Thursday 18 December 2008

Recess Begins

Westminster is due to finish its business today - and then go into recess for Christmas. Washminster will also be taking a break and (barring any major news developments) will not have any new posts until New Years Eve.

Have a merry Christmas - and I look forward to welcoming you back on December 31st.

Best wishes


Wednesday 17 December 2008

How Laws Originate

Often we can concentrate too much on the formal legislative process. The House of Lords European Union Select Committee has published this year a useful report on the initiation of EU legislation. It's a useful guide for anyone wanting to know how the European Union works in practice - and will of course be invaluable to law and politics students - but we can all learn...

The report is available in full at -

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Christmas with Capitol Steps

If you've been reading Washminster for some time, you'll know that I am a great fan of 'Capitol Steps' - a group who now perform regularly in Washington DC and elsewhere - but who began as a group of congressional staffers poking fun at their bosses. When I was in Alexandria during the election I discovered the office while walking to the campaign office.
Over Christmas why not listen to some of their humour? Go to http://www.capsteps.com/ and listen to Christmas numbers such as "Why's the Army Frisking Santa Claus?"; "Jingo All The Way".

Every year they do a live New Years Eve broadcast!

Monday 15 December 2008

More Political Humour on Blackadder

In the third series of Blackadder - an episode "Dish and Dishonesty" makes some humourous observations on the state of Parliament in the period before the great Reform Act. Enjoy!

Sunday 14 December 2008

The Bishop of Bath & Wells

It's difficult living with a title made famous by an outrageous comedy. The new Bishop of Bath and Wells joined the House of Lords earlier this month. Episode 4 of Blackadder II centres around an earlier (fictional) bishop.

The current Bishop told peers in his maiden speech -

"In the aftermath of the “Blackadder”television series, there are always perils for the bishops of Bath and Wells. I am constantly reminded of the alleged activities of one of my predecessors as a baby eater, as well as doing unmentionable things with a red hot poker. Entering your Lordships’ House has proved no exception, and the greeting from the Doorkeeper on my first day referring to these matters was capped only by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark seeing my five week-old granddaughter arrive and remarking, “The Bishop has brought his own lunch”".

Saturday 13 December 2008

The Week Ahead

Parliament has its last week before the recess - The Commons will be holding debates, while in the Lords legislation begins its progress - full details can be found at http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/2008/12/15/week.html

In the USA the mess left over from last week needs to be sorted out!

Friday 12 December 2008

Private Members Bills - Ballot Results

The 20 MPs successful in the ballot were as follows (in order):

Mrs Cheryl Gillan
Mr David Heath
Mr Lindsay Hoyle
Peter Luff
Dr Evan Harris
Malcolm Wicks
Mr Peter Ainsworth
David Mundell
Mrs Jacqui Lait
Sir Paul Beresford
Mr Stephen Crabb
Mrs Caroline Spelman
Mr Jeremy Browne
Mr Jim Cunningham
Mr Tim Boswell
Mr Russell Brown
Mr Charles Kennedy
Philip Davies
John Bercow
Mr Michael Mates

Standing Order 14

(4) Private Members’ bills shall have precedence over
government business on thirteen Fridays in each session to be
appointed by the House.
(5) On and after the eighth Friday on which private Members’
bills have precedence, such bills shall be arranged on the order
paper in the following order—
consideration of Lords amendments, third readings,
consideration of reports not already entered upon,
adjourned proceedings on consideration, bills in
progress in committee, bills appointed for committee,
and second readings.
(6) The ballot for private Members’ bills shall be held on the
second Thursday on which the House shall sit during the
session under arrangements to be made by the Speaker, and
each bill shall be presented by the Member who has given
notice of presentation or by another Member named by him in
writing to the Clerks at the Table, at the commencement of
public business on the fifth Wednesday on which the House
shall sit during the session.

What are the key issues in Foreign Policy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean described - in one succinct sentence, the key questions of foreign policy -

"what is happening in other people’s countries and
how much we intervene through the encouragement of some,
the criticism of others,
or, frankly, direct action when we feel the need"

It would be hard to better this useful summary.
Baroness Symons served as a Minister for eight years; including six in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and two in the Ministry of Defence.

Thursday 11 December 2008

The Inauguration

Less than 40 days to go (a friend brought me one of the very popular countdown clocks - which I keep at my bedside). For the latest information on the cermony itself - and associated events visit the official website at http://inaugural.senate.gov/.

Now's the time to be planning your own party to coincide with and celebrate the occasion!

Below are two videos of an inspirational Inauguration.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Missing Voters

In the UK voter registration is compulsory - and should be close to complete coverage as is possible. However there are a number of reasons why some people are not registered. Once a year all residential propeties should be sent a form for completition by one member of the household for everyone in that living unit. In areas of high turnover this may be overlooked - or the property occupied after the 'survey'.

In a recent written answer the House of Commons was told that the Electoral Commission's 2005 report, Understanding Electoral Registration, contains the most recent national estimate for non-registration for England and Wales. The percentage of the eligible household population not on the register at 15 October 2000 was estimated to be between 8 per cent. and 9 per cent., which was equivalent to approximately 3.5 million people.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Parliamentary Privilege

The House of Commons Library has produced an informative 'Standard note' on Parliamentary privilege and individual members. It is available at - http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04905.pdf

"All men have their price"

This quote is from Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of England. Actually the way it is normally quoted gives the wrong sense of his words. He was overheard saying "All these men have their price - except the little Cornish baronet". He was referring to Sir John St Aubyn (1699 (poss 1702) - 1744, the third Baronet of Clowance. The St Aubyn family represented various Cornish constitutencies over the centuries. When Walpole fell from power the House of Commons set up a committee to inquire into Walpole's ministry, but no substantial evidence of wrongdoing or corruption was discovered. St Aubyn was elected to that Select Committee by unanimous agreement of the whole House of Commons.

I discovered all this while researching Clowance, where we will soon be spending a few days holiday.

More on St John St Aubyn -

Monday 8 December 2008

Constitutional Reform

Pre-legislative scrutiny has become an increasingly important part of Parliament's work. In the last session one piece of proposed legislation considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses was the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. (Report at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200708/jtselect/jtconren/166/166.pdf).

There was no mention in the Queen's Speech about a full bill being introduced this session, but the Queen did say "My Government will continue to take forward proposals on constitutional renewal, including strengthening the role of Parliament and other measures." Baroness Royall, Leader of the House of Lords told peers in the subsequent debate "We will continue to work on measures aimed at improving our democracy and our constitution."

The draft bill had six parts, each dealing with issues raised in the Government's Governance of Britain programme. Key matters include abolishing the provisions covered by sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime & Police Act 2005 concerning demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament; The role of the Attorney General; the removal of the involvement of the Lord Chancellor in lower level judicial appointments; parliamentary consideration of treaties before ratification; and the placing of the Civil Service on a statutory basis - with codes of conduct.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Complaints about Members of the House of Lords

Since 2002 there has been a Code of Conduct which has set out a number of rules for the conduct of Members of the House of Lords, which relates, amongst other things to the registration and declaration of interests.

The first complaints were slow in coming, but a few have now been made, and so the Committee for Privileges has decided to propose more detailed guidance for the making and consideration of complaints. Essentially, complaints will initially be sifted by the Registrar of Interests - and manifestly frivolous complaints or those outside the scope of the Code will be rejected. Remaining complaints will be given a more detailed assessment by the Chair of the Sub-Committee on Lords Interests. He will make a recommendation to the Sub-Committee who can investigate the matter further - inviting a response from the member to the complaint made.

Remedial action may be agreed, or the Sub-Committee may pursue the matter further, ultimately reporting to the Committee of Privileges.

Saturday 6 December 2008

More on the CVC

I loved this story - some people are complaining that the Capitol Visitors Center is "left-leaning" (No, not that it is in danger of toppling over - but is 'too liberal'). Read the piece in the Washington Post -

The Week Ahead

Debates on the Queen's speech will continue and conclude in both Houses at Westminster. The debate on the motion to establish a Speaker’s Committee on the search of offices on the Parliamentary Estate will be discussed (not doubt in a lively manner!) on Monday. The full business can seen accessed at http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/2008/12/08/week.html

A second "lame duck session" is expected in Congress. Details of the House arrangements can be found at http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/27WeeklyLeader12_08_08.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550. The Senate calendar for Monday is available at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=senate_calendar&docid=sc001.pdf

Friday 5 December 2008

Capitol Visitors Center

The CVC finally opened this week - Eight and a half years since building began - and over three years late. At nearly 580,000 square feet, the CVC is the largest building project in the Capitol’s history and is approximately three quarters the size of the Capitol itself.

The purpose of the Center is to provide the public with an informative starting point for tours of the Capitol - but also to provide more facilities - such as an exhibition hall; gift shops; and orientation theatres.

A new website is available about the Center - and visiting Congress - http://www.visitthecapitol.gov/

Thursday 4 December 2008

Parliamentary Approval for Deploying the Armed Forces

The House of Commons Library has published an excellent Research Paper introducing the issues involved in Parliament's approval for the deployment of the armed forces - which is likely to be part of the constitutional reforms given effect this session.

The paper begins which some useful definitions and explanations of the Royal Prerogative.

The Paper is available at

The first days of a new session

The first few days of a session are spent by both Houses of the UK Parliament debating the Queen's Speech. The first part of this occured yesterday afternoon with the proposer and seconder of a motion -

"That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign, We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom and Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."

The first two speeches are by tradition humourous. Then the serious business begins. The Leader of the Opposition spoke first and the debate will continue into next week. Each day's debate in each House deals with particular subject areas. The details can be found at http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Video about the Queen's Speech

The Lord Speaker has made a video about the State Opening of Parliament -

A timetable of events is available at - http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/occasions/stateopening/timetable.cfm

The New Session

The Queen opens the new session of Parliament this morning. Each session lasts for about one year - usually running from one November to the next. The only exceptions are when a session is ended early because a General Election is called, and the subsequent first session may be extended until the November in the year following the General Election.

This is the 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom. However unlike most legislatures - as with the US Congress [the 111th Congress will begin on 3rd January] - Parliaments are more usually referred to by the year of their election - so most people will call this the 2008-09 (or 4th) session of the 2005 Parliament.
State Openings of Parliament involve many references to history. The cellars of the Palace of Westminster are ceremonially searched by the Yeomen of the Guard led by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Lords (who has the title of the Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeoman of the Guard). This relives the search which discovered Guy Fawkes in 1605. There will be a proper search undertaken by the police too.
When 'Black Rod' is sent by the Queen to summon the House of Commons, his approach to the House is marked by the slamming of the door in his face. Only after knocking three times is the door reopened to him. This is an assertion by the Commons of its independence - they initially refuse entrance to the Queen's messenger - and then when summoned amble over to the Lords, chatting loudly.
A hostage is held at Buckingham Palace pending the Queen's safe return. Normally this is the Vice Chamberlain of Her Majesty's household, one of the senior whips in the House of Commons (currently Claire Ward MP)
Graham Allen MP once described the experience to the BBC "I am also held hostage once a year when the Queen opens Parliament pending her safe return. If by some chance she is executed or spirited away by MPs, I have my head removed from the rest of my body. Fortunately, the two times I've been held hostage it hasn't happened. It is very onerous, I sit in a comfortable chair, drink a gin and tonic and eat sausages on sticks. I sit with the Queen's private secretary, the Duke of Edinburgh's private secretary and the Princess Royal's private secretary and various ladies in waiting and watch the Queen's Speech on television."
A pdf file on the State Opening is available at http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/HofLstateopening.pdf

Monday 1 December 2008

Why it Matters!

I'm not a big fan of Damien Green. I object to Tory civil servants (who are supposed to be neutral in the performance of their job) leaking information just to embarass the political party they personally don't think should be governing...


The arrest and search of Damien Green raises important issues central to Parliament. At the heart of the struggles between the Crown and Parliament in history was the fight over an MP's ability to act and speak without fear of intimidation by the Executive. It is at the heart of the ceremonies surrounding the State Opening of Parliament which takes place on Wednesday. When Black Rod approaches the Commons the door will be slammed in his face - and only after knocking 3 times will he be allowed to enter. It was the attempt by Charles I to arrest some MPs which was thwarted by the Speaker - which lies behind this Commons tradition.

One of the ancient privileges of MPs is freedom from arrest. This doesn't cover arrest for criminal activity - but for the enforcement of civil debt. However, when an MP is arrested - or the police want to search his offices - the Speaker is informed - and it would be a contempt of Parliament for the police to search an Mp's office without the permission of the Speaker.

I agree with those MPs who are outraged at what has happened. The Speaker should have declined permission - constituents should expect that their mail to MPs cannot be read. MPs should not have to fear police raids and arrest whilst carrying out their parliamentary activities. That is why in almost every parliament, including Congress, these rights are protected and fiercely defended.