Monday 30 June 2008

The National Health Service

At Westminster this week, the successes of Britain's NHS will be celebrated. On Tuesday Baroness Jones of Whitchurch will ask Her Majesty’s Government "what plans they have to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the National Health Service." In the Commons on Thursday, Tony Lloyd will begin an adjounment debate on the anniversary.

The NHS came into being on 5th July 1948, the creation of the charasmatic Aneurin (Nye) Bevan.

For information about the NHS and its history go to http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/News/NHS60/index.htm

Speaking personally, the health service is one of the most significant reasons for being proud to be British. Ill health is worrying enough, without the worry of facing huge bills. I commend the idea to all my American friends.

Sunday 29 June 2008


Robert McNamara said about the speech which President Kennedy delivered at American University on June 10th 1963 - "Most of you, probably all of you, have never read it, never heard it. Please read it. It's one of the great documents of the twentieth century"

Khrushchev praised the speech as the "best statement made by any president since Roosevelt". Robert Dallek and Terry Golway commented - "While the speech will seem visionary when read and heard in the twentieth century, Kennedy knew that he risked criticism at home from those who would see it as too conciliatory and even defeatest. He decided it was a risk worth taking"
The final words of the speech bear repeating -
"This generation of Americans has already had enough--more than enough--of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on--not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace."

Saturday 28 June 2008

The Daisy Girl

Today's Guardian contains the obituary of Tony Schwartz, the man behind the famous and powerful 1964 campaign ad. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2008/jun/28/usa?gusrc=rss&feed=worldnews

It was only shown once, but has become one of the most famous political ads in history. If you haven't seen it, it's worth remembering the context. There was a real fear that nuclear anniliation could come at any time. Some even regarded it as nigh on inevitable. Only two years previously the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the brink.

The Week Ahead

The House of Representatives and the Senate are not expected to sit this week - as Friday is 4th July, America's national holiday. Westminster won't have the week off [The House of Lords will sit on 4th - I won't be there!] - though there are a number of meetings (some of which I am looking forward to attending) about the USA, and the forthcoming election in particular.

Zimbabwe may dominate the week - with a debate in the Commons on Thursday, and a question in the Lords on Monday.

Business at Westminster

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmwib/wb080628/28.06.2008.pdf[Commons p11-14: Lords p15-16]

Friday 27 June 2008

The Cost of Parliament

In a written answer in the House of Lords, the running costs of Parliament have been set out in a number of tables. The cost per member in the last session was £636 per MP and £176 for each Peer. The biggest difference came in accommodation costs. 641 MPs cost £207. 9m to accommmodate - while the 722 Peers cost only £99.9 million.

The full answer can be found at

Thursday 26 June 2008

DC v Heller

The decision can be read at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf


1. The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

(a) The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.

(b) The prefatory clause comports with the Court’s interpretation of the operative clause. The "militia" comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved.

(c) The Court’s interpretation is confirmed by analogous arms-bearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediatelyfollowed the Second Amendment.

(d) The Second Amendment’s drafting history, while of dubious interpretive worth, reveals three state Second Amendment proposals that unequivocally referred to an individual right to bear arms.

(e) Interpretation of the Second Amendment by scholars, courts and legislators, from immediately after its ratification through the late 19th century also supports the Court’s conclusion.

(f) None of the Court’s precedents forecloses the Court’s interpretation. Neither United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553, nor Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 264–265, refutes the individual-rights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, does not limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by the militia, i.e., those in common use for lawful purposes.

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to castdoubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those "in common use at the time" finds support in the historical traditionof prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.

The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of "arms" that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional muster.
Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in thehome be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossiblefor citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense andis hence unconstitutional. Because Heller conceded at oral argument that the D. C. licensing law is permissible if it is not enforced arbitrarily and capriciously, the Court assumes that a license will satisfyhis prayer for relief and does not address the licensing requirement. Assuming he is not disqualified from exercising Second Amendment rights, the District must permit Heller to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home.

News Alert - The right to keep and bear arms

The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its ruling today on DC v Heller - the first 2nd Amendment judgement since the second world war.

Heller tried to register a handgun to keep in his home in a high-crime area of Washington DC. He was refused as the city has banned the registration and therefore possession of all privately owned handguns

Wheeler v Office of the Prime Minister

The High Court decided yesterday that the case brought by eurosceptic millionaire Stuart Wheeler held that "the claim lacks substantive merit and should be dismissed. Even if we had taken a different view of the substance of the case, in the exercise of the court's discretion we would have declined to grant any relief, having regard in particular to the fact that Parliament has addressed the question whether there should be a referendum and, in passing the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008, has decided against one"

The case was decided by the High Court, and is therefore at the lowest possible level in the hierarchy of English Courts. Permission to appeal was declined - though Mr Wheeler has said that he will apply directly for such permission from the Court of Appeal.
The law report discuss some very important constitutional issues, and all students of Constitutional Law ought to read this case (particularly from paragraph 45 onwards about 'The implications of the privileges and role of Parliament. It is available at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2008/1409.html

A V Dicey (Defender of the Sovereignty of Parliament)

Wednesday 25 June 2008

As mentioned in an earlier entry, Tuesday began in the House of Lords with a question about suggestions for a league of democracies. While the government took a studiously neutral position - most of the response from their Lordships was hostile.

The great fear was that this proposal would again divide the world into two camps. As Lord Hannay put it "...the undesirability, rather soon after the ending of the Cold War, of systematising the divide in the world between democratic sheep and undemocratic goats"
Other Peers pointed out that there were already a number of institutions which brought democracies together - including the European Union.

The full exchange can be read at http://pubs1.tso.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldhansrd/text/80624-0001.htm#08062483000002

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Kennedy's Inaugural Address

I've been reading Richard J Tofel's book "Sounding the Trumpet". It's a short, but fascinating book about the writing of President Kennedy's Inaugural Address. The preparation and development of the speech is described - and an analysis of each phrase undertaken. Often that can destroy one's appreciation of something - but Tofel has enhanced my enjoyment of an excellent speech.

One of the gems in the book is the full text of a parody of the Inaugural Address, written by Sorensen and partly delivered by President Kennedy at the Democratic National Committee Dinner one year after becoming President. (You can hear the audio of the speech which Kennedy delivered in 1962 at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset+Tree/Asset+Viewers/Audio+Video+Asset+Viewer.htm?guid={63511258-FB71-4C57-B004-06855E579081}&type=Audio

Monday 23 June 2008

Anniversary of the 'Smoking Gun'

Today (June 23rd) is the 36th anniversary of one of the most notorious conversations to have taken place in the White House. President Richard Nixon discussed the Watergate break-in, which had occured six days previously. The conversation was recorded - and when the transcript was made available in August 1974, it precipitated Nixon's resignation.

The tape showed that Nixon had agreed that administration officials should approach the Director of the CIA and ask him to request that the Director of the FBI halt the Bureau's investigation into the Watergate break-in on the grounds that the Watergate break-in was a National Security matter. In so agreeing, Nixon had entered into a criminal conspiracy whose goal was the obstruction of justice — a felony, and an impeachable offense.

Listen to the tape - and read the transcript at

Sunday 22 June 2008

A busy few days are planned in Congress, with the break for 4th July starting at the end of the week. In the House of Commons there will be two days of Opposition debates and on Thursday a debate on the draft legislative programme for 2008/09. [The new session will commence on 3rd December]. The House of Lords will be busy with many pieces of legislation being considered.

Business in The Four Houses:

House of Representatives: http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/20WeeklyLeader06%5F23%5F08.pdf?CFID=10650277&CFTOKEN=13873081
Senate: http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/legislative/d_three_sections_with_teasers/calendars.htm
Westminster: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmwib/wb080621/21.06.2008.pdf[Commons p10-15: Lords p16-17]

Saturday 21 June 2008

What's the Story behind the Story?

Some of the right wing press rang a story this week that "A United Nations report says Britain should abolish its monarchy". The reference is a meeting on the UN Human Rights Council, which met a few days ago.

Subsequently the Sri Lankan delegation issued this statement -
"The Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva wishes to contradict several inaccuracies and distortions contained in a report in the London Daily Express, which seems to have been echoed by certain other news organizations, to the effect that Sri Lanka called for the abolition of the British monarchy. There was no such call, not by Sri Lanka and not by the UN Human Rights Council. Indeed the quote cited in the Daily Express does not include such a call. It recommends only that the UK 'consider' the holding of a referendum on the desirability or otherwise of a written constitution, preferably republican, with a bill of rights. The Daily Express has omitted the reference to a bill of rights."

So why have the British right wing press run this story, which they know will anger some people? Is this a prelude to an attack on the UN (see the Daily Telegraph's website for outraged responses).

Why do they want to attack the UN now?

Is it to push the idea of a "Concert of Democracies" which was proposed by the Princeton Project (http://www.princeton.edu/~ppns/report/FinalReport.pdf) and is supported by both candidates in the US Presidential Election.

It is a serious proposal - and merits consideration - but there are some on the right in the UK and US who are vehemently anti-UN. Are they starting a propaganda offensive, for motives many people would strongly disagree with?

Interestingly Lord Hannay has the following question down for answer in the House of Lords on Tuesday "to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of proposals to establish a league of democracies composed of all democratically-ruled countries."

Friday 20 June 2008

Are Judges Going Too Far?

From The Daily Telegraph's website -

A High Court judge has told Gordon Brown to delay British moves to ratify the European Union's Lisbon Treaty. .. Lord Justice Richards's unusual public intervention in the political debate over the controversial text forced the Prime Minister to admit that ratification will not come immediately.
Mr Brown has pushed ahead with ratification despite Ireland's rejection of the treaty in a referendum and the clear opposition of British voters.

The judge is considering a case brought by Stuart Wheeler, the millionaire eurosceptic, which alleges that ministers have acted unlawfully by trying to ratify the treaty without a British referendum.

The Government won a final House of Lords vote on a bill ratifying the treaty on Wednesday, and the new law enabling ratification received Royal Assent on Thursday.

In a direction handed down today, Lord Justice Richards expressed surprise that ministers are pressing ahead with ratification even though he has not yet delivered his judgement on Mr Wheeler's case. The judge said: "The court is very surprised that the government apparently proposes to ratify while the claimant's challenge to the decision not to hold a referendum on ratification is before the court." He added: "The court expects judgment to be handed down next week. The defendants are invited to stay their hand voluntarily until judgment."
Although the law allowing UK ratification is now in place, the formal act of ratification which involves the British government depositing legal papers in Rome has not yet taken place.

In recent years the Courts have been intervening in more areas than ever before. Some have welcomed their greater role. Others have been expressing growing concern.

It has long been a principle of English Law that Parliament is sovereign - and that the Courts should not be interfering with what that democratic institution has decided. I would recommend Prfessor Griffith's excellent Book "The Politics of the Judiciary" on the unrepresentativeness of the English judiciary.

At what point should we start asking about limiting the power of the judiciary?

Thursday 19 June 2008

Europe Bill Passes

Yesterday afternoon I sat through the debate on whether to postpone the third reading of the EU (Amendment) Bill to no earlier than 20th October. It was again a fascinating debate. There were 24 speakers - and of particular merit were the speeches of the Archbishop of York; Lady Butler-Sloss; Lady Williams of Crosby; Lord Gilbert and Lady Ashton, the leader of the House. In my view Lord Ashdown's was the most compelling speech.

The vote was a massive 277-184.

Watch or read the debate

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Referendums: What are they good for?

After their AGM last night, the Hansard Society held a panel debate with the above title. A full report should be published on their website shortly http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/

Five people sat on the panel - Dr David Butler; David Curry MP (Cons); Chris Huhne MP (Lib-Dem); Clare Short MP (formerly Labour); and Steve Richards of the Independent. Mr Curry described referendums as "clumsy, inefficient and imprecise" - and as the 'landfills of politics' - the dumping ground for embarrassing issues. Clare Short took the opposite view - and spoke of historic examples which had resolved difficult issues successfully. Chris Huhne argued that referendums could be a check and balance against legislatures, which could help reconnect the people. Steve Richards sought to dispel two myths about referendums - that they settle issues after a healthy campaign; and that they generate debate. In fact, he argued, the opposite was true.
Dr Butler gave a valuable overview of referendums - and noted that there had been about 1000 national referendums in history - half of which occured in Switzerland.
A lively question time followed. As ever, a Hansard Society event which was both enjoyable to attend - and gave those who attended, much to go away and think about.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

The British Parliament on YouTube

You can now see parliamentary videos on a special YouTube site.


Smear Politics

Free Speech is a fine thing. Differing opinions are a key element is a thriving democracy. But is deliberate, pre-meditated lying appropriate?

I can't help thinking that the people who peddle the nonsense on exposeobama.com are dishonouring all those who have given their lives so that we might enjoy democracy.

Monday 16 June 2008

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

My leisure reading over recent days has been John O'Farrell's excellent book, which is now out in paperback. A good overview (well 552 pages!) of British history, it is also very funny. On the American Revolution he notes -

"Clearly there was some sort of culture clash going on here. If the Americans had said, 'Excuse me, I'm awfully sorry to trouble you, old chap, but would it be at all possible to have a tax rebate; I know it's a bore, but I'd be most frightfully grateful...' then everything could have been sorted out between gentlemen. The trouble was the Yanks shouted, 'Hey, buster, gimme a tax rebate!'; the English bristled at their rudeness and all-out war became inevitable"

As well as much humour, it's a book to provoke thought. At the end it raises questions about what is meant by Britishness. I'd thoroughly recommend this book.

John O'Farrell became a favourite with many after his first book - "Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter", another humorous book, which captured the feelings of those who didn't appreciate the Tory Governments of 1979-97 - and what they did to our country. He has written a column for the Guardian; been a scriptwriter for some superb satirical comedy shows and has sttod as a Labour candidate for Parliament.

A taste of his writing can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/johnofarrell

Sunday 15 June 2008

The Week Ahead

It will be an interesting week ahead at Westminster - as the fallout from the Irish Referendum raises the temperature even more. The House of Lords is due to hold the final stage in passage of the European Union (Amendment) Bill on Wednesday. It could be quite a day!

Business in The Four Houses:

House of Representatives: http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/19WeeklyLeader06_16_08.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550
Senate: http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/legislative/d_three_sections_with_teasers/calendars.htm
Westminster: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmwib/wb080614/14.06.2008.pdf[Commons p11-14: Lords p15-16] (though we may have some statements on Europe during the week)

Saturday 14 June 2008

That was the week that was

Harold Wilson once said that a week was a long time in politics. This has been a very long week!

Wednesday saw key votes in both the Commons and Lords. The Government won both. Thursday saw the extraordinary resignation of David Davis, to fight a by-election on what he saw as a principled stand against the erosion of civil liberties - but many others saw as it as a stunt that has become a farce.
Friday saw the shock result of the Irish referendum - an event which will reveberate for many weeks.

In the USA the Supreme Court made a historic decision on civil liberties.

Editorials on that decision can be found at

The Washington Post reminded us of the writings of the revered English jurist Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)

"[T]he practice of arbitrary imprisonments, have been, in all ages, the favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny.....To bereave a man of life. . . or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary government.'"

A little reminder - Sunday is the anniversary of Magna Carta. If you use facebook why not join the campaign to have a day's holiday in England (and why not elsewhere???) to celebrate "Magna Carta Day"

Friday 13 June 2008

Parliamentary Questions

MPs can ask questions of Governments in two main ways

Oral Questions - these are taken in the first 55 minutes of the sitting day on Mondays; Tuesdays; Wednesdays; and Thursdays. Departments are allocated a part of each question time (the most important departments have the full period), on a five weekly rota. The rota can be accessed at http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm/cmwib/order.htm. Members receive a short answer, but it is the supplementary which is of interest. The Minister will not know (but his advisers may have a guess) at what the supplementary will deal with. Most MPs dream of delivering a 'killer' supplementary, which floors the Minister and causes a crisis for the Government. Most Ministers enter the chamber prepared for most supplementaries - and an ability to deflect questions they'd rather not respond to on the spot.
The Questions appear on the Order Paper of the day http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmagenda/ob80609.htm. More questions are submitted than would ever be answered in the time available. Therefore "the shuffle" takes place once the deadline for tabling (that is in the British sense, not the opposite American sense) has passed. The 25 questions selected at random (by computer) will be chosen for inclusion on the order paper, though rarely are they all called before time runs out. Oral questions not answered in the chamber receive a written answer. Since 1972, the ration for each Member has been a maximum of two oral questions on any one day; with the additional limitation that only one question may be put to one Minister on any day.

Written Questions - There are no limits to the number of questions that may be submitted for written answer. In due course (and some departments have better track records than others) the answer will come back, and is either published in full in Hansard - or an answer is given that details have "been placed in the Library of the House." Further details can be found at http://deposits.parliament.uk/

An example of Hansard - Written Questions can be found at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm080606/index/80606-x.htm

An example of the 'Order Book' can be seen at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmordbk1/80605w01.htm

A detailed paper on PQs can be accessed at http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/P01.pdf

Thursday 12 June 2008

Dismayed by the BBC

I spent all of yesterday afternoon and early evening in the House of Lords watching the debate on an amendment to the European Union (Amendment) Bill which would have required a referendum before the Treaty was ratified by the UK. It was the kind of debate the House of Lords does well - interesting, with contributions from real experts and witty. Well worth sitting through the 4 hours and 9 minutes of debate and the vote.

I woke early this morning and turned on to "The Record", first broadcast on BBC Parliament, then repeated on BBC 24. I was very surprised at the editorial decisions taken over which parts of the debate were shown. We heard from Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord Campbell of Alloway. We had a brief snatch of Lord Brittain - where he was interrupted by Lord Elton. Lord Owen's comments were made - and a little (the least effective part) of Lord Wallace's speech. Had I relied on the BBC for a fair representation of that debate - and I do so rely - I would have been badly misled.

First of all, there were more speeches made against the amendment than for. Yet the impression in the report was of overwhelming pro-amendment sentiment. The best speeches - and I would count among them the speeches of Baroness Williams; Baroness Symons; Lord Patten of Barnes and the Archbishop of York - were not shown at all. The point made by the pro-amendment speakers that a promise of a referendum had been broken was fully answered, particularly in Lady Symons speech. Yet this answer was not given any airtime.

I was very disappointed by the coverage. The BBC failed its viewers badly.

If you want to watch the debate it is available in full at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/VideoPlayer.aspx?meetingId=1894

The highlights can be found at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/VideoPlayer.aspx?meetingId=1894&st=17:16:13 (Archbishop of York - 02:15:08 if watching from the start - his ending is superb)
http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/VideoPlayer.aspx?meetingId=1894&st=17:37:21 (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean - on the fundamental difference between the Constitutional Treaty and the treaty of Lisbon)
http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/VideoPlayer.aspx?meetingId=1894&st=18:27:24 (Lord Patten of Barnes - particularly on the advice to Conservative candidates in the 1992 General Election)
http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/VideoPlayer.aspx?meetingId=1894&st=18:09:14 (Lord Kerr - on what the Treaty does)

Irish Referendum

Today the Irish will vote in a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The eyes of Europe will be upon. A 'NO' vote could derail plans for more effective European co-operation. It would be a pity if debate on practical issues was shouted down by arguments about institutional structures and procedures. Europe could move on after today, or continue being mired in a destructive argument between zealots on both extremes.

News of the referendum can be found on http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/ukfs_news/bsp/hi/news24live/html/news24.stm


Wednesday 11 June 2008

Questions in the House of Lords

Yesterday the issue of oral questions was raised - in Oral Questions. The exchanges give a useful insight into practice

Lord Denham asked the Leader of the House:

Whether she will remind Ministers of the guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders that they need only answer two points in response to each supplementary oral question, and of the case for keeping supplementary answers short.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, Ministers and departments are fully aware of the helpful advice contained in the Companion. However, I am always happy to remind them of it. It helps Ministers to adhere to this guidance when noble Lords also follow it and ask no more than two supplementary questions at a time.

Lord Denham: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that my Question was partly aimed at noble Lords who ask supplementary questions and who are strictly limited by Standing Order to two points but all too often offend? However, if Ministers, who are not so limited and are only excused from answering more than two points, would stick voluntarily to that limit, questioners themselves would be more selective and therefore shorter.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I was indeed well aware of what the noble Lord was getting at with his Question. However, Ministers often try to be extremely helpful to your Lordships. Where we are able to give answers to lots of questions, we try to do so. It is more helpful to us if noble Lords adhere to the Companion and merely ask the two.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as one who has answered my fair share of Questions in my time, may I ask the Leader of the House whether she will remind Members of the House asking supplementary questions that, if they ask more than two, the Minister responding has the opportunity to pick and choose, which makes it easier for the Minister? I heard what she said about being helpful, but will Ministers refrain from answering questions that bear no relation to the Question on the Order Paper?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Indeed, my Lords. My noble friend attempts to be helpful, but I am not sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench thought that reminding noble Lords of the ability to pick and choose was necessarily the best thing. Of course, I agree with him: if a question is wide of the mark, noble Lords must accept that we will not be answering it.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the noble Baroness find as irritating as I do Ministers who start everything off with, “Well, my Lords”? Are they telling me that they are well? Are they asking me whether I am well? In either case, I hope that she will agree that it is incorrect.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the health of the noble Baroness is always of enormous interest on these Benches and across the whole House. I accept, however, that we should begin by saying “My Lords” and answering the question.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does not the high incidence of rambling multiple questions suggest that self-regulation does not work at Question Time? Who is responsible for enforcing our Companion? Perhaps I may whisper the solution: the Lord Speaker should be allowed to intervene.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it will be for the House to decide how it wishes to be regulated in the future. I have no difficulty with the Lord Speaker performing more functions. If that is what the House and the Lord Speaker wish to do, it would be perfectly acceptable to me. For the moment, the House has chosen to self-regulate, perhaps with an occasional nudge from me at Question Time.

Lord McNally: My Lords, it is my turn: self-regulation at work. Does the Lord President agree that this House has a great reputation for innovation? Is it not unfair that only the government side of the House has the chance to explain its policy? Would it not be a great innovation if we were given time—the Liberal Democrats would certainly welcome it—to explain our policy in a question and answer session?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord McNally: My Lords, would the Lord President not pay good money to hear the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, questioning his Front Bench on Conservative policy?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there are a number of ways in which Questions could be asked in the House for which I would pay good money. Again, however, it is for the House to determine. I have had plenty of opportunities of having the joy and benefit of listening to Liberal Democrat policy.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, would the Minister not agree that that question was rather wide of the mark?

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, to get back to the Question on the Order Paper, is the noble Baroness aware—I am sure that she is—of the useful book Procedure & Practice? It is pocket or handbag-sized; I carry mine in my handbag all the time, as noble Lords know to their intense irritation. It is easy to read and clears up a whole lot of points on House of Lords procedure. Would the noble Baroness recommend it to noble Lords who have difficulty?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I would indeed recommend the little red book.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, will the Leader of the House yet again remind those dilatory Ministers who fail to answer Written Questions within the statutory two weeks of their obligation to do so? Will she explain why the poor noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, is still waiting for an Answer to a Question tabled in January? It is still unanswered in June.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, has waited since 24 January; the reply was due on 7 February. The culprit is Mr Liam Byrne, whose office I rang yet again today. I also rang his Permanent Secretary. I remind Ministers of these matters and my office does so on a regular basis. The noble Lord has been extraordinarily helpful in supporting me in so doing, as he well knows.

Important Day at Westminster

The whips are active at both ends of the Palace today. In the Commons the vote will be taken on the Government's proposals to allow, in extraordinary circumstances, detention without charge for up to 42 days. As of this morning the result is still in doubt.

In the House of Lords the Report Stage of the European Union (Amendment) Bill is due to conclude. There will be a debate, and then a vote on whether there should be a referendum. Already very high turnouts have been recorded in divisions on this bill on Monday.

There will be a very tense atmosphere at Westminster as these two key votes get nearer.


There is much concern at the moment about alcohol. Yesterday my former MP, and good friend, Sally Keeble used the 10 minute rule bill procedure to highlight some of her concerns. She told the Commons about her Bill "."to regulate prices charged for units of alcoholic drinks; to regulate point of sale promotions, advertising and labelling of alcoholic drinks; to establish an industry council to administer the regulation of prices and promotions; and for connected purposes

"The Bill aims to tackle a growing and deeply damaging phenomenon in society: the widespread abuse of alcohol and, in particular, binge drinking. It is a phenomenon that we all see in our constituencies. We see the price that our communities pay in terms of ill health, crime, damage to young people and their education and, ultimately, damage to the economy. Last year a Cambridge university study put the total economic cost of economic misuse at £33.2 billion a year, including £3.2 billion in health costs.

Alcohol misuse is an issue that we have considered frequently in the House, but so far we have tended to focus on the role of pubs and clubs. The Bill concentrates on the role of the retail industry, both supermarkets and smaller shops. There has been a growing awareness of the role of the retail trade in alcohol misuse, but there is now also a growing sense of public anger—expressed just this weekend by the chief constable of Nottinghamshire—at the deep discounting of alcohol which has caused beer to sell more cheaply than water...". Her full speech can be read in Hansard. The House agreed to the introduction of the bill without dissent.

In the House of Lords the "Alcohol Labelling Bill" will be considered (Report Stage) in the dinner break. Details of the bill may be found at http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2007-08/alcohollabellinghl.html

On Monday 23rd June Lord Avebury will "ask Her Majesty’s Government what further adjustments they will make to their alcohol harm reduction strategy, following the publication of NHS Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2008."

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Treaty of Paris

One of the bills to be considered under the suspensions procedure today is H.Res.1063. This will mark 'the 225th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris of 1783' which ended the war of Independence with Great Britain.

There is an excellent website, with masses of material on the Treaty at http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/paris/

Relations between the USA and UK have gone through good and bad times. There are some excellent books about the 'Special Relationship'.

A Special Relationship: Anglo American Relations from the Cold War to Iraq - John Dumbrell (Palgrave Macmillan)

Hug Them Close - Peter Riddell (Methuen Publishing Ltd)

Monday 9 June 2008

Climate Change Bill

The Climate Change Bill begins its Commons stages today. It has already completed its passage through the Lords. Details of the bill and its progress can be found at http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2007-08/climatechangehl.html.

Lord Rooker, at 2nd Reading in the Lords set out the background - "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published its fourth assessment report, an authoritative analysis of the current state of knowledge on the subject. Its key conclusions remind us why the need for this Bill is so pressing.

The IPCC concludes that the climate is observably warming and that this is due much more to human activity than to any naturally occurring factors. Without effective international reductions in emissions, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will continue to grow and temperatures will rise by up to 4 degrees centigrade this century. Dire consequences for food and water resources, human health, infrastructure, biodiversity and economic activity worldwide will follow and the risk of abrupt or irreversible climate change will increase. To avoid the worst of this, global emissions must peak soon and then decline rapidly. We know that this can be done. The Stern report set out clearly that doing nothing would cost far more than taking action and that early action will be easier and cheaper than action taken later. Meanwhile, we must also adapt to unavoidable changes already in the system."

Sunday 8 June 2008

The Roles of Parliament and the Judiciary

Peter Riddell published the following article in the Times recently. He raises an issue which, in my view, needs to be discussed. In recent years Judges have been playing an increasingly important role in Britain - with the development of Judicial Review; more flexible interpretation of legislation; and in applying the European Convention on Human Rights.

From The Times
May 22, 2008
It is MPs, and not the courts, who must still decide moral issues

Parliament or the judges? The most important, and least discussed, feature of this week's votes on abortion and other issues in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is that whether you like the outcomes or not the decisions were taken by our elected representatives. That would not be true elsewhere. In the United States, most key moral decisions have been taken by the Supreme Court, because Congress has been often been deadlocked between competing interests.

Just as the case of Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954 broke the logjam over racial desegregation, so the momentous Roe versus Wade ruling in 1973 enshrined women's right to abortions. It has been in the Supreme Court that the main battles over abortion have since occurred. This explains why there are such fierce Senate debates over nominations to the Supreme Court.

In other countries, such as Ireland and Switzerland, many key social questions have to be settled by a referendum.

In Britain, Parliament has settled these questions, although with the promise of referendums on constitutional issues. In the 1970s and 1980s, repeated attempts were made by anti-abortion groups to tighten the original 1967 law, but the issue was resolved, at least for 18 years, by MPs voting in 1990 on a 24-week limit. The votes on Monday and Tuesday votes are not going to end the controversy, but the Commons is where they should be decided.

The supremacy of Parliament has been qualified by growing judicial activism in interpreting legislation but are there fundamental rights that the judiciary should uphold whatever Parliament decides?

The 1998 Human Rights Act did not allow judges to strike down or annul laws, but it did give the power to issue declarations of incompatibility in cases of conflict, which the Government cannot, and has not, ignored. There have been tensions over immigration and anti-terrorism cases.
The question arises again over the proposed bill of rights or responsibilities, due to be unveiled by the Government next month, and discussed for two hours yesterday by Jack Straw and Michael Wills from the Justice Ministry at the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The high-sounding intention is to give people a clearer idea of what we can expect from the State and from each other. It will be a mixture of declaratory, deliberative and justiciable. The latter is the key point. Will references to economic and social rights lead to a flood of legal cases? Mr Straw emphasised that decisions on resource allocation, that is money, would have to remain with Parliament and, in effect, the executive. There is a fine line between symbolism and substance.

Representative democracy should remain the forum to decide how much is spent on the poor and public services, as well as moral issues such as abortion. At present, the judiciary is cautious. Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the retiring senior law lord, has given warning against “excessive innovation and adventurism by the judges”. Baroness Hale of Richmond, another law lord, told the joint committee that the courts would find the power to strike down legislation “extremely novel, quite alarming and would hesitate to use it”.

Any move towards a codified constitution would give the judges greater power in interpreting what Parliament does. These are shark-infested waters

Saturday 7 June 2008

The Week Ahead

The Irish Referendum on 12th June will be watched with interest from Westminster. The House of Lords will be spending Wednesday on the European Union (Amendment) Bill - but a No vote on Thursday will throw everything up in the air.

The House of Representatives will consider H.Res. 1063 – which would mark "the 225th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War with the Kingdom of Great Britain and recognized the independence of the United States of America, and acknowledging the shared values and close friendship between the peoples and governments of the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"

House of Representatives: http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/18WeeklyLeader06_09_08.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550
Senate: http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/legislative/d_three_sections_with_teasers/calendars.htm
Westminster: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmwib/wb080607/07.06.2008.pdf[Commons p11-14: Lords p15-16]

Friday 6 June 2008

Parliaments and Legislatures

Back from Brussels - where I was there as a 'politician' - today I am in Hull looking at politics from the point of view of an academic. The Parliaments and Legislatures Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association hold their annual conference.
The papers which will be presented and discussed are -

‘How do we create a Parliamentary convention? A fudged issue in the War Powers debate’
Humphry Crum Ewing, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

‘How the Freedom of Information Act affects Parliament: the ‘sword’ and the ‘shield’’
Benjamin Worthy, Constitution Unit, University College London.

‘A Less Expert House? The House of Lords and Welfare Policy’
Hugh Bochel and Andrew Defty, University of Lincoln.

'Legislation from an Executive Perspective'
Jeffrey Weinberg, Legislative Attorney, Office of Management and Budget, Executive Office of the President, USA.

'Parliament and the Challenge of State Funding of Political Parties in Ghana'
Cyril Nsiah, The Parliament of Ghana, Ghana.

'The Scottish Public Petitions Committee'
Richard Hough, The Scottish Parliament.

'Legislative Viscosity in the Scottish Parliament'
Steven MacGregor, University of Hull.

The website of the group can be found at http://www.psa.ac.uk/spgrp/parl/ParlLeg.asp

Thursday 5 June 2008


While I'm in Brussels visiting the European Parliament - the House of Lords will be debating a report of its European Union Committee on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy. In the introduction to the all party report the Committee says -

The 2003 reform of the Common Agricultural Policy marked the culmination of a gradual reorientation of EU farm subsidies from product support to direct income support. A mid-term “Health Check” of this reform is now underway, exploring what further adjustments may be required for the period 2009 to 2013. The initiative is a stepping-stone ahead of the 2008/09 Budget Review, which will examine all aspects of EU expenditure—including spending on the CAP, which has traditionally been the largest single item of budget expenditure.

In this report, we look ahead at what the long-term goals of the Common Agricultural Policy should be, before examining whether the preliminary reform proposals set out in the European Commission’s “Health Check” Communication would steer policy in the right direction. We then turn to the medium- and longterm future of the instruments through which the CAP is delivered, exploring how these should be adapted for the period after 2013, when the current financial settlement expires.

We conclude that—with a limited number of exceptions—the Commission’s proposals for short-term adjustments to the CAP merit support. However, we are not convinced of the long-term justification for maintaining direct subsidy payments in their present form. We consequently advocate a phased reduction in direct payments over the course of the next financial period beginning in 2014. In order to facilitate an orderly transition, we recommend that a significant
proportion of the funds released should remain earmarked for the CAP, but be spent on the rural development element of the policy rather than on farm subsidies. We do not envisage a Common Rural Policy, but rather an EU-level framework defining admissible uses for EU rural development funds, ruling out measures that might lead to distortions in the Single Market for agricultural commodities.

In the course of our report, we also address the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the EU agriculture industry. We note that the sector is a significant contributor to climate change, while at the same time being particularly vulnerable to its effects. Climate change may nevertheless present a business opportunity for the industry, which is uniquely placed to deliver environmental services.

We observe that soaring global demand for many agricultural commodities has allowed some sectors of the European farming industry to prosper, while others are grappling with rising input prices and stagnant or falling output prices. Were supply shortages to ensue in future, we expect that food scarcity would be a function of income rather than of production capacity. In our view, those most at risk are therefore consumers on low incomes in the developing world.

We strongly support further trade liberalization in the agriculture sector, but note that if direct payments are withdrawn and import tariffs reduced—as the UK Government advocates—then the production standards that EU producers of agricultural goods are obliged to meet should be re-examined.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

The European Parliament

Today I am in Brussels, visiting the European Parliament. While the institutions of the European Union are outside the remit of this blog, perhaps a little background may be useful in understanding an important influence on British law and politics.

The European Parliament is directly elected. In Britain, MEPs are elected from each region, where parties put forward a list. I'll be on the Labour Party list for the East Midlands in 2009.

European Law is binding on all members states. The two major forms of legislation are Regulations and Directives. Both are proposed by the Commission, and must be approved by both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. (Note: there are a number of legislative procedures - the applicable one for any measure depends upon the Treaty Article which is the authority for the legislation. I have described the most important procedure - but others might apply). Regulations become part of national law without the need for further implementation by Member States, while directives are binding as to the result to be achieved
but the means of implementation are up to the individual states.

The Parliament has increased its importance over time. It is the only institution directly elected by the people of Europe. The website can be found at

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Whips in the House of Representatives

The reason for my visit to Washington last month, was to do further research on whips in Congress. The whip in the House of Representatives has a very informative website. A list of the senior whips for the majority Democrats can be found at http://majoritywhip.house.gov/whip_team/
The majority whip is James Clyburn. A profile can be found at http://majoritywhip.house.gov/about/
The minority whip is Roy Blunt. The Republican website can be found at http://republicanwhip.house.gov/

Monday 2 June 2008

BERR Day in the House of Lords

Today in the House of Lords, legislation put forward by BERR - the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (previously the DTI)

There will be a motion (which should take just moments) that it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Energy Bill has been committed that they consider the bill in the following order:Clauses 1 to 36; Schedule 1; Clauses 37 to 41; Schedule 2; Clauses 42 to 74; Schedule 3; Clauses 75 to 96; Schedule 4; Clause 97; Schedule 5; Clauses 98 to 102. [the Committee stage will be taken in the Moses Room from 12th June]

Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [HL] Third Reading

Employment Bill [HL] Third Reading
BERR is headed by its Secretary of State, John Hutton. Its other Ministers are
- Minister of State (Business and Regulatory Reform) - Lord Jones of Birmingham
- Minister of State (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs) Mr Pat McFadden MP
- Minister of State (Energy) Malcolm Wicks MP
- Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Competitiveness, Deregulation and British Business Council)
Baroness Vadera
- Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Trade and Consumer Affairs - also in the Department for International Development) Mr Gareth Thomas MP
The Department's website can be found at http://www.berr.gov.uk/index.html