Thursday 31 December 2009

Seeing 2009 Out - and 2010 in

Today sees the exit of a year few have loved. It has been a difficult year for Congress - where business has been slow to move - and for the Westminster Parliament - which has seen scandal shake both the Lords and Commons. The European Parliament saw a quieter year - though for MEPs who lost their seats in the June election, they had their own traumatic year.

During a year we lost a number of political figures - including

UK Parliament
- Lady (Nora) David
- Lord (Ralph) Dahrendorf
- Lord (Peter) Blaker
- Lord Kingsland (Sir Christopher Prout)
- David Taylor
- Clement Freud
- John McWilliam

US Congress
- Ted Kennedy
- Claiborne Pell
- Jack Kemp

- Robert McNamara
- Walter Cronkite
- Jack Jones
- Jody Powell
- Ron Silver

What will 2010 bring? The New Year will be seen in at my home in Milton Keynes; in London; in Washington DC; and in Brussels. Follow the links for more details.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

The Questions - Europe 2010

Washminster is extending its coverage to "Europe" in 2010. Not only will transatlantic issues be considered - but the working of the institutions of the EU and other European bodies (NATO, Council of Europe, OSCE) - and particularly the European Parliament (the only directly elected institution within the EU) - will be discussed.

The Lisbon Treaty has now come into force. This gives a greater role to the European Parliament within the EU legislative system. (Further details here). The Parliament began life as a talking shop - it was the Council of Ministers which was the legislative body. The Commission would propose legislation, and the Council (made up of members of national Executives) who decided if the proposed legislation would be passed, amended or blocked. Over a series of treaties the Parliament increased its role - so now - for almost all matters - the Parliament is co-legislator. This year will see how the Parliament rises to the challenges of its increased powers.

In January the Parliament will hold hearings with the nominees for the new Commisssion. This will be held between 11th & 19th January. A vote on the Commission will be held around 1pm (noon, GMT - 07.00am) on Tuesday 26th January.

While it was elected in 2009 for a five year period - national elections will impact the makeup of the Parliament. MEPs who are appointed to ministerial office at home must resign their seats. The list systems in operation mean that by-elections (special elections) are not required, the next available person on the party list takes over. [Hence, theoretically, I could become an MEP before 2014 - should Glenis Willmott stand down (and Roy Kennedy and Kathy Salt either be unable to take her place - or themselves subsequently stand down from the parliament) - a very unlikely scenario!].

As with parliaments around the world - the economy; energy security and consumer rights are likely to be key issues in 2010.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

The Questions USA 2010

General Elections are less frequent in the UK than the US (may be famous last words if the forthcoming election is inconclusive!). 2010 will see mid term elections at the Federal level in the USA. All seats in the House of Representatives are up for election (though not all may be contested!) - and a third of Senate seats. In addition there will be state and local elections. Unlike the UK, election day is already set - it will be on Tuesday November 2nd.

What will the key questions be for followers of the US Congress?

111th Congress - the battles of the first session will continue into 2010 - with the added effect of an election looming ever nearer. Will the Republicans intensify their policy of obstruction? Will there be renewed attempts by some to promote bipartisanship, or will partisan strife intensify? What will the effect of the last year be on the unity (or otherwise) of the parties?

Congressional Elections - who will the voters punish? Will there be more successful third party candidates? How will the results affect the working of Congress? (as we have seen this year the need for supermajorities is important in order to progress with and pass legislation).

The Relationships between the different branches of Government - a system based on the separation of powers depends upon those relationships for its effectiveness. How will the relationships work in 2010?

Washminster will be be publised in Washington for part of January. I hope you will regularly visit this blog as the answers to these questions are considered here in 2010.

Monday 28 December 2009

The Questions - UK 2010

Welcome back to Washminster after its Christmas break. I hope you had an enjoyable holiday - and are geared up for the coming new year!

2010 promises to be a very interesting year in British politics. Thanks to the Septennial Act (yes only the British could base their five year limit on Parliaments on a statute named for Seven years - the Act passed in 1715 which limited Parliament to 7 year terms was amended (rather than repealed and replaced) by the Parliament Act 1911 - which says in s7 "Five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act 1715") - there will be a General Election, with a new Parliament elected. The high number of announcements of retirements at the election will mean that the new Parliament will have a very different cast of characters from those we have known to date.

So what are the key questions for followers of the British Parliament?

The General Election Campaign - what will be the defining issues? Will this be fought on policy issues? or personalities? Will the campaigns include real discussions of positive ideas and policies - or will we see throwing of dirt and personal insults?

The Election Result - what will the makeup of the new House of Commons be? Will we finally get to see a hung Parliament? (In 1974 although no party got an overall majority, a new minority Labour Government was formed - and a second election held seven months later - a small majority was gained but soon the Government was dependant upon support from minority parties)? Will Labour fight back to win a fourth term in Government? or will the Tories return to power after 13 years? How much will each of the parties change withinn 2010? (being in Government or Opposition after the election could have a major impact on the parties - would Cameron survive failing to win the election? (would we be asking if the Tories had become unelectable?) or will warfare erupt within a defeated Labour Party?

New MPs - what will the class of 2010 be like - and how will it change the atmosphere and ethos of Westminster?

Parliamentary Reform - will the aftermath of the catastrophic events of 2009 lead to reform - or will they die a death? What will happen to Lords reform? Will the method of choosing members of both the Commons and Lords change?

Much to think about - I hope you'll continue to follow Washminster as the answers emerge.

Sunday 27 December 2009

David Taylor MP

It was with particular sadness that I heard of the unexpected death of David Taylor, Member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire. David was a good friend, and an MP for whom I had the greatest respect. He was a extremely hard worker for his constituents - and always stood up for what he believed in. I will miss him greatly. My condolences to his family - and to all those who will be very upset at the loss of our friend.

Gordon Brown paid tribute to Mr Taylor, describing him as "one of the most hard working MPs locally and nationally".

Other tributes to him include

Thursday 17 December 2009

Christmas Recess

Parliament has now gone into recess for Christmas. I too will be taking a few days break to celebrate with the family. Washminster will return on 28th December. May I wish you an enjoyable holiday.


Wednesday 16 December 2009

Why the Norman Porch?

The State Opening of Parliament is a grand occasion. Driven in a Coach from her residence at Buckingham Palace, the Queen is met at the Sovereign’s Entrance by the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain. After ascending the Royal Staircase she crosses the Norman Porch before entering the Robing Room.

I usually invite visitors to tell me why this area is known as the 'Norman' porch. It is hard to work out. The architectural style is clearly not Norman. There are no paintings of the Norman Kings - or even their coats of arms (the coats of arms of the saxon Kings are on the wall alongside the Royal Staircase). The busts are of Prime Ministers who were or became Peers.

The answer is that the original plan was to place busts of the Norman Kings in this area. It was never done - but the name remained.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

New Washminster

In the New Year Washminster will be increasing its coverage. At the moment the main theme is "Practice and Procedure in the UK Parliament and US Congress". The European Parliament - and Europe generally (especially with an eye to transatlantic relations) will be added to Washminster's scope.

In January Washminster (which is usually written at my home in Milton Keynes or at Westminster) will for a short period be written in Washington DC. I will have my trusty videocam with me - and hope to share with you insights into Congress as well as the great city itself.

While this blog is designed to be non-partisan - I do welcome contributions which can be posted on this site arguing for specific proposals (particularly, but not exclusively) on parliamentary or congressional reform ['Guest Pieces']. You can submit a guest piece via email.

House Armed Services Committee

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 – 2:00pm – HVC 210 – Open

The Full Committee will meet to mark up H. Res. 924 - Directing the Secretary of Defense to transmit to the House of Representatives copies of any document, record, memo, correspondence, or other communication of the Department of Defense, or any portion of such communication, that refers or relates to the trial or detention of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarek Bin 'Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, or Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi

Monday 14 December 2009

The Robing Room

Last week I attended a Hansard Society meeting held in the Robing Room of the House of Lords. This magnificant room is where the Queen is robed before she walks through the Royal Gallery, the Princes' Chamber, and into the Chamber of the House of Lords. There she delivers the 'Queen's Speech' which marks the start of a new session.

We were asked to arrive early, which gave me an opportunity to enjoy a longer appreciation of the room than I usually have when escorting visitors to the Palace.

At the eastern end of the room is the throne upon which the Queen sits whilst the Imperial State Crown is placed on her head. A fireplace adorns the western end.

The paintings (in fact 'frescos') dominate the otherwise wood panelled room. William Dyce was responsible for these. They show scenes from the legend of King Arthur to illustrate the Christian virtues (hospitality, generosity, mercy, religion and courtesy). The scheme to fill three sides of the room (the fourth has windows looking towards Victoria Tower Gardens) with such frescoes was never completed. It is said that due to the dampness in the winter (the Palace lies alongside the Thames) Dyce was only able to paint directly onto the walls in the summer months. As a result the frescoes of fidelity and courage were never done - Dyce died! The panels are instead filled by framed paintings of Victoria and Albert. Below the frescoes are dark wooden panels, again illustating events from the Arthurian legends.

After the House of Commons was destroyed by bombing in 1941, the Chamber of the House of Lords was used by MPs. Their Lordships moved into the Robing Room until the new Commons Chamber was opened in 1950.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Oh Christmas Tree....

From the US Congress (via The Hill)

And from Parliament (sadly the 2008 tree - no videos yet of the 2009 tree)

Saturday 12 December 2009

Congressional Retirees

Yesterday Washminster linked to the current list of British MPs standing down in the UK's General Election due in 2010. The November elections in the USA will also see a number of retirees.

Roll Call magazine regularly publishes its "Casualty List". This weeks list has the following statistics -

9 Congressmen (4 Dems & 5 Repubs) are standing down from the House to run for the Senate.
9 Congressmen (2D, 7R) are standing down to run for other offices - plus 1 Republican Senator.
3 Congressmen plan to retire (all Democrats) and 7 Senators (3D, 4R)

Running for Senate

Roy Blunt R-Mo
Mike Castle R-Del
Paul Hodes D-NH
Mark Kirk R-Ill
Kendrick Meek D-Fla
Charlie Melancon D-La
Jerry Moran R-Kan
Joe Sestak D-PA
Todd Tiahrt R-Kan

Running for Other Office

Neil Abercrombie D-Hawaii
Gresham Barrett R-SC
Artur Davis D-Ala
Nathan Deal R-GA
Mary Fallin R-OK
Jim Gerlach R-PA
Pete Hoekstra R-Mich
Adam Putnam R-Fla
Zach Wamp R-TN
Senator Sam Brownback R-Kan


Dennis Moore D-Kan
John Tanner D-TN
Brian Baird D-Wash
Senator Kit Bond R-MO
Senator Jim Bunning R-KY
Senator Roland Burris D-Ill
Senator Judd Gregg R-NH
Senator Ted Kaufman D-Del
Senator Paul Kirk D-Mass
Senator George Voinovich R-Ohio

Friday 11 December 2009

MPs Standing Down

The latest list of MPs who have announced their intention to retire at the coming General Election can be found here. This list is regularly updated. Michael Crick has also written on the issue - and he is responsible for the graph showing retirees at each General Election since 1945. That year was exceptional since the 37th Parliament of the United Kingdom had lasted 10 years (extended because of World War Two). It now seems likely that the 2010 Election will see more retirees since that date.

Many well known names will be absent from the 55th Parliament - some as a result of the Expenses scandal, but many are choosing to stand down after long service. 1997 held the previous post 1945 record for retirees - at the end of 18 years of a Conservative Government.

Washminster will be looking at some of the probable new intake during the coming months.

Thursday 10 December 2009

The House of Lords

Yesterday evening I attended a lecture by the Lord Speaker, Baroness Hayman, entitled "Ermine, Ethics and Engagement: Evolution in the House of Lords".

The background to the challenge faced by the House of Lords as a result of the dramatic loss of confidence in Parliament during the last year was set out. The new code of conduct; rules on Peers expenses and procedures were described.

An important point was made by Baroness Hayman "We do not want a House of Lords in which only the retired and privately wealthy are able to participate". She said later that putting the House in order is necessary but not sufficient. The House must find ways of doing its job better AND engaging with the public.

Many proposals for reform were raised. This is a speech which anyone interested in the House of Lords - and its future - should read. BBC Parliament plan to broadcast the speech at 9pm UK time on Saturday (further details) The Hansard Society who organised the lecture have previously placed audio of earlier lectures on their website. I hope that they will do the same for this speech shortly. The text is available here.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Written Ministerial Statements

It's worth keeping an eye on Hansard - not just for what was said in the Chamber - but for the Written Ministerial Statements. You can see the details of last Thursday's WMSs here.

It was practice before 2002 for written questions to be used for important, but not major,statements to be made. The most important were, and still are, made to the Chamber itself - allowing the opportunity for further questioning. A government backbencher would be asked to put down the written question - which became the vehicle for the statement. Such "planted" questions became unnecessary when a new system was introduced which gave a special section in Hansard to Written Ministerial Statements.

In the Order Paper which appears on the day the WMS is to appear - notice is given. This appeared at the end of Tuesday's Order of Business

Written Ministerial Statements to be made today

1 Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: Financial support to students.
2 Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer: Northern Rock plc.
3 Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government: Local government.
4 Secretary of State for Defence: Afghanistan—Aircraft deployment to ISAF.
5 Secretary of State for Health: Healthy Children, Safer Communities: A strategy.
6 Secretary of State for the Home Department: Justice and Home Affairs Post-Council statement.
7 Secretary of State for the Home Department: Autumn Performance Report 2009.
8 Secretary of State for Work and Pensions: Making choice and control a reality for disabled people: Government response to the consultation on the Right to Control.

According to Parliament's website: WMS are often used to provide or announce:

Detailed information and statistics from the government.
The publication of reports by government agencies.
Findings of reviews and inquiries and the government's response.
Financial and statistical information.
Procurement issues.
Procedure and policy initiatives of government departments

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Milton Keynes

It’s not by design – but I have always lived in key marginal seats. I spent my teenage years in Aldridge- Brownhills, a seat that was held by Labour with a tiny majority. As an adult I have lived in Northampton North (whichever party won that seat formed the government) and Rugby (the 15th most vulnerable Conservative seat after 2005 – after they took it from Labour). This year I moved to Milton Keynes – where both seats are highly marginal.

The Unitary District of Milton Keynes contains two parliamentary seats. Both were won by Labour in 1997, but the North East Division was taken by Mark Lancaster for the Tories in 2005 with a majority of just 1,665 (3.3%). The boundaries will change for the coming election. It is estimated that if the 2005 election had been fought on the new boundaries, Labour would have had a majority of 848 (1.71%). Central Milton Keynes – which includes the shopping centre; Snowdome; Railway Station (which doubled for the UN Building in the film Superman IV) and the theatre district are in this constituency. It includes the railway town of Wolverton; the historic town of Newport Pagnell and the rural area bordering Northamptonshire. It is reported to have the lowest proportion of pensioners outside London. It is more middle class than MK South – and there is much wealth in the rural areas – but some of the urban areas have great diversity. This is a seat that Mark Lancaster would hope to hold. His Labour rival is Andrew Pakes. The Liberal Democrats have performed well in recent local elections. Their candidate is Jill Hope.

Labour is stronger in the South Division, where the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, Dr Phyllis Starkey won with 4,010 in 2005. However the boundary changes deprive her of Campbell Park, Middleton and Wolverton. Her notional 2005 result would have been a wafer thin 1,497 (3.0%). The Open University is based in the seat. Bletchley is the main older area – and home of Bletchley Park – the codebreaking centre in World War Two. The Tory candidate will be Iain Stewart and the Lib Dems will no doubt put up a candidate - but I have been unable to find any details of a selected candidate.

Monday 7 December 2009

Westminster Whip

Lord Davies of Oldham, the Government's Deputy Chief Whip in the House of Lords contrasts the role of whips in the two chambers of the Westminster Parliament - and describes his work.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Parliament in an anti-politics age

The Speaker of the House of Commons gave this year's Hansard Society/Political Studies Association Lecture. Sadly I missed it, due to my teaching commitments at Leicester University. However, the Hansard Society recorded the speech and an audio recording is available here. The House of Commons has released the text which can be read here.

Towards the beginning of his speech he says - "It is a cruel paradox that at a time when MPs have never worked harder, their standing has rarely been lower. Let me be brutally honest about the scale of what has occurred.

I cannot think of a single year in the recent history of Parliament when more damage has been done to it than this year, with the possible exception of when Nazi bombs fell on the chamber in 1941.

The difference is that the physical wreckage then was done by dictators whereas responsibility for the reputational carnage inflicted this year lies with the House."

The speech contains both a diagnosis of the problems - and suggestions for the way ahead. As with yesterday's post I would appreciate any comments you have to make.

Further information is available about the sponsors of this annual event.

Friday 4 December 2009

Time Magazine - The Diagnosis

If you haven't yet read Andy Serwer's excellent article in Time Magazine, I recommend that you buy a copy & read it. It's a thought provoking piece for reflection upon.

Below I reproduce part of the article - which highlights our collective responsibility for the troubles that have arisen in this decade. The question I pose is - how should Congress and Parliament respond? With important elections coming in 2010 this question needs answering. I'd be happy to share your comments through this blog - either use the comments link or email to me.

"In large part, we have ourselves to blame. If you look at the underlying causes of some of the most troubling developments of the decade, you can see some striking common denominators. The raft of financial problems, our war with radical Islam, the collapse of GM and much of our domestic auto industry and even the devastation brought about by Katrina all came about at least in part or were greatly exacerbated by:

Neglect. Our inward-looking culture didn't heed the warning signs from around the world — and from within our own country — that Islamic terrorism was heading for our shores.

Greed. Our absolute faith in the markets, fed by Wall Street, combined with the declawing of our regulators to undermine our financial system.

Self-interest. The auto industry disintegrated while management and labor tangoed from one bad contract to the next, ignoring their customers and their competition, aided and abetted by their respective politicians.

Deferral of responsibility. Our power grid needs an upgrade and our bridges are falling down because we have not mustered the political and popular willpower to fix them. New Orleans drowned because authorities failed to act before Katrina busted the inadequate levees.

It was almost as if we as a nation said in previous decades, "Why do today what we can put off until the first decade of the 21st century?" But we didn't rise to those challenges. What we just lived through, then, was the chickens coming home to roost.

Take the vexing and costly war we are waging against al-Qaeda and its ilk. This is a conflict that was barely on the radar in the 1990s — which is exactly the problem. By most accounts, Osama bin Laden founded his organization sometime between 1988 and 1990. The U.S., in part, helped create this loathsome band itself by funding the mujahedin, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and provided much of the training for bin Laden's foot soldiers. But our friendly freedom fighters turned into foes. In 1992 al-Qaeda bombed a hotel in Yemen, hoping to kill American Marines bound for Somalia. Then came the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993. Three years later, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel. In 1996 and 1998, bin Laden issued fatwas calling for Muslims to rise up and kill Americans. Making good on bin Laden's word, al-Qaeda blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in synchronized attacks on Aug. 7, 1998, killing almost 300, including 12 Americans. In October 2000, terrorists struck again, bombing the destroyer U.S.S. Cole in Yemen and killing 17 service members.

After all that, should 9/11 have been a surprise? There were those who saw what was coming, most notably FBI agent John O'Neill, who perished during the attack on the World Trade Center and whose story is eloquently told in Lawrence Wright's masterly book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Time and time again O'Neill warned his superiors that al-Qaeda was readying a big strike, only to be marginalized, causing him to leave the bureau. Another prescient voice was that of Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, whose book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order suggested that culture and religion would be the sources of conflict in the post–Cold War world. Huntington didn't limit this to war between the West and Islam, though he did single out "Islamic civilization" as potentially having significant friction points with the West because of its population explosion and the rise of religious fundamentalism.

Our economic narcissism was certainly the culprit in the devastation wrought by financial markets, which have subjected us to an increasingly frequent series of crashes, frauds and recessions. To a great degree, this was brought about by a lethal combination of irresponsible deregulation and accommodating monetary policies instituted by the Federal Reserve. Bankers and financial engineers had an unsupervised free-market free-for-all just as the increased complexity of financial products — e.g., derivatives — screamed out for greater regulation or at least supervision. Enron, for instance, was a bastard child of a deregulated utilities industry and a mind-bending financial alchemy.

Historian H.W. Brands of the University of Texas points to the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 as an unfortunate tipping point of deregulation. Glass-Steagall, passed in 1933, separated investment banking and plain-vanilla banking, which some experts argued made markets safer. (Certain restrictions of Glass-Steagall were repealed to allow the merger of Citicorp and Travelers. Let's just say that didn't end well.) "That was the single moment when the seeds for the bad stuff were planted," says Brands. "There was a belief that technology, the Internet and financial instruments had changed things, and the ones selling this idea and these instruments were making a lot of money."

Another proximate cause were new loosey-goosey borrowing rules (if they can be called that) that allowed the likes of Bear Stearns and Lehman to pile $30 of debt onto each $1 of capital. The chief executives of these firms argued vociferously for the right to greater leverage and vociferously against regulating derivatives because, they claimed, unfettered markets were more efficient. Yes, it was the unfettered use of leverage and derivatives that destroyed their companies and wreaked havoc on the rest of us.

Companies go belly-up all the time, but in this decade there were an inordinate number of bankruptcies. The creative destruction of the Internet had a part in this. While the Web opened up new worlds and created thousands of jobs at Amazon, Google and the like, it displaced workers at travel and government agencies, at newspapers and magazines and at stores like Circuit City and Tower Records — traditional distribution points for services, information and goods. Economists call that disintermediation.

But when we're talking about auto giants GM and Chrysler, both of which imploded after years of complicity and ineptitude by GM management and the United Auto Workers (UAW), it's more like disintegration. The UAW organized both GM and Chrysler in early 1937 — Henry Ford famously held out four more years. For decades, particularly under the leadership of Walter Reuther, who headed the union from 1946 until his death in 1970, it was able to win concessions from the automakers, bringing its members into the middle class. As long as demand for autos grew in the post–WW II halcyon days, relations between the unions and the automakers were basically quiescent.

And therein lies the problem. For years the UAW and the Big Three — now dwindled to the Detroit Three — operated an unholy alliance. Management would pile on wage hikes and perks, and in return (wink, wink) the union would keep the peace, i.e., rule out strikes, even though both sides must have realized that the amount being paid to workers was unsustainable, particularly if the industry hit any downdrafts — which happened with increasing frequency starting with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo.

Just as embarrassing was the colossal ineptitude of the big car companies: Ugly, low-quality cars with shameful gas mileage. Layers of redundant management that relied on amateurish financial controls. Insular thinking reinforced by decades of outsize market share. It was as if Detroit had drawn a road map for Toyota and Honda. And the Japanese drove right in, decimating the U.S. companies. In 1979, GM's U.S. employment peaked at 618,365. Today it's at 75,000 and falling fast. GM's U.S. market share, once about 50%, has fallen to about 20%. True, the quality and efficiency of American cars have improved dramatically, but it may be too late.

And what about the Hurricane Katrina debacle? An act of God, right? Not really. When the storm raced toward New Orleans in late August 2005, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration feared the worst. For years they had been warning the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw the city's 350 miles of levees, that its system was inadequate. The scientists wanted the Corps to revise the Standard Project Hurricane, a model that determines how extensive the levees should be. For instance, the Corps did not consider the tendency of soil to sink over time, and it excluded the possibility of a highly powerful storm hitting the city because that was unlikely, which violates sophisticated principles of statistics and just plain common sense. On Nov. 18, a federal judge ruled that the Corps was directly responsible for flooding in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward. "The Corps' lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions," the judge said. The government is expected to appeal.

Besides the Army Corps, mismanagement by the local levee boards contributed to substandard levees. Katrina wasn't even as bad a storm as had been feared, but the levees weren't as good as had been hoped. Some fact-based decision-making could have saved hundreds of lives and billions of dollars. Here, too, years of complacency were the rule, not the exception. The price was paid this decade."

Thursday 3 December 2009

Congressional Service

Senator Byrd spoke last month about his service in the US Congress - which has covered a longer period than anyone else in US history.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Unparliamentary Language

Earlier editions of Erskine May (the authoritative handbook of Parliamentary Procedure - new editions are published every few years and written by the Clerk of the House of Commons) used to include a list of word ruled to be "unparliamentary". Sadly the current issue doesn't have such a list. Last week there was the following exchange -

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): In the light of today's Daily Mirror report, and that of The Independent last week, about the buying of influence in the Caribbean and in Britain, can we have an early debate on that monster from the Caribbean deep, namely Lord Ashcroft, and his influence on politics- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say very gently to the right hon. Gentleman, who is an immensely experienced parliamentarian, that moderation in the use of language in the Chamber is always desirable. Whatever he thinks about the noble Lord, he should not call him a monster.

Mr. MacShane: If "monster" is now an unparliamentary term, Mr. Speaker, then we are limiting our vocabulary. May we have an early debate on this gentlemen, who forces right hon. Members on the Opposition Benches to dissemble on his tax status and uses gagging writs to intimidate newspapers. It is only in the House of Commons that this man's corroding and, I believe, corrupt influence on Caribbean and British politics can be debated and explored. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has put his views very firmly on the record, but I urge him not to use the word "corrupt"-I do not like it.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Nora David

The House of Lords was yesterday informed of the death of Baroness David - Nora Ratcliff David, who was one of the oldest peeresses. She was born on 23rd September 1913. In 1935 he graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge in English. She married her busband Richard William David in the same year. He died in 1993.

Nora David was created a life peer in 1978, after serving as a Councillor and magistrate in Cambridge. Her service in the House of Lords included

Government Whip 1978-79;
Opposition Whip 1979-82;
Opposition Spokesperson for Education 1979-85;
Opposition Deputy Chief Whip 1982-87;
Opposition Spokesperson for:the Environment 1985-87 and Education 1987-97

Private Members Bills for 2009/10 Session

The list of the 20 successful backbench MPs who have an opportunity to bring forward a private members bill was published last week. In view of the fact that this will be a short session, few are likely to get their bills completed. In a normal session 13 Fridays are set aside for consideration of Private Members Bills. A Factsheet on the success of 'PMBs' can be found here. We should know shortly what bills the lucky 20 propose to introduce. The 20 bills will be presented (1st Reading) on Wednesday 16 December 2009.

The 20 MPs selected (in order) are -

Dr Brian Iddon
Mr David Chaytor
Andrew Gwynne
Albert Owen
Julie Morgan
Mr Anthony Steen
Alistair Burt
John Smith
Chris Grayling
Mr Nigel Dodds
Dr Richard Taylor
Simon Hughes
Mr Nigel Waterson
Mr Douglas Carswell
Bob Spink
Mr Mark Hoban
David Cairns
Mr Richard Shepherd
Mr David Heath
Mr Mark Field

Monday 30 November 2009

The Whip Pack

More information can be found about the details of legislation being considered by the House of Representatives in "The Whip Pack", which is published weekly by the Majority Whip. The Internet version contains further links which are useful if you want to follow the progress of a particular bill. In addition there is information about key issues on his website.

The Minority Whip also provides details of business and a blog about the issues, as seen from the Minority's perspective.

In the 111th Congress the Majority Whip is James Clyburn of South Carolina (pictured) and Eric Cantor from Virginia is the Minority Whip.

Sunday 29 November 2009

The Scheduling of Business at Westminster

Included in the excellent report by the House of Commons Reform Committee (Chairman, Tony Wright (pictured)) - "Rebuilding the House" is a description of the process by which business is scheduled. My post last Wednesday described the work of the Legislation Committee of the Cabinet. Chapter Four of the Report goes into detail about the processes of scheduling and timetabling. It is worth reading the whole chapter (though I'd say the whole report merits consideration and reflection upon!).

The following are particularly useful extracts.

120. The gradual takeover by the Government of House time began in the first half of the 19th century, in response to the growth in Government financial business and Ministerial legislation. In 1811 Mondays and Fridays were reserved for Orders of the Day as opposed to Notices of Motions: these Orders were principally Government Orders. In 1835 Mondays and Fridays were reserved for “Government Orders”, a category of business recognised for the first time in that way. Ministers could no longer tolerate waiting in a disorderly queue behind a mass of backbench business, and constantly liable to procedural devices of delay or diversion. The public had growing expectations that a Ministry would bring its own detailed legislation to the House, discussed and agreed in outline in Cabinet, announced in a Royal Speech and drafted by professional draftsmen working for the Crown. By the 1880s legislation was seen not only as largely the preserve of Ministers, but their principal function. In 1896 Balfour first limited by temporary and annually renewed Orders the business of Supply—the principal opportunity to raise debate by moving amendments to a formal Question or by seeking to amend the actual Supply motions—to a fixed number of days each session, with the Opposition given the freedom to choose the subjects. On 11 April 1902 the House agreed to what was first Standing Order No 4, and in a revised form is Standing Order No 14, giving “government business” precedence at every sitting unless otherwise provided.

121. SO No 14 (1) provides that “Save as provided in this order, government business shall
have precedence at every sitting”. The specific savings in SO No 14 are for:
• 20 Opposition days each session, allotted on days determined by the Government: and
• 13 Private Members’ Bill Fridays each session, fixed by the House at the outset of each session on the basis of a Motion moved by a Minister.

Protected time
122. Time in the Chamber is also set aside by other Standing Orders for:
• oral questions for an hour on Mondays to Thursdays and Urgent Questions
• motions for leave to bring in Bills under the “ten-minute rule”, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
• emergency debates
• end of day 30 minute adjournment backbench debates every sitting day
• three Estimates days each year, for debates under the auspices of the Liaison Committee
• opposed private business, to be distributed between “the sittings on which
government business has precedence and other sittings”.


150. The business programme is managed at official level by the Private Secretary to the Government Chief Whip and his staff in conjunction with his opposite numbers in the House of Lords. At the outset of a session, or shortly before it begins, the business managers look at the Government’s proposed legislative programme. Decisions have to be taken on which House each Bill is to start. Some Bills may require Royal Assent faster than others. A few may be introduced later in the session and be carried over. For each Bill, estimated dates are needed by when they should reach the second House. From these considerations spring the dates by which committee proceedings in the Commons must end—the “committee out-date”—which appears in the programme motion now usually applied to Government Bills in the Commons immediately after Second Reading. The date by which the managers wish to conclude Commons proceedings, at Third Reading, is not published. The business managers also have to allow for scheduling of the 20 Opposition days and the scatter of “default” debates through the year, as well as the Queen’s Speech and Budget debates.

Business Statement

151. The business for the next fortnight is agreed internally by the Government business managers at a weekly meeting. Before and after this meeting there are some consultations
through the usual channels with the Official Opposition Whips. The Leader of the House then announces future business to the House each week on Thursday as a rolling two-week programme, with the second week avowedly less firmly determined than the first. Business in Westminster Hall is often announced more than two weeks in advance. The announcement of future business is akin to a Ministerial statement but preserves the facade
of being an Urgent Question from the Shadow Leader.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Euro Myths

I attended a tutors' staff development day at the Open University today. One of the courses I teach on for the OU is W200 - Understanding Law. We had the opportunity to share useful resources. One of my colleagues drew my attention to the following very very funny video about "Euromyths" which comes from an episode of QI presented by Stephen Fry -

Friday 27 November 2009

Elections 2010

Washminster will of course be previewing some of the key races in the UK General Election and the US Congressional Elections which will occur in 2010. It will be an important election year in both countries. There are other countries which will also be going to the polls in coming months. An excellent website has been set up by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems listing national elections, and giving details for each country.

IFES also produces research on issues relating to elections - including a study of Political Finance Regulation around the world. The group which assesses the experience of regulation is available here.


For the UK it is possible to track the parties in the Guardian/ICM polls back to 1984 via this link.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Thanksgiving Day 2009

A Happy Thanksgiving Day to you all!

The traditional 'first Thanksgiving' was held by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621. One place in England particularly associated with the Pilgrim Fathers is Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. It was here that a separatist church was founded whose members were to be the nucleus of the religious group on the Mayflower. It's a lovely village to visit, not far from Doncaster.

View Larger Map

There are a number of websites about the history of the 'pilgrims' in Scrooby and in the surrounding areas. My favourites are -

The Pilgrim Fathers UK Origins Association - which links to a number of interesting pages and
The Scrooby Village website - which has a number of history articles accessed via the left hand side of the page.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

L Committee

The Legislation Committee is a Ministerial Committee of the Cabinet - chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons. It's membership is listed here. This committee decides which government bills will be put forward to Parliament and allocates time for them.

Departments put forward their requests to the committee for permission to introduce their bill and to gain a slot in the legislative programme. Simon James in "British Cabinet Government" describes the role of the committee as "vet(ting) all bills before introduction."

A Cabinet Office "Guide to Making Legislation" describes the process. Departments are invited, about one year ahead, to put forward their bids for legislation in the following session. As the new session approaches the committee reviews the state of readiness of each proposed bill. The Guide warns that "If bills are not likely to be ready on time, they may be dropped". A meeting of the Committee will consider the Bill's introduction - requiring the relevant minister to circulate in advance a Bill Memorandum - and attend the committee to summarise the bill and answer questions about the content and readiness for introduction.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

House of Commons Reform

The Report of the House of Commons Reform Committee - "Rebuilding the House" - has been published. Set up earlier this year to address growing concerns about the effectiveness of the House of Commons, it was chaired by Tony Wright - the highly respected Chair of the Public Administration Committee (which has done so much to highlight constitutional issues & press for more powerful oversight of the Executive).

The main recommendations include
- Election of Select Committee Chairs by the House in a secret ballot
- Election of members of Select Committees by each party in secret ballots, the allocation of seats to each party representing the proportion of seats held in the Commons by the parties.
- smaller Select Committees to improve effectiveness
- rapid selection of select committee membership after a General Election
- establishment of a House Business Committee - with a Backbench Business Committee to organise the use of non-ministerial business time
- revival of work towards establishing an e-petitions system
- establishment of a system for "agenda initiative" by the public
- establishment of a monthly slot for debate of backbench motions

"opening up the process of legislation and giving the public a real opportunity to influence the content of draft laws should be a priority in the New Parliament"

Peter Riddell (Times Assistant Editor & Chair of the Hansard Society) commented on the report in the Times.

The full report is available here.

The Coming General Election

There will be a General Election in the UK during 2010. That is predictable - the date can be guessed at (most people think that May 6th is the most likely, being local election day) - but otherwise this could be the most unpredictable election for some time. A number of factors are at play -

New boundaries will take effect. There are few constituencies that will see no change. Electoral data from previous elections is only available at constituency level. Therefore it is difficult to compare directly the old and new seats. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have produced projections of change which are heavily relied upon. (C. Rallings & M. Thrasher, The Media Guide to the New Parliamentary Constituencies, (Plymouth: LGC Elections Centre, 2007)) A very sophisticated model is used, but exact data on a ward by ward basis is not published.

In British elections the concept of "swing" has featured heavily in analysis. (A wikipedia article explains the concept in more detail here). Essentially the formula is

Swing = ((A2 - A1) + (B1 - B2)/2)

where A2 is the percentage vote for Party A in election 2 (most recent election), A1 is the percentage vote for Party A in election 1,and similarly for Party B.

This works well when there are only two parties contesting a seat - but the vote has become more fractured over time. The next election is likely to see even more independents standing.

Many predictions for individual constituencies are based on a uniform swing across the country - which of course never happens.

There has been a crisis of confidence in the main political parties partly as a result of the expenses scandal, but which has deeper and older roots. This will make predictions very difficult for individual constituencies.

There are a number of computer websites that allow you to "predict" the results such as

As the General Election nears, this blog will (as it did with the 2008 Congressional Elections in the USA) give you the background to the key seats.

Monday 23 November 2009

Background on Bills

The new session is underway - and the coming week will see the continuation in both Houses at Westminster of the debate on the Queen's Speech. But it will soon be time to start considering the legislation.

Already a number of bills have been given their first reading. This is a formality, necessary for the bill to be printed. More information (including a video) is available about first readings in the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Progress of all bills can be followed via this link. Further information and analysis of specific bills is available at

and Research Papers cover a number of subjects in depth, including current bills, from the House of Commons Library

Sunday 22 November 2009

Healthcare Discussion

There's a very interesting blog - primarily for students of law and medicine - but which will be useful to all those thinking about the provision of healthcare at www.lawandmedicine.co.uk


With healthcare in the news - its worth considering how the matter is dealt with in Europe. Each nation state has its own system. In the UK we have the NHS (National Health Service) - which was founded - in the face of fierce resistance - by Labour Minister Nye Bevan. There is a webpage about the history of the NHS accessible here.

Citizens of the European Union can access the health services of other Member States. The photo shows my "European Health Insurance Card" (I was going to black out my details - but the photo was fuzzy) - It is the size of a credit card.

The NHS website describes the card -

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) allows you to access state-provided healthcare in all European Economic Area (EEA) countries and Switzerland at a reduced cost or sometimes free of charge.

Everyone who is resident in the UK should have one and carry it with them when travelling abroad. Remember to check your EHIC is still valid before you travel. Applying for the card is free and it's valid for up to five years.

Presenting the EHIC entitles you to treatment that may become necessary during your trip, but doesn't allow you to go abroad specifically to receive medical care. However, maternity care, renal dialysis and managing the symptoms of pre-existing or chronic conditions that arise while abroad are all covered by the EHIC.

Your EHIC will allow you access to the same state-provided healthcare as a resident of the country you are visiting. However, many countries expect the patient to pay towards their treatment, and even with an EHIC, you might be expected to do the same. You may be able to seek reimbursement for this cost when you are back in the UK if you are not able to do so in the other country.

The EHIC is NOT an alternative to travel insurance. It will not cover any private medical healthcare or the cost of things such as mountain rescue in ski resorts, repatriation to the UK or lost or stolen property.

Brits can apply for their card here

Friday 20 November 2009

The Future of Europe

An enjoyable - and thought provoking conference - was held yesterday by Chatham House. The title was "The EU's prospects 20 years after the Fall of Communism". There were four sessions - after a keynote address by Maria Asenius (State Secretary to Minister for EU Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom [recently nominated for European Commissioner by Sweden] ) -

  1. EU National Economies: Lessons from the past 20 years and models for the future
  2. The Future of the EU Single Market
  3. Domestic Security: A new frontier for European Integration
  4. Can Europe Hope to be a world leader?

There were some first class presentations - and lots of food for thought. For me four main themes stood out

  1. The need to establish a European VISION for its own future. Europe needs to move beyond 'navel-gazing' and set out the unique and positive role it wishes to play in the emerging multipolar world. To sum up a number of contributions - we now have the institutions in place - it's time to think about the use of European power in the world - and to project a self confident idea of European values and power. One speaker said that we must work with the USA not as a follower, but as a player in our own right.
  2. The need to harness the WILL to "punch at or above our own weight". Europe is an economic superpower - with a large population; great wealth; and a huge single market - yet politically it remains in the Second Division.
  3. DELIVERY must become a reality, instead of too much empty rhetoric - and unfulfilled promises.
  4. There needs to be more ENGAGEMENT with European citizens. That will only happen if a vision can be articulated; the will to take a place in the first rank of the international community is evident - and there is delivery upon the promise.

Your observations would be appreciated. Is the European Union capable of achieving the above? Should it be aiming higher? What should our relationship with the United States be based upon?

Either comment on this post on 'blogger' or email me privately here

Thursday 19 November 2009

Black Rod

A starring role in yesterday's State Opening was played by "Black Rod". His full title is "Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod". Despite his ancient attire, he has a very modern job to carry out. The Parliamentary website describes him as "responsible for security, controlling access to and maintaining order within the House and its precincts."

The first parliamentary appointment of "Black Rod" came in the reign of King Henry VIII, but the post can be traced back to 1361 when the Order of the Garter was created by Edward III. The rod referred to in his title is the short ebony rod of office surmounted by a golden lion rampant which he carries.

When first created the Gentleman Usher's job was to carry this stick and "if anyone offended against the Order of the Garter it was his duty to tap him on the shoulder with the Black Rod, whereupon the offender was expelled (from the Order)." Today the rod is used to bang on the door of the House of Commons - and the damage done over many years can be clearly seen if you take a tour of the Palace.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Royal Prerogative - why not hand everything over to Parliament?

A written question was submitted by Lord Lester of Herne Hill

To ask Her Majesty's Government why their Final Report on the Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers does not propose placing all executive prerogative powers identified in the report under parliamentary authority. [HL6204]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): The Government believe that to place all the executive prerogative powers under specific parliamentary authority without detailed consideration of individual powers would considerably increase uncertainty, delay and the risk of legal challenges, to no significant advantage. Ministers are already accountable to Parliament for the exercise of all executive prerogative powers. The Government consider that there is nevertheless a case to be made for reform of some individual powers in order to increase the level of parliamentary scrutiny and control. For example, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill would place management of most of the Civil Service on to a statutory footing and would increase the level of parliamentary scrutiny of treaty-making. The Government will also propose a parliamentary resolution dealing with the commitment of Armed Forces to armed conflict overseas.

The Geography of the State Opening

Today the final session of the 2005 Parliament (54th Parliament of the United Kingdom) begins. The three parts of Parliament meet at Westminster - House of Commons; House of Lords and the Queen in Parliament.

The action takes place at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster. The Queen arrives by coach at the Victoria Tower. She will proceed up a steep flight of stairs (which is flanked by the coats of arms of the early English monarchs) to the Norman Porch. At this point she will turn right to enter the Robing Room. Afew minutes later she will proceed northwards through the Royal Gallery. The procession will split in two upon entering the Princes Chamber - and she will walk into the chamber of the House of Lords. There she will sit upon the throne.

Black Rod (An official of the House of Lords) will be sent to summon the House of Commons. He will march in a northerly direction - through Peers Lobby; Central Lobby and Members Lobby - to the Chamber of the House of Commons. After having the door of the Commons slammed in his face - he will be admitted & the summons delivered. Members will then saunter down to the Bar of the House of Lords (not a place for drinking!). The discourteous behaviour is traditional - signifying that the Commons will not be pushed around by the Monarch.

At the end of the Speech, the Commons return northwards to their Chamber. The Queen returns southwards.

A map of Westminster can be accessed here

Further information on the State Opening is available at Parliament's website.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Political Conflict Explained

We are familiar with paintings depicting the solemn majesty of the Declaration of Independence. However the reality was that the individuals concerned argued passionality - there was real conflict. John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse explain why the US Congress is held in low opinion by many people. (The same applies to the UK Parliament) - [from "What is Wrong with the American Political System" in 'Congress as Public Enemy'.]

"If open debate is seen as bickering and haggling; if bargaining and compromise are seen as selling out on principle...it is easy to see why the public is upset with the workings of the political system." But "What seems to escape many people is that democratic processes are practically by definition not procedurally efficient. The 'haggling and bickering' so frequently decried by the people could be very easily termed informed discussion..."

The Muppets portrayed the events of the Continental Congress in a sketch performed a few years ago. The truth they highlight is that democratic politics has ALWAYS been messy.

Monday 16 November 2009

More From 'Barney Fife'

The Emancipation Proclamation is "explained"

For the record - According to Martin Luther King - "The Emancipation Proclamation had four enduring results. First, it gave force to the executive power to change conditions in the national interest on a broad and far-reaching scale. Second, it dealt a devastating blow to the system of slaveholding and an economy built upon it, which had been muscular enough to engage in warfare on the Federal government. Third, it enabled the Negro to play a significant role in his own liberation with the ability to organize and to struggle, with less of the bestial retaliation his slave status had permitted to his masters. Fourth, it resurrected and restated the principle of equality upon which the founding of the nation rested."

A Preliminary Executive Order was made on 22nd September 1862 - days after the Battle of Antietam. The final Executive Order was issued on 1st January 1863.

The Final Proclamation (also issued as an Executive Order" says -

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

Can You Do Better?

This classic comedy piece deals with reciting the Preamble of the US Constitution. Don Knotts plays the character Barney Fife who asserts that he can recite, from memory, the Preamble - which sets out the purposes of the Constitution.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Parliament is Prorogued

The 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom continues its existence. It will either be automatically dissolved by the Septennial Act 1715 - giving a General Election on June 3rd 2010 - or an earlier dissolution will be effected by the use of the Royal Prerogative (by convention - upon the advice of the Prime Minister).

However last week it was 'prorogued'. All outstanding bills (save those which Parliament agreed to 'carry over') and motions from the 2008-09 session are terminated.

The new session will begin on Wednesday - when the Queen will come to Parliament to deliver the 'Queen's Speech'.

A factsheet on Prorogation can be found here.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership

Along Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC is an important institution set up to "promote and strengthen public service leadership in America". It has a number of programs including -

For non-congressional staff there is also

The Center was established by the US Congress as a tribute to Senator John C. Stennis. The center was created by Public Law 100-458, October 1, 1988, and is codified in the United States Code under Title 2-The Congress, Chapter 22.

John Stennis served in the US Senate for more than 41 years. He chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee (1969-81) and was president pro tempore during the 100th Congress. He was a Democrat from Mississippi. He was responsible for writing the first ethics code for the Senate - and was the first ever Chair of the Senate Ethics Committee (1965-75). He was the first Democrat Senator to criticise Joe Mccarthy on the Senate floor.

Senator Stennis retired in 1989 - and died in 1995. He lost a leg to cancer during the 1980s and was almost killed when shot during a mugging in Washington DC.
The Center's website can be accessed directly from here.

Friday 13 November 2009

Fast Track Legislation

Most bills take time to pass through each of the stages in the British legislative process. However, occasionally it is necessary to push a bill through quickly. In a report by The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution instances of "fast track" bills were analysed; some concerns expressed - and a few recommendations made.

The report can be accessed here.

Key recommendations include -

1 that the Minister responsible for the bill should be required to make an oral statement to the House of Lords outlining the case for fast-tracking. This should take place when the bill is introduced to the House in order to allow a debate, as early as possible on the justification for fast-tracking the bill, which does not detract from the Second Reading debate. The details contained in the oral statement should also be set out in a written memorandum included in the Explanatory Notes. The parliamentary time allocated for the statement should not in any way impinge upon the time available for consideration of the bill.

In the light of the evidence we have received about the potential problems and issues pertaining to the use of fast-track legislation, we recommend that the Ministerial Statement should be required to address the following principles:
(a) Why is fast-tracking necessary?
(b) What is the justification for fast-tracking each element of the bill?
(c) What efforts have been made to ensure the amount of time made available for parliamentary scrutiny has been maximised?
(d) To what extent have interested parties and outside groups been given an opportunity to influence the policy proposal?
(e) Does the bill include a sunset clause (as well as any appropriate renewal procedure)? If not, why do the Government judge that their inclusion is not appropriate?
(f) Are mechanisms for effective post-legislative scrutiny and review in place? If not, why do the Government judge that their inclusion is not appropriate?
(g) Has an assessment been made as to whether existing legislation is sufficient to deal with any or all of the issues in question?
(h) Have relevant parliamentary committees been given the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation?

We recommend that in its consideration of whether to allow a bill to be fast-tracked through its legislative stages, the House should bear in mind whether the Government’s Ministerial Statement justifying fast-tracking has adequately addressed these principles. We will do this in the course of our scrutiny of any bill that it is proposed should be fast-tracked.

2 there should instead be a presumption in favour of the use of a sunset clause. By this process, a piece of legislation would expire after a certain date, unless Parliament chooses either to renew it or to replace it with a further piece of legislation subject to the normal legislative process.

3 any legislation subject to a fast-track parliamentary passage should be subject to post-legislative review, ideally within one year, and at most within two years.
Appendix 5 lists the bills subject to fast-track passage since 1975.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Louis Brandeis

One of the greatest Supreme Court Justices was Louis Brandeis. He was particularly known for his defences of the freedoms of speech and privacy.

William O Douglas, the longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court, said of him -
Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible. . . [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court."

Melvin Urofsky, had has previously written extensively on Brandeis has recently published "Louis D Brandeis: A Life". He was interviwed about the subject of his book on C-SPAN's "Q&A"

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The Legislative Process

How does a bill become a law? The Parliament website now has a very useful guide to the process - illustrated by examples and linked to all the relevant language used. I regard it as a very informative guide - useful for students of constitutional law and politics - as well as those who want to gain a better understanding of the legislative process.

The guide can be accessed here.

Your comments on this resource would be much appreciated by the parliamentary authorities - and I would urge you to take part in the online survey.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

The Spy at Bletchley Park

Winston Churchill once described the people who worked during World War Two at Bletchley Park as "the geese that laid the golden eggs - but never cackled". This remained until the mid 1970s one of the best kept secrets of all time. Researchers have discovered couples who had worked at the codebreaking centre - who honoured the instruction not to reveal what they had done, to the extent that they never even talked about it to each other - and so did not know they they shared a common past.

But there was a Russian Spy who worked there. John Cairncross - the "fifth man" in the Cambridge spy ring. He worked in Hut 3 (the main reporting centre for all Enigma on German Army and Air Force communications). He had previously been private secretary to Lord Hankey, a member of the War Cabinet. Michael Smith described his esponiage in 'Station X'. - "Cairncross smuggled decrypts that were due to be destroyed out of Hut 3 in his trousers, transferring them to his bag at the (Bletchley) railway station before going on to London to meet his KGB contact"

Cairncross passed information which has been credited with helping the Russians to win the Battle of Kursk. A sanitised version had been supplied by the British to the Russians, but the source had been disguised.

The Independent's Obituary of Cairncross can be read here.

Bletchley Park contains a well stocked bookshop, which sells a number of books and monographs about the history of the codebreaking centre.

Monday 9 November 2009

The Special Relationship

On Saturday I went with Bob Carr, former Member of the House of Representatives from Michigan, to Bletchley Park - the Codebreaking centre which was vital to the conduct of the Second World War - and was the place where the first programmable computer was constructed.

For more information on Bletchley Park press here.

Sunday 8 November 2009

John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress

Another academic centre named for a leading congressman, the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress , provides access to important research work on Congress. It is based at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

John Brademas served in Congress from 1959-1981. He was House Majority Whip in the period 1977-81. As well as being a congressman, he had a passion for education and played a key role in the development of many educational bodies within the USA. He co-sponsored the legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Brademas was the first Greek-American member of Congress.

The Center, of which John Brademas is President Emeritus, has been involved in a two-year “Congress and the Future Project" which resulted in a bipartisan 'White Paper' which is available here entitled "Looking to the Future: The Challenge to Congress".

The website also contains transcripts of interviews with a number of retiring members of Congress. The purpose of the Center's Reflection Project is "to establish a public record of the first-person accounts, opinions, anecdotes and reflections of Members who retire from office each term". These transcripts can be accessed here.