Constitution; how the American system of government works; or about US history - there is something for you. For me the highlights were the initial dramatic presentation by an actor setting the scene - the life size models of the signers of the Constitution; and the gavel used in the House hearings on Watergate.

There is a Research Center on site. Further details available here.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Just across the street, members of the Democratic Party in Congress are meeting at the Capitol Visitors Center. Yesterday President Obama came to address them, and today President Clinton is coming. A previous post on the CVC can be visited here . I went around the center last week - there is an excellent series of models showing how the area developed from the end of the 18th Century to today. There is good information on the working of congress - and two excellent book/gift shops.

The website can be accessed here.

Ben Franklin in Philadelphia

Ben Franklin was an incredible man - a scientist; thinker and key player in the events that founded the United States. There are a number of good biographies available. His own autobiography is well worth reading.

Franklin's ancestors came from the village of Ecton in Northamptonshire, England. He lived in London for many years - and now it is possible to visit Benjamin Franklin House, close to Charing Cross Station. But he was born an American - and he made his home in Philadelphia.

During my visit to that city this week I took this short video -

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Parliamentary Sovereignty

Yesterday, in the daily adjournment debate, the subject was "Parliamentary Sovereignty". It was led by Bill Cash, so to no one's surprise it was an idiosyncratic attack on the European Union. It did raise issues about the meaning of the the concept. Both Bill Cash's speech and Chris Bryant's response give useful insights into this peculiarly British idea.

The record in Hansard can be read here.

While I am in the United States - I am taking the opportunity to buy and read books and other material on the history of the USA, and particularly the thinking behind Independence and the Constitution. On the way back from Philadelphia and on the Metro in this morning - I read Joseph Ellis' "American Creation". I was particularly struck by his suggestion that Britain lost America because its leadership was unable to break away from the idea that it was "an axiom of political physics, a veritable Newtonian principle of political theory, that there must be one sovereign source of governance"

I have long felt that the UK has created problems for itself by holding to an unsustainable concept of parliamentary sovereignty - which has no room for shared sovereignty (in which the sum of shared sovereignty creates greater control for the nation over its own destiny and more influence in the world). It is a pity that we harm our interests today by failing to take heed of the lesson of the loss of America.
Your comments would be appreciated.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Jefferson Memorial



On Sunday I was driven from Washington DC to the home of the family I am staying with in the Mount Vernon area of North Virginia. Our route took us past the Jefferson Memorial. I am a great fan of Thomas Jefferson. We have named our current home in Milton Keynes for the Third President and principle writer of the Declaration of Independence. As President Kennedy said when he hosted a reception of Nobel Prize winners "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

His original words proposed for the Declaration are worth reflecting upon.

"We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles & organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness."

He believed in individual rights, and he believed in government.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

What to do?

An article in yesterday's Washington Post highlights the dilemmas that elected politicians and their families can face. John Dingell represents a district in Michigan - the home of the American auto industry. He has throughout his career (which began in 1956) advocated the interests of his district (as all of us would expect of our representative).

In 1979 he met Debbie Insley, who worked for GM Motors. They married in 1981. She did not go to work for Representative Dingell (a practice now being stopped in the UK & European Parliaments). Debbie Dingell voluntarily stepped down as a registered GM lobbyist. Representative Dingell said "Her instincts were good enough that she just assumed that wouldn't work, so she terminated that...I never had to raise it." In the Article she says "I stayed at GM so no one could say I got my job because of my husband." No doubt there are many firms who would have loved to have employed the wife of a senior congressman.

When the stock value of GM stock fell precipitously before it eventually declared bankruptcy, "Debbie Dingell was caught in a dilemma. Selling her stock earlier would have opened questions of whether she was motivated by insider information from her husband or her company. So she kept the stock as her husband fought to rescue GM -- and skeptics cast his actions as a battle to save their personal fortune.

"No matter what, people were going to say something," she said.

"Frankly, she rode that stock right into the ground," John Dingell said. "She did that because she had to." "

We expect higher standards of those in public life than we do of those in the private sector. The media who "expose" the actions of those in public service do not have to, nor do they, live by similar standards. Thomas Frank in his book "The Wrecking Crew" notes that the biggest houses in Northern Virginia do not belong to the politicians and public servants - but to the representatives of business. Sometimes those who have spent their lives serving the public face dilemmas in which they lose whatever they do.

Monday, 11 January 2010

My Favourite Starbucks

Between Coventry, Leicester & Milton Keynes there is no branch of Starbucks. As a recent resident of Northampton and Rugby, that is a fact I deeply regretted, and has led me to appreciate the coffee shops more.

I am particularly fond of certain Starbucks. I enjoyed reading or surfing the net in the Starbucks in the Milton Keynes branch of Borders, which sadly closed last month. When at home I will walk, cycle or drive to the Hub, Milton Keynes - where the staff are particularly friendly. At the moment I am enjoying visits to my favourite, the Starbucks at 237 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington SE - a couple of blocks to the east of the Capitol Building. There are two floors, the upper one of which has a gas fire in the style of an old coal fire. On Friday I did quite a bit of reading and writing in a comfy chair whilst drinking my favourite drink, Caramel Macchiato. The walls are adorned with old photographs of Capitol Hill.

Details of the coffee shop can be found here. On Thursday I had an especial treat, visiting the greatest coffee shop in the world - St Elmo's, Del Ray, Alexandria.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

To drink or not?

During the summer (not relevant now as it is bitterly cold in the UK) - notices on the London Underground advise travellers to take bottled water with them as they travel. Due to problems with the summer heat in the system - that water is needed. It is not unusual to see people drinking and even eating on the trains. However don't do it on the Washington Metro!

You'll often read of similar stories to the following -
"Metro officials in the U.S. capital have had enough of messy eaters breaking no-food rules -- as 12-year-old Ansche Hedgepeth learned when she was arrested at a subway stop for eating french fries.

Metro spokesman Ray Feldman said on Thursday Hedgepeth was an unlucky victim of a weeklong crackdown at a Metro station in northwest Washington and policies that leave police with no middle ground between issuing a warning and arresting young food offenders."

The two systems are very different in other ways. London's underground has ancient origins. It was the first underground system in the world, with the first section opening in 1863. It was used for mass bomb shelters in World War Two. Washington's Metro opened in 1976. It lies much closer to the surface. The earlier London Underground lines were barely subsurface - but some of the later lines are very deep indeed.

For more information on the systems visit


Saturday, 9 January 2010

Washington Sport

Quite a week for professional sport in Washington DC. Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton of the basketball team, the Washington Wizards are presently being investigated over alleged gun possession in the locker room late last month. (Washington Post on the story). This week Arenas was suspended without pay by the National Basketball Association (NBA) Commissioner David Stern. Action was taken after Arenas was photographed at Tuesday night's game in Philadelphia surrounded by his teammates, smiling and pointing his index fingers at them as if using guns.

Washington Redskins have also had a traumatic week. Not unexpectedly, Head Coach Jim Zorn was fired - and former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has been appointed. The Redkins website can be accessed here.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Ministerial Responsibilty

This exchange conerns the failure of a Minister to be in attendance during the daily adjournment debate - the opportunity for backbench MPs to raise an issue - and get a response from the Minister they are seeking to hold to account.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the prime area in which Ministers are held to account is here, in the House of Commons? Does she therefore agree that the failure by the Department for Communities and Local Government to field a Minister for last night's Adjournment debate was a basic failure in accountability? As the debate was about discrimination against minority faiths, the lack of a departmental Minister made the point forcefully. What steps will she take to ensure that Departments understand that private discussions in meetings are no substitute for proper parliamentary accountability here on the Floor of the House?

Ms Harman: I agree: if something has gone wrong, Ministers should offer a meeting with the hon. Member concerned-and I understand that that has happened in this case-but that is not sufficient. There is something unique about accountability on the Floor of the House, and that is what a Back Bencher seeks when initiating an Adjournment debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for taking that debate so ably on behalf of the Government. She is committed to those issues, but she is not the accountable Minister, and that is why I will take this up with the Secretary of State. It should not have happened and we need to ensure that it does not happen again.

Retirements

This week has seen the announcements that Senators Dodd of Connecticut and Dorgan of North Dakota will not be seeking re-election. This will make the November elections even more interesting. Former Congressman Bob Carr has written in his blog about the factors which lead to politicans deciding to stand down - and not follow the example of Senator Byrd.

Bob Carr's blog is one worth following. He gives an insight into the workings of Congress - and I wish him every success as he develops the blog.

To read Bob's blog press here - and follow his blog - I certainly do.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Graham Allen's Question

Further to the post about Graham Allen's question set down for PMQ's - he did get the opportunity to ask it. This is the Hansard report of the exchanges.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on bringing forward proposals arising from the report of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister: The Leader of the House has written to representatives of the other parties on this issue. The Government are keen to proceed on a consensual basis.

Mr. Allen: UK politics has become ever more the private playground of Governments and the media, and this place, Parliament, an ever more tatty backdrop, with little independence. Will the Prime Minister take the powers that he has to bring forward to our agenda-not for debate, but for decision-the proposals to reform this House? Will he please do that in the next few weeks?

The Prime Minister: It is in all our interests to say that both the standard of debate in this House and what is discussed in this House should reflect the views and values of the people of this whole country. All of us want in this new year to make sure that the House is discussing the issues that matter to people.

We welcome the Select Committee report. I know that my hon. Friend has taken a long- standing interest in these institutional reforms. The creation of a Back-Bench committee, a business committee and party ballots-all these are being looked at in detail. The Leader of the House has made it clear that we will have an opportunity to debate them in due course and to discuss the recommendations.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): In due course? We have been waiting for weeks. Is that not typical of this Government and this Prime Minister? He made a big announcement on 10 June last year that we were to have urgent reform of the House of Commons, but when it comes to action the Government act with all the dispatch of a particularly arthritic slug on its way to its own funeral. Will he tell us whether he is still committed to urgent action on reforming this ineffective and incompetent House, or are there people on his own Benches who are stopping that from happening?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman gives me a great deal of hope that the consensual approach will work! I think that he is part of the talks. The talks are taking place. The issues about the creation of a business committee, party ballots for Select Committee membership and ballots of the whole House for Select Committee chairmanship were recommended by the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). We are now discussing these issues, and they will form the subject of a debate and decisions by this House.

Temporary Break

The next post on Washminster should be on Friday 8th January. I apologise for the interruption - but the wait will be worth it!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

When will reforms happen?

Graham Allen is listed to ask the 10th question to the Prime Minister in PMQs today. He probably won't be reached - but might get recognised for a supplementary to one of the earlier questions.

If his question is reached, he is due to ask "What recent representations he has received on bringing forward proposals arising from the report of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons."

Pressure is likely to come from some reform minded MPs for early action. Expect lots of questions - both to the Prime Minister and to the Leader of the House of Commons.

The Report can be accessed here.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Northampton

Prior to 1997 all the county seats were held by the Conservatives. Northampton North was seen as the swing seat in that election. If the swing had been uniform (which it never is) – winning Northampton North would have given Labour a majority in the House of Commons. It was therefore a centre of attention for Labour; the Conservatives – and the media. In fact five of the six seats fell to Labour. Kettering and Wellingborough were retaken by the Tories in 2005.

Northampton South was the real surprise of 1997. Tony Clarke became the Labour MP for the following two parliaments. He has subsequently broken with the Labour Party and has been an independent Councillor in Northampton. He could play a decisive role in the outcome of the 2010 election. The seat loses important affluent areas to the new constituency of Northamptonshire South. It will be treated as a notional Labour seat with a majority of 1,445 (3.78%). The current Conservative MP, Brian Binley faces Labour’s Clyde Loakes and the Liberal Democrat candidate Paul Varnsverry. Binley is a self-made businessman of Northamptonshire working class origin. The seat covers the centre and south of the older parts of Northampton as well as new estates in Ecton Brook and the Hunsburys.

Sally Keeble has represented the North Division since 1997 and had a majority of 3,960 in 2005. With boundary changes she is defending a notional majority of 3,340. It is the 80th most vulnerable Labour seat and 84 on the Tories target list. If this were the worst Labour loss, there would be a hung parliament with Labour and the Tories having almost exactly the same number of seats. The Tory candidate is Michael Ellis and the Liberal Democrat is Andrew Simpson.

Northampton North contains the wards of Abington; Boughton Green; Eastfield; Headlands; Kingsley; Kingsthorpe; Lumbertubs; Parklands; St David; & Thorplands.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Policies for the Election

The British news is dominated by the various announcements being made by the political parties about their policies. You can visit the main party websites via the links below






While these are the main national parties - there are many minor parties - and this election is likely to see a record number of independent candidates. At the weekend it was reported that there had been "a rallying call issued by Terry Waite, the former Lebanon hostage, to 300 independent candidates and activists in which he calls for reform of parliament in the wake of the expenses scandal. In a letter on behalf of the Independent Network, Mr Waite, who considered standing at the election, says he is 'gravely concerned about the political health of our country'".

In Scotland and Wales the nationalist parties (SNP and Plaid Cymru) will also be standing.

Note: New Statesman claimed last month that "Forming a viable government could well require negotiations with Esther Rantzen, Martin Bell and Terry Waite as well as Nick Clegg."

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Comparing Constitutions

It is often said that the United Kingdom does not have a constitution. In a narrow sense that is true. There is no single document which codifies the major constitutional rules in the UK. Of course, in a wider sense, the UK does have a constitution - and it is written - but it is not to be found in one place. Statutes, reports of judgements in cases, conventions and other rules (such as the standing orders of each House of parliament) are where "the constitution" is to be found.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the US constitution is confined to The Constitution. Caselaw is important - and there are conventions which do control the behaviour of the political actors.

It is worth comparing the constitutions. What can we learn from each? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each system? How far are constitutional practices transferable?

Separation of powers has always been an aspect of the British system (Montesquieu used the British system as an example of separation of powers!). However it has always been limited. One of the most important developments of recent years has been a strengthening of the separation in the UK. The Lord Chancellor once played an active role in the highest Court (House of Lords judicial Committee), sitting as a judge - while - like all of the Judicial committee - being a member of the legislature (House of Lords). He was also a leading member of the Cabinet, a key body in the Executive. No longer - the Lord Chancellor has no role as a judge. The Supreme Court has been created, and the link to the House of Lords broken.

But has it gone far enough. Some argue, for example Graham Allen MP, that we need to move from a parliamentary system - to a complete separation of the Executive and Legislature.

What do you think? What lessons can be learned from your own system? Do share your views on Washminster.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Are By-Elections Obligatory?

With the death of David Taylor, there is a vacancy in the constituency of Leicestershire North West. A General Election must be held by 3rd June 2010 (in five months time, or 160 days after the seat became vacant). Must a by-election be held before that date?

The answer is very clearly NO. Erskine May states that "the Speaker may be ordered by the House, upon a motion made by any Member, to issue a warrant to the Clerk of the Crown for a new writ for the place represented by the Member whose seat is thus vacated"

The normal practice is that the Motion for a new Writ is moved by the Chief Whip of the party that formerly held the seat. However there is no obligation for him (it would be Nick Brown) to do so, and he does not enjoy the exclusive right to move the writ. The writ can be moved "by any Member". However such a motion could be defeated. A Factsheet from the House of Commons states that "The motion cannot be moved again (for the same constituency) within the same session of Parliament if it is defeated." It is usual to stop an attempt to move the writ by amending the motion to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add
“this House do pass to the Orders of the Day.” Such an amended motion would allow a later motion to move the writ.

This was last done on July 21st last year, in an attempt by the SNP to force the issuing of a writ to fill the seat formerly held by Michael Martin - Text of Hansard.

Failing to move the writ is frequently criticised by members of the parties who currently do not hold the seat. There was a recommendation by the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law in 1973 that the motion should normally be moved within three months of a vacancy arising.

Michael Rush wrote a very interesting article on "The Timing of By-Elections" in the September 1973 edition of of Parliamentary Affairs (Vol. 27, No. 1973sep pp44-66). It deals with many aspects of the selection of dates up to 1973. It also reveals the extreme delays.

373 days - Wrekin. J Baldwin-Webb was lost at sea on 17th September 1940: legally presumed dead in April 1941: further delay caused by a dispute in the local Conservative Association over a successor: by-election held on 26th September 1941.

252 days - Newcastle-under-Lyme. Stephen Swingler died 19th February 1969: By-election held on 30th October 1969.
The diagram on this post shows the North West Leicestershire constituency - within the county of Leicestershire.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy New Year

2010 has now arrived across the world. May I wish a happy new year to all the regular, and to one-off visitors to this blog. As I have indicated in recent posts, 2010 promises to be a particularly interesting year.

Elections will dominate. I will be looking at some of the competitive races in both the British and American elections. The lastest estimates of competitive House of Representatives seats have been made by the leading analysys. CQ Politics reckons that 102 seats are competitive at the moment (70 Democrat held; 32 Republican held) The Rothenbery Political Report thinks there are 61 (47 Democrats; 14 Republican), while the Cook Political Report puts the figures at 49 competitive races (38 Democrat & 11 Republican).

As events in Congress have shown us - there are a lot of procedural tactics available for use in pushing forward/delaying legislation - and we'll be looking at them as they arise. With an election looming in the UK we may be innovative attempts to influence the speed of legislation in Britain too!

During the year I will be undertaking quite a bit of historical research - so I hope to share with you some of the stories from the development of the US Congress; UK Parliament and European Parliament.