Tuesday 30 June 2009

Parliament, Congress and Films

I picked up a book this week called "Hollywood Goes to Washington" by Michael Coyne. It discusses the various films that portray politics in the USA. I'm particularly interested in plays and films that are set in either Congress or Westminster.

A full list would be very long (but do nominate your favourites by commenting on this blog) but would include


Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
West Wing (1999-2006)
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Thank You For Smoking (2005)
- to say nothing of the various films portraying the lives of members of Congress and Presidents.


Cromwell (1970)
Ali G Indahouse (2004) - from Sacha Baron Cohen [Borat; Bruno]
Amazing Grace (2007)
Old Mother Riley MP (1939)
The Chiltern Hundreds (1949)
Whipping It Up (Stage Play)

Monday 29 June 2009

Freedom of Speech Within Parliament

One of the key provisions of the Bill of Rights 1689 - and a central principle of the British Constitution - is that the Courts cannot question what is said or done in Parliament. The current Clerk of the House of Commons has warned that this may be compromised by provisions in the Parliamentary Standards Bill - which is set to be pushed through all its Commons stages today; tomorrow and Wednesday.

He writes in a memorandum to the Justice Committee

1. This memorandum addresses privilege aspects of the Parliamentary Standards Bill. Since the Bill seeks to make statutory provision in relation to matters which fall with Parliament’s exclusive cognisance or may affect proceedings in Parliament, it affects the established privileges of the House of Commons, thereby upsetting the essential comity established between Parliament and the Courts...

17. Clause 10(c) allows any evidence of proceedings in Parliament to be admissible in proceedings for an offence under clause 9. This is a very wide qualification of the principle under Article IX of the Bill of Rights that such evidence is not admitted. It would mean that the words of Members generally, the evidence given by witnesses (including non-Members) before committees and advice given by House officials on questions, amendments and other House business could be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings. This could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members and of witnesses before committees and would hamper the ability of House officials to give advice to Members.

18. It is for consideration whether the scope of this qualification could be narrowed – as in the current draft Bribery Bill – by confining the provision to the words or actions in Parliament of the Member concerned in the specific case. This reflects the compromise agreed to last time this issue was considered by a Parliamentary committee – the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill in 2003. At that time the Liaison Committee expressed concern that a wider provision might deter witnesses from speaking frankly before select committees.

19. However, even the qualification were narrowed, the accused Member would be put in the position of having his words used against him, without being given the opportunity to adduce words spoken by other Members which might tend to exculpate him. This would create a very real risk of the trial being unfair and contrary to the requirements of Article 6 ECHR.7 This demonstrates the difficulty caused by admitting evidence of proceedings in Parliament: either the admission is on such a wide basis that it has a chilling effect on Parliamentary proceedings (by prejudicing or effectively removing the right of free speech), or it is on such a narrow basis that the fairness of trials is put at risk.

20. I have argued in evidence to the current Joint Committee on the draft Bribery Bill that there is a case for not tinkering with parliamentary privilege on a piecemeal basis but implementing the recommendation of the Joint Committee on parliamentary privilege in 1999 that there should be a Parliamentary Privileges Act. Such an act would clarify the application of provisions of Article IX; define Parliament's control of its internal affairs and replace existing statute on the reporting of parliamentary proceedings. The experience of the Defamation Act of 1996, intended to address one perceived anomaly of parliamentary privilege, has led to others. The provision of section 13 of the Act was later held to undermine the collective right of the House to immunity in respect of proceedings by allowing an individual Member to waive privilege. Other difficulties of a practical nature where more than one Member was involved led the Joint Committee to recommend repeal of the section. Other encroachments on parliamentary privilege suggest that a piecemeal approach to defining and defending the Houses' legitimate right to function effectively is no longer sufficient. The Australian model for a Parliamentary Privileges Act is at hand for adaptation toBritish circumstances.

21. Lastly, Clause 11(4) and (7) suggests that the actions of the Speaker of the House of Commons could be the subject of judicial review. Since they concern the conferring of a statutory power on the IPSA to carry out a ‘registration function’ pursuant to an ‘agreement’ under Clause 11(4), judicial review of the making of an agreement and of its scope could be expected. Conceivably, a decision of the Speaker not to make an agreement could also be the subject of an application for judicial review.

Sunday 28 June 2009

The Chequered Cloth

Richard FitzNigel (sometimes referred to as Richard FitzNeal) was the illegitimate son of the Bishop of Ely. His father paid Henry II to take Richard on as the King's Treasurer. He worked in the Exchequer for over 40 years. In 1177 he was asked by the King to write about his work, producing a text known as "Dialogus de Scaccario" (Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer).

In this book he descibed how he used a chequered cloth as a sort of abacus. The cloth (the 'Exchequer' itself) was laid over a large table, 10 feet by 5 feet, with a lip on the edge of 4 'fingers', on which counters were placed representing various values. The name is also found in the American word "checkers", a game which English readers would know as "draughts". It is said that this is the origin of the term "Exchequer" - which of course is now in the title of Britain's Finance Minister - "The Chancellor of the Exchequer"

Saturday 27 June 2009

The Week Ahead

The draft legislative programme for 2009/10 is due to be published in Britain on Monday. Along with it will be a new policy blueprint entitled "Building Britain's Future". The Parliamentary Standards Bill is due to be taken through all its Commons stages on the first three days of the week.

An Education White Paper may be published on Tuesday.

The Parliamentary calendar is available at http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/

Congress will not be session, in advance of Independence Day.

Friday 26 June 2009

The Speaker of the House

The British Speaker must act impartially - and drops all links to his former party - as Speaker Bercow said on Monday,

the"Speaker has a responsibility immediately and permanently to cast aside all his or her previous political views. I said it and I meant it. My commitment to this House is to be completely impartial as between members of one political party and another. That is what it is about, and I will do my best, faithfully and honourably and effectively, to serve this House in the period ahead."

This wasn't always the case - it was only by the middle of the 19th century that the Speaker's independence from government and impartiality was expected - though Speaker Arthur Onslow, who served between 1728 and 1761 did much to reduce ties with the government.

In the House of Representatives the first Speakers were seen as impartial presiding officers. It was Henry Clay who did most to establish the partisan leadership position that can be recognised today. At the start of a new Congress (and whenever the post becomes vacant) each of the parties choose a nominee - the majority party is able to ensure that their nominee is elected. Once in office they are expected to act as a leading spokesman for the majority party.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Departmental Select Committees

While the twentieth century saw a general decline in the power of Parliament against the Executive, the creation of the departmental select committees has enabled an important fight back. While they still don’t get the attention from the media and the public they deserve – they do play an important role in scrutiny by MPs.
Today is the 30th anniversary of their creation – hence the conference I attended on Tuesday. The far reaching proposals for a system of select committees were made by the Procedure Committee in 1978. Bill Proctor, a Former Clerk of the Committee, gave an interesting paper on the development of the report and its subsequent publication and reception. I hope that the Hansard Society will be able to publish this paper on its website.

Priscilla Barnes wrote a chapter on the “History and Rationale of the 1979 Reforms” in “The New Select Committees” which was edited by Gavin Drewey. Both were at the conference.

The Procedure Committee Report was published in the summer of 1978. It fell to the incoming Government in 1979 to implement the proposals. The hero was Norman St-John Stevas, Leader of the House of Commons. He “rushed the whole system through cabinet committees before it dawned on the Prime Minister [Mrs Thatcher] what was going on” (Christopher Price). As a result of his actions an important structure was set up which is something the Werstminster Parliament can be proud of.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Protecting MPs outside Westminster

Yesterday I attended an afternoon conference at Westminster, “Departmental Select Committees – 30 Years of Scrutiny”. It was an interesting and topical conference jointly organised by the Hansard Society; Study of Parliament Group; and the House of Commons. It was such a feast that I will be sharing observations and information from it for some time on this blog.

My favourite anecdote came from Christopher Price, a former Chairman of the Education Select Committee. It concerns a sub-committee of the predecessor Education Committee in the late 1970s.

The subcommittee, which Mr Price chaired, was enquiring into the ‘student revolt’ of the time. They intended to make a visit to the Guildford College of Art. Many attempts were made by Surrey County Council – who ran the College – to stop the visit. They even argued that it would be “unconstitutional” for a Parliamentary Committee to conduct a visit covering a local government institution. {Law students may wish to discuss that claim}. It failed.

The Commons authorities became involved. They feared that an incident might occur during the visit, and said that there was no precedent to enable them to allocate funds for proceedings outside parliament. Fortunately the Clerk of the subcommittee was able to find an ancient precedent. The House of Commons had hired bodyguards to protect MPs when they were on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral to give thanks for the restoration to sanity of George III.

House of Commons Standing Orders now provide that committes shall have the power "to adjourn from place to place"

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Commons Standing Orders

In Congress both the House of Representatives and the Senate have "rules". At Westminster each House have their own "Standing Orders". The House of Commons Standing Orders (Public Business) are available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmstords.htm.

The phrase "Standing Order" first appeared in 1678. Erskine May notes that it was used to give additional weight to existing and new rules. In the following 36 years at least 37 regulatory orders were described this way.

Consolidated versions of the Standing Orders are published fairly frequently - with Addendums published as new orders are passed by the House.

Monday 22 June 2009

John Bercow

The new Speaker of the House of Commons has been elected. John Bercow won on the third ballot by 322-271 votes . He remains the Speaker-Elect until confirmed by the Queen (expected at 9.45pm today.) He is regarded as the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons. The line of Speakers is generally traced back to Sir Peter De La Mere in 1376.

His own website is http://www.johnbercow.co.uk/

A House of Commons Library Paper is available at http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/m02.pdf about the roles and history of the Speaker.

Sax transcends Social Hierarchy

Yesterday I enjoyed a superb afternoon in Wavendon (a village just outside Central Milton Keynes) where, in the grounds of the home of Jazz legends Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine. The National Saxophone Choir of Great Britain were performing as part of the "Music in the Garden" series. It was amazing what could be done with Saxophones. The highlights for me were Toccata in D Minor (J S Bach Arr N Wood); Nesun Dorma (Puccini arr N Wood); Bolero (Ravel arr N Wood) and Carnival (Karen Street).

The photograph illustrates how the sax transcends the social hierachy. Three saxophonists star in the picture - MR Alan Barnes - one of my favourite contemporary saxophonists and co-host of "Music in the Garden"; SIR John Dankworth - co-host of "Music in the Garden" and host of the Sunday morning "Jazz Matters" (an important reason why I wished to move to Milton Keynes) and LORD (Robert) Winston (Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College. He has an international reputation for his researches into human reproduction and has pioneered advances widely used in fertility and IVF treatment. He is also an active member of the House of Lords. In addition he been learning how to play the Sax - and played with the Choir as well as narrating 'Peter & the Wolf' at the concert)

Election of a New Speaker

Today is the big day.

Candidates must submit written nominations to the Clerk of the House between 09.30 and 10.30 this morning. To be valid these nominations must be signed by between 12 and 15 supporting members, including at least three from other parties. I know that some aspiring candidates have collected nominations that are not linked to promises of support in the ballot (which is why you shouldn't be surprised if some candidates get less than 12 votes).

All validly nominated candidates will then address the House.

The first ballot will last for 30 minutes. If one candidate has over 50% they will be elected. If none achieves that candidates will drop out who
  • receive the fewest votes in that round
  • get less than 5% of votes cast
  • withdraw of their own accord

Subsequent ballots will take place - with the same rules about dropping out until the winner emerges.

In the UK system the Speaker leaves the political party under whose banner they were elected. Unlike in the House of Representatives, the Speaker is expected to be impartial.

Sunday 21 June 2009

I couldn't stop myself Laughing...

If you haven't yet seen the Jon Stewart/John Oliver piece on the UK MPs expenses scandal - you should do. It is wickedly funny

Parliamentary Sovereignty

One of the occupational hazards of being a university lecturer is that it becomes impossible to read about your subject - without spotting quotes to use in exam questions. Though (fortunately) I no longer write exam questions - the hazard remains.

I've just read the "Commons Diary" which Sir Menzies Campbell wrote in the House Magazine of May 25th 2009 (I am reliant upon being passed second hand copies - £195 for a years subscription puts it outside my budget!). Commenting on Gordon Brown's statement on parliamentary reform he wrote -

"The doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament is over. Where once Parliament fought with the King to assert its sovereignty, the Commons is now to cede its sovereignty, over some matters at least, to the people. English constitutional doctrine (though not Scottish) is that Parliament is sovereign. Not any more. If it is good enough for MPs' expenses, why not for going to war, or any other issue with even the most minor constitutional effect?

Gordon Brown may not have intended it, but he may have taken the first step to a wholly written constitution."

As all the best exam questions say - "Discuss."

Saturday 20 June 2009


We've seen many apologies from MPs in recent weeks. I was asked by a reader of this blog to link to a youtube video from the satirical show "Have I Got News From You" - which shows one MP a little less apologetic

The Week Ahead

Monday will see the election of a new Speaker in the House of Commons. It will be the first time that a secret ballot will be used. John Bercow was the favourite - but a fierce anti-Bercow campaign has been mounted - particularly by fellow Tory MPs and some of the press. He is seen as one of the reformers - and Westminster, despite the current storms, can be very resistant to meaningful change.

Thursday will see the usual Business Statement - which prompts discussion of a number of issues on MPs' minds. The House will then be asked to approve various motions, including the establishment of a London Regional Committee and Regional Grand Committees; a motion relating to Members Pensions; and motions relating to Select Committees. Other business in the Commons includes the 2nd Reading of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill (Tuesday) and an Opposition initiated debate on the Iraq Inquiry which was announced last week (Wednesday). While that debate rages in the Commons - another contoversial issue - the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s report into Equitable Life will be discussed in Westminster Hall.

It will be a busy week in the Lords. I'll be interested to know what direction Lord McNally will move in his supplementary to his question asking about plans to celebrate the centenary of the Parliament Act 1911.

The Parliamentary calendar is available at http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/

In Washington the House will spend time on

H.R. 2892 - Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2010; H.R. 2647 - National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010; and the H.R. concerning - Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010.

The House schedule can be found at http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/22WeeklyLeader62209.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550

The Senate is likely to start the week on the Tourism Bill. After false rumours went around on Thursday that the Minnesota Supreme Court would rule that day on the contested election (yes - it is still going on!!!), we wait to hear if a decision will be made this week.

Friday 19 June 2009

Is a General Election in the offing?

You would think so - recently the House of Commons Library has published papers on

Under the Septennial Act 1715 (as amended) - a parliament is automatically dissolved if it has continued in existence beyond five years (from the date of its first meeting - a few days after the General Election). The practice in recent years is that the date of a General Election id decided upon by the Prime Minister when he requests that parliament be dissolved.

Surveillance Society

This morning the House of Lords is due to debate their Constitution select committee report on Surveillance: the Citizen and the state.

The debate is due to start at 11am

Thursday 18 June 2009

How to Keep Your Mobile Number Private

Many are annoyed by the news that a company is providing a directory enquiry service for mobile phones without the permission of phone owners. (and the parents of children who have mobile phone - often given because of our concern for their security, not to allow a company to put through calls to them). Instead if you want to have your name taken off the directory, you have to contact the company. The first choice highlighted by the company is to text them (which may incur costs!)

You can have your number made ex-directory without incurring mobile phone charges by going to http://www.118800.co.uk/removeme/remove-me.html

If you are as annoyed by this company's attempt to infringe our right to privacy of our own information as I am - join me to in protesting to the company (email: shona.forster@118800.co.uk - don't use their feedback as you have to agree to THEIR terms and conditions concerning their use of your details) and passing on your concerns to your own MP

An Honourable Profession

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market said in a debate in the House of Lords yesterday:

When I first entered public life and got involved in politics almost 50 years ago, and entered Parliament 35 years ago, it was a profession held in high regard. MPs were regarded with great respect in their constituencies and more widely, and it was a high aspiration to become an MP. Many in other careers entered Parliament half way through their active life because they felt that it was very worth while and were prepared to make sacrifices, including that of family life and financially, to do so. It is a matter of profound distress to me that parliamentary activity and the role of an MP are regarded in the way that they are today.

I believe that nothing is more important than working for your constituents in the most important institution in the land. Above all, it is important to remember that Ministers are largely drawn from this pool. They make bigger and more profound decisions than others in leading positions in most walks of life. Yet those who aspire to these roles are being demeaned in public and, in my view, are seriously underpaid compared to those in leading positions in business, the professions and most other activities. My concern is not for the good people in public life who are currently being so derided, but, above all, given the current environment, for the good people from other professions who would have a real role to play and could enter politics. That is one of the most serious things facing our nation. It will be easy enough perhaps to get people to stand, but it will be extremely difficult to get people of the quality we want in Parliament.

Baseball - Shock Result!

Democrats defeated Republicans 15-10 on Wednesday night at Nationals Park in the 48th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, lifting the newspaper’s coveted trophy for first time since 2000.

Roll Call reports:-

Republican pitcher Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.) gave the Democrats an early lead, allowing 6 runs in the second inning. The GOP hurler started off the inning by walking Reps. Brian Baird (Wash.) and Christopher Murphy (Pa.), who both scored on a double by Rep. Tim Bishop (N.Y.).

Shimkus had thrown more than 50 pitches by the end of the second inning.

The GOP battled back in the top of the third inning, tying it up at 6. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) led off the inning with a base hit, followed by a walk to Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.) and a long hit to the outfield by the GOP second baseman, Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas). Rep. Gresham Barrett (S.C.) hit a three-run triple to the gap in left before later scoring what was then the tying run.

With the game tied at 6, Republican manager Rep. Joe Barton (Texas) replaced Shimkus on the mound with Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.) in the bottom of the third.

That’s when all hell broke loose for the Republicans.

The Sunshine State lawmaker proceeded to give up five walks, two base hits, a wild pitch, nine runs and, ultimately, the Democrats’ first win in nearly a decade. Graves ended the inning with a dazzling catch in center field after Shimkus had returned to the mound to relieve his reliever.
Republicans mounted a valiant comeback attempt in the seventh and final inning, but scored only 3 runs before freshman Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (Calif.) ended the game looking at a called third strike.

With a win on Wednesday night, Democrats take the first game of a five-game series.
Democratic first baseman Bart Stupak (Mich.) turned in the defensive play of the game, catching a foul pop as he tumbled over the dugout railing in the fourth inning.

MPs Expenses

At last, details of MPs expenses - without the selective editing of the Daily Telegraph. Details of printed documents and receipts relating to MPs’ ACA, IEP and Communications Allowance claims dating back to 2004/05 and up to 2007/08, together with details of stationery and postage costs covering the same period, will be published this morning on http://www.parliament.uk/

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Congressional Institution Hits A Hundred

The Congressional Baseball Game is due to be played tonight at the Nationals Stadium (the new Home of the Major League Baseball team, the Washington Nationals). It is a century since this event was first held. Members of Congress play on party teams. A special feature in 'Roll Call' outlines the history and details of the game. The winning team gains the Roll Call Trophy.

The rosters are:


Michael Arcuri HoR New York (Outfield)
Joe Baca HoR California (Pitcher/Infield)
Brian Baird HoR Washington State (Pitcher/Outfield)
Tim Bishop HoR New York (3rd Base)
John Boccieri HoR Ohio (Utility)
Bruce Braley HoR Iowa (Outfield/1st Base)
Sherrod Brown Senate Ohio (Outfield)
Russ Carnahan HoR Missouri (Utility)
Christopher Carney HoR Pennsylvania (Utility)
Ben Chandler HoR Kentucky (Infield)
William Lacy Clay HoR Missouri (1st Base/Outfield)
Joe Donnelly HoR Indiana (Center Field)
Steve Driehaus HoR Ohio (2nd Base)
Mike Doyle HoR Pennsylvania (Manager)
Tim Holden HoR Pennsylvania (Coach)


Graham Barrett HoR S Carolina (Catcher)
Joe Barton HoR Texas (Manager)
Kevin Brady HoR Texas (2nd Base)
Steve Buyer HoR Indiana (Coach)
Mike Conaway HoR Texas (1st Base)
John Ensign Senate Nevada (Pitcher/Shortstop)
Jeff Flake HoR Arizona (Outfield)
John Fleming HoR Louisiana (2nd Base)
Phil Gingrey HoR Georgia (Outfield)
Louie Gohmert HoR Texas (Outfield)
Sam Graves HoR Missouri (Outfield)
Gregg Harper HoR Mississippi (1st Base)
Duncan Hunter HoR California (Pitcher)
Jack Kingston HoR Georgia (2nd Base)
Connie Mack HoR Florida (Outfield)
Thaddeus McCotter HoR Michigan (Outfield)
Pete Olson HoR Texas (Utility)
Adam Putnam HoR Florida (Outfield)
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen HoR Florida (Designated Hitter)
Tom Rooney HoR Florida (1st Base)
Steve Scalise HoR Louisiana (2nd Base)
Pete Sessions HoR Texas (Coach)
John Shimkus Hor Illinois (Pitcher)
Bill Shuster HoR Pennsylvania (Outfield)
Adrian Smith HoR Nebraska (Utility)
Todd Tiahrt HoR Kansas (Outfield)
Zach Wamp HoR Tennessee (Shortstop)
Rob Wittman HoR Virginia (Outfield)

The rules of Baseball can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Official_Baseball_Rules

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Connecting Parliament to the Public

Lord Renton of Mount Harry will today initiate a debate of an hour during the 'dinner break' in the House of Lords - by posing the following question to the Government: "what steps they are taking to increase the connection between Parliament and the public."

While some proposals were made last week - this could lead to a wider debate. Lord Renton is the Chair of the Lords Information Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into "People and Parliament". On the 'Lords of the Blog' he has discussed the inquiry http://lordsoftheblog.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/guest-blog-people-and-parliament/

Monday 15 June 2009


The Hansard Society organised a hustings in advance of next week's election (Monday 22nd June) of a new Speaker for the House of Commons. It was filmed by BBC Parliament and is due for broadcast on that channel at 9pm (UK time) on Sunday 21st. I'd recommend watching it. The hustings lasted for two hours, but it was both fascinating and encouraging.

The potential candidates who spoke, and then answered questions were

- Margaret Beckett MP
- Sir Alan Beith MP
- John Bercow MP
- Sir Patrick Cormack MP
- Parmjit Dhanda MP
- Sir Alan Haselhurst MP
- Sir Michael Lord MP
- Richard Shepherd MP
- Ann Widdecombe MP
- Sir George Young MP

The meeting was chaired by Peter Riddell , of the Times and Chairman of the Hansard Society. His first task was to draw lots to settle the order of speaking. Each candidate had up to five minutes to speech - and all kept within time. I am sure that there will be reports in the UK media - a colleague who sat next to me, and who has had a long involvement with Hansard Society events, observed that he had never seen so many representatives of the print and broadcast media in attendance at a Hansard Society function. The following are my own notes, and I make no claims about accuracy or representativeness.

Alan Beith was the first to speak. He regarded "maintaining effort to make parliament more effective" as a priority. He suggested that the House as a whole should occasionally sit outside Westminster. Parmjit Dhanda expressed the view that the public "don't want the language of Erskine May, but...plain, blunt English". He too advocated taking Parliament out to the country.

Richard Shepherd described himself as the "back to the future candidate". He spoke passionately of his view that Parliament once meant something. "It needs to again". He stressed that the House of Commons is NOT the government. Instead, it is made up of the representatives for the country. "The Commons' role is to moderate, influence and challenge government."

The personal qualities needed of a Speaker were stressed by Sir George Young - impartiality; authority; patience; humour; aquaintance with the rules; a basis of support from across the House; and leadership were mentioned.

Anne Widdecombe said "I'm pretty unique", pointing out that, amongst other unique qualities, she was only asking for interim authority. She will retire from Parliament at the General Election. As with other candidates she stressed the dual task of restoring the reputation of the House and shifting the balance from the Executive to Parliament.

John Bercow, the bookies favourite, said there were three challenges
1 to restore trust in politics
2 to put Parliament first
3 to be an ambassador - He, or she, must be "a robust advocate of democratic accountability - and a listener to the legitimate concerns of the public"

The final four, and this was an accident of chance, were more tradionally minded. Both Sir Alan Haselhurst and Sir Michael Lord have long experience in the Speakers Chair - currently the number 2 and 3 in the hierarchy. Sir Patrick Cormack is a House institution himself - being known for his knowledge of Commons history. Margaret Beckett has great ministerial experience and was a former Leader of the House. All acknowledged that changes were necessary but didn't display the passion for reform of some of the earlier speaking candidates.

It was well worth going - and I hope you'll be able to watch on Sunday. The Hansard Society allowed us to see both quality and hope for the future.

A BBC report with highlights is available now at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8099946.stm

Human Rights and the Armed Forces

Lord Astor of Hever will ask today "Her Majesty’s Government what is their reaction to the judgment of the Court of Appeal on 18 May regarding the applicability of the Human Rights Act 1998 to members of the armed forces operating in combat zones."

In the case of R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Defence the Court of Appeal held that sending out soldiers without adequate protection could be an actionable breach of their human rights. A newspaper report can be found at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/may/18/british-soldiers-human-rights-battle

Sunday 14 June 2009


Standards are slipping. Enjoy this tirade courtesy of 'The Onion'

Constitutional Reform

Last week was a feast for those of us who are keen to see major constitutional reform in the UK. On Wednesday the Prime Minister announced plans for reforming Parliament. Further details are available at http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page19582

On Thursday the House of Lords debated 'constitutional renewal'. This was a debate put down by Lord Tyler on a motion - "To call attention to the legislative proposals for constitutional renewal; and to move for Papers". It can be read at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldhansrd/text/90611-0002.htm#09061139000745

Saturday 13 June 2009

The Week Ahead

Will Westminster settle down this week? After a long period of turmoil - with expenses scandals; the resignation of the Speaker; elections; plots againgst the Prime Minister; noisy demonstrations in Parliament Square, and egg throwing - will quiet return?

Probably not. On Monday hustings will take place for the forthcoming election of a new Speaker. On Wednesday tributes will be paid to the outgoing Speaker. In the Commons on Tuesday there will be a debate on European Affairs - no doubt enlivened by the results of the elections and Lord Mandelson's comments on the objective of joining the Euro. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/20090612/peter-mandelson-euro-single-currency-ukip.htm

The Lords also have a busy week ahead, with the Political Parties and Elections Bill facing its Report Stage.

The Parliamentary calendar can be viewed at http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/

In Congress the War Supplemental Bill conference report is likely to be voted on, though a filibuster is threatened by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

House of Representatives: http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/21WeeklyLeader61509.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550

Friday 12 June 2009

Election of Speaker of the Commons

A note has been prepared for MPs setting out the arrangements for the election of the new Speaker. The election will take place on 22nd June.



1. This note describes the practical arrangements for the election of a Speaker by secret ballot. This new procedure is set out in detail in Standing Order No. 1B, which was agreed by the House on 22 March 2001, following recommendations by the Procedure Committee in its 2nd Report of Session 2000–01 (HC 40).


2. Nominations should be submitted in writing to the Lower Table Office between 9.30 am and 10.30 am on the day of the election. Nomination Forms will be available in advance from the Table Office and the Vote Office but need not be used, provided that in all respects nominations meet the provisions of the Standing Order. To be valid, nominations must contain a signed statement from the candidate declaring willingness to stand, and must be signed by not fewer than 12 nor more than 15 Members, of whom at least three must have been elected to the House as members of a party other than that of the candidate (or as members of no party). No Member may sign more than one statement of nomination—and if any Member does so, their signature will be invalidated for all nominations.

3. A list of validly nominated candidates will be made available by 11.00 am in the Members’ Lobby (Vote Office window) and the Division Lobbies and on the intranet. The names of those nominating a candidate are not published.

Candidates address the House
4. The House will meet at 2.30 pm, with the Senior Member in the Chair. Prayers will not be read. If there is only one valid nomination, the Presiding Member will invite the Member so nominated to submit himself or herself to the House and then put the question for that Member’s election as Speaker to the House forthwith. There will be no ballot.
5. If there is more than one candidate a ballot is held. The candidates will address the House
in turn, the order having been determined by lot drawn by the Presiding Member. The order of speaking will be announced in advance on the annunciator and the candidates will be contacted directly to inform them.
The Ballot
6. The start of the first ballot will be declared by the Presiding Member after the conclusion of the candidates’ addresses and the ballot will run for half an hour from that time. Members with surnames A to K should vote in the Aye Lobby, entering the doors behind the Speaker’s Chair; Members with surnames starting L to Z should vote in the No Lobby, entering the doors off the Members’ Lobby. Only one entrance to each lobby will be open. Members will have their name recorded at temporary division desks before being issued with a ballot paper from a station set up further down the lobby. The ballot paper will give the names of candidates in alphabetical order. Members should approach the division desks in three queues as follows.

In the Aye Lobby: surnames beginning with A to C
surnames beginning with D to G
surnames beginning with H to K

In the No Lobby: surnames beginning with L to O
surnames beginning with P to S
surnames beginning with T to Z

7. Members should complete the ballot paper at one of the stations erected in the lobby, and then deposit it in the ballot box at the exit from the lobby. Members may vote for only one candidate.

8. The ballot will be open for half an hour at which point the Presiding Member will order
the entry doors to the lobby to be locked. All Members in the lobby when the doors are locked will be allowed to vote.
9. It is expected that the counting of the first ballot will take approximately one hour.
10. As soon as counting is complete the House will be summoned. The Presiding Member will announce the number of votes cast for each candidate. If one has received more than half of the votes cast, the question will be put “that [that Member] do take the Chair of the House as Speaker”. Otherwise the House will proceed to a second ballot. At this stage no new nominations may be received. A new ballot paper will be prepared without the names of (a) the candidate who received the fewest votes, (b) any candidate who received less than 5% of the votes cast in the previous ballot, and (c) any candidate who within ten minutes of the announcement of the previous ballot has notified the Presiding Member of an intention to withdraw.
11. It is expected that the next ballot would be opened about 45 minutes after the announcement of the result of the previous ballot. The timing will appear on the annunciator. Again, the ballot will be open for half an hour.
12. Successive ballots will be held until either one candidate receives more than half the votes
cast or the elimination of other candidates leaves only one candidate on the ballot paper. The question will then be put “that [that Member] do take the Chair of the House as Speaker”. If that question is agreed, the Member will then take the Chair as Speaker-elect.

Thursday 11 June 2009

House of Lords - Expenses

Details of the payment of expenses to Peers (they receive no salary), can be found on the Parliamentary Website.

Members’ Reimbursement Scheme - General Guide: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldpeers/ldpeers.pdf

Details of Expenses from 2001

In addition Peers and their staff are required to disclose any interests they have.

The Registers Of Lords’ (and their Staffs’) interests:

Wednesday 10 June 2009

BBC Video on Leaders under attack

The BBC has an interesting video on the recent history of challenges - press here

SoS for the Home Department v AF

The judgment can now be read in full at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldjudgmt/jd090610/af.pdf

House of Lords Judgment

A few minutes ago the House of Lords Judicial Committee delivered an important judgment. In nthe case of Secretary of State for the Home department v AF & another it held againgst the use of secret evidence.

Lords Questions - 10 June

As usual, four questions are set down for the first half hour of business. The subjects are

1 Prison Service
2 Kenya
3 Sudan
4 Sri Lanka

Parliamentary Scrutiny of European Affairs

The isue arose in a question on Monday by Lord Wallace of Saltaire when he asked the Chairman of Committees what steps are being taken to improve co-operation between the House of Lords and United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament in scrutinising the policy-making process of the European Union and the implementation of EU policies.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, there is already substantial co-operation between this House and UK MEPs. For example, there are regular tripartite meetings between your Lordships’ EU Committee, its Commons counterpart and UK MEPs. In addition, our own Brussels-based EU liaison officer is responsible for facilitating the exchange of information between the EU Committee and MEPs. Finally, the EU Committee regularly seeks evidence from UK MEPs.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Chairman of Committees for that Answer. I welcome the establishment of an office in Brussels and the improvement of relations between British MEPs and this House. We share the common purpose of improving scrutiny of both national and European proposals as they go into and out of Brussels. I remember well that, after the last European election, the head of services of the British chair of a new European Parliament committee proposed that he should read two reports from our EU Committee before he started. We have the opportunity to make this a closer relationship. What further measures can we take to make sure that Members of the European Parliament are welcome to sit in on EU Committee meetings in this House; and that when we go to Brussels we, in turn, catch up with what they are doing?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, there is high co-operation already. If noble Lords wish to propose any additional forms of co-operation, I undertake to pass them on to the Chairman of the European Union committee. Sadly, as your Lordships are aware, he is not here today; he is recovering from surgery and we hope to see him back before the end of the month.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, while we are on the subject of scrutinising EU policy-making activities, has by any chance the Chairman of Committees received any information on when the new Minister for Europe will take up her portfolio or when she might be entering this House?

The Chairman of Committees: Sadly not, my Lords. I should make it very clear at the beginning of this Question that I am answering it on behalf of the administration of the House, and I shall not be able to answer any questions on events in the European Union elections last Thursday.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, the continued development of the European security and defence policy argues the case for even closer co-operation, because the work straddles the responsibilities of this Parliament and of the European Parliament. Although there has been progress, the two Parliaments are in many ways almost on different planets. Can there not be a series of measures that include ensuring that, as a matter of course, the committees of this House send their work programmes and reports to the relevant British Members of the European Parliament and vice-versa.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the reports of our European Union Committee are already sent to all those in the European Parliament who are interested. That is one reason why we have a European Union liaison officer who is responsible in Brussels for dealing with exactly that kind of thing.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, given that the EU Parliament only has the power of co-decision, while the monopoly for proposing all EU legislation remains with the Commission, and given that the Government have overridden the scrutiny reserve some 500 times in the past six years, and because, by the Government’s own admission, Brussels pays no attention to the views of our Select Committees, would it not be more sensible to close down our EU committees and redistribute their excellent resources to other Select Committee work, which is of such value to the nation?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is just the kind of question which I am not going to answer this afternoon.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees agree that the connections that have been made between the committees, particularly some of the sub-committees, and Members of the European Parliament have influenced the outcome of much of the legislation? I speak as the chair of Sub-Committee G, which has published a number of reports which have changed the proposed legislation.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is very good news which proves the worth of the European Union Committee and of our contacts with MEPs.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that the taxpayer would save a load of money, and it would be a very good thing, if we reverted to the old system of indirect elections to the European Parliament? We would have no need of new procedures, such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the MEPs would be among us here at Westminster. Surely the present set-up can be attractive only to those who look upon the Commission as a sort of government accountable to the people of Europe. It should be treated as a bureaucracy that serves the community’s sovereign member states so that they can work more effectively together.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is an interesting view. However, it goes somewhat wide of the Question on the Order Paper, which asks what co-operation this House has with our MEPs who were elected yesterday. We have to work with the system as it is, rather than with what the noble Lord may consider to be a better one.

Constitutional Reform

It ie being reported that a statement will be made at Westminster today about proposals for constitutional reform.

Current news reports are available at
BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8092235.stm
Sky News: http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/Politics/Gordon-Brown-To-Outline-Westminster-Reforms-And-Electoral-System-Shake-Up/Article/200906215299955?lpos=Politics_Carousel_Region_3&lid=ARTICLE_15299955_Gordon_Brown_To_Outline_Westminster_Reforms_And_Electoral_System_Shake-Up
Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/jun/10/house-of-lords-reform-electoral
Times: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6466749.ece

Tuesday 9 June 2009


Last night attention centered on the weekly meeting of the PLP. This is held every Monday when Parliament is sitting, at 6pm. All members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are entitled to attend - the PLP includes all MPs and Peers who take the Labour Whip. Sometimes the 'whip' is withdrawn from a particular member as a disciplinary measure. The meeting is usually addressed by a senior Minister (if Labour is in Government - otherwise a senior party leader). It is chaired by the Chair of the PLP, who is elected by the members of the PLP. The current chair is Tony Lloyd.

Sometimes these meetings can suffer from low attendance. This was not the case yesterday! As can often happen, Labour Peers had to leave as a vote was called in the House of Lords. Today's papers include a number of reports about the meeting.

Monday 8 June 2009

The Results Are In

I have just arrived home from the East Midlands count in Leicester. Each District Council (may have the title of District; Borough or City Council) had its own count for all the votes cast in the relevant district. These were then transmitted to the central count in Leicester. Once the total numbers of votes cast for each party were calculated; the five seats were allocated on a proportional basis using the d'Hondt method.

The East Midlands results in detail can be seen at : http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/elections/euro/09/html/ukregion_31.stm

As number four on Labour's list - I haven't been elected. Instead I will be devoting the free time that has become available now that the campaign is over, to improving the Washminster blog.

As it is well past 3am, I am about to go to bed, to recharge my batteries! - the day ahead is likely to be eventful. The implications of the national results need to be considered. Two BNP candidates were elected - the first time this extreme right wing party has won places in the European Parliament. Anti-European parties and individuals gained much support. Labour's share of the vote fell by 7 percentage points, and the party fell into third place nationally behind UKIP. At 6pm this evening the Parliamentary Labour Party will hold its weekly meeting. All Labour MPs and Peers are entitled to attend. The leadership of the party will be discussed. The trade union, the CWU, will decide whether to split from the Labour Party. As a major affiliate and financial backer of the Labour Party (it contributes around £1 million each year), this is of great significance.

So ....watch this space!!!!!

Friday 5 June 2009

The Aftermath

The polls closed at 10pm. Some County Council counts began immediately. Most start this morning. Results can be followed on http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/europe/2009/election_09/default.stm

The Reshuffle within the Government is now underway - up to date coverage is available at

10 Downing Street: http://www.number10.gov.uk/

Thursday 4 June 2009

Election Day

The sun is already up, and its a beautiful morning outside. There's some very thin, very high cloud - but the sun is shining. As soon as I have written this post - and checked my email - I will quickly get ready for a very long day ahead.

The polls open at 7.00am. We moved from Rugby to Milton Keynes just over a month ago. I am now registered to vote at our new address - so will be outside the polling station - perhaps to be the first in. No one is expecting the long queues which I saw in Alexandria, Virginia last November. Once I've voted - and as Milton Keynes is a unitary authority - there is no local vote to cast. In England County Councils are being elected. I will however cast my vote in the European Elections. Unlike all other elections in England, my vote will not be for an individual - but for a party list. Seats will be allocated, on a broadly proportional basis, according to the votes cast for each party. Milton Keynes is (just) in the South East Region.

As soon as I have voted, I will make my way into the region in which I am the fourth placed name on the Labour Party list. The East Midlands extends from just three miles from my home (the Milton Keynes/Northamptonshire border), up to the outskirts of Sheffield. Its western border is with Warwickshire - and is pretty close to the geographical centre of England [some people say the centre is in Daventry, which is in the East Midlands itself - it depends how you calculate the "centre"]. It is made up of the counties of Derbyshire; Nottinghamshire; Lincolnshire; Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.

I expect to spend the day in Leicester. The city has three Labour held parliamentary seats. As it too is a unitary authority, there are no county elections. Just outside the city, such elections are being held - I'm particularly interested in the elections in the current parliamentary constituency of Blaby, which I stood for in the 2001 and 2005 General Elections. Braunstone Town borders Leicester City - and is held by Labour.

Polls close at 10pm. During the day I'll be involved in the GOTV (Get Out The Vote) activities. With all the current turmoil in British politics it should be an interesting day. Once polls have closed I'll drive home. Tomorrow county council votes will be counted and results announced. European Parliament votes will not be counted until Sunday, after all polling stations across the European Union have closed. I'll be back in Leicester for my count.

You can follow the days events via the BBC

The Labour Party's website is: - http://www.labour.org.uk/

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Reforming Westminster

Recent events have exposed some of the weaknesses of the current political system operating at Westminster - and brought the idea of major constitutional reform to the centre of debate. Washminster will follow this debate closely.

The starting point must be Lord Acton's comment that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
In the UK we tend to concentrate on the latter part of the quote - congratulating ourselves that no one is given absolute power. The Magna Carta in 1215 established that no one was above the law, even the King has limited power. When the Stuart monarchs overstepped the mark - they were removed (In 1649 Charles I was tried and executed; and at the 'Glorious Revolution', James II was "run out of town" by Parliament and the 'Bill of Rights' passed). There is significant separation of powers at the very core of the British constitutional system.
But the first part of the quote is just as important. The possession of Power itself holds dangers. Human nature is flawed. We can easily convince ourselves that what is in our own interest is also in the interest of others. We can "cut corners" and become blind to the wrongfulness of our behaviour. It is significant that many MPs defending their actions have stressed that they acted within the rules in making their claims - apparently unaware of how appalling their behaviour appears to everyone else. History is full of abuses of power.
The answer is to set up checks and balances to counter this natural tendency. The US Constitution is built on that principle. Separation of powers is crucial because, as Montesquieu argues, when one person has a hand in all three branches of government, tyranny will ensue. The exercise of power needs to be transparent and there must be accountability. Those who take decisions must be answerable for them. That's why I am an advocate of powerful parliamentary committees able to demand explanations. Only when there is a culture of accountability can lessen the opportunity for the abuse of power.
Over the coming weeks, this blog will discuss many of the reforms that could build on the strengths of the Westminster system, whilst adressing the weaknesses. I hope you'll engage in this important debate.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Freedom of Passage to the House of Parliament

Earl Ferrers will today ask Her Majesty’s Government "whether the House’s sessional order relating to the freedom of passage to the Houses of Parliament, made on 3 December 2008, has been fully implemented."

A similar question was asked in November 2000, when the Leader of the House replied -

"The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has accepted without qualification that it is the duty of the Metropolitan Police to implement in full the terms of the sessional order to ensure that passage through the streets leading to this House is kept clear and open for the duration of this Parliament.

While I recognise the right of individuals to demonstrate and to lobby their members of Parliament, I do not consider it acceptable to prevent noble Lords from performing their duties in this House.

I receive regular reports from Black Rod, and the Commissioner has assured me, through Black Rod, that his officers will do everything necessary to ensure that the business of both Houses of Parliament is not hindered by disturbances in the streets."

Sessional Orders are passed at the start of each session (after the Queen's Speech). A report on sessional orders was produced by the Commons Procedure Committee in 2003, and it deals with access to parliament. It is available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmproced/855/855.pdf

Recent demonstarations - particularly by Sri Lankans - where the roads around Westminster have been brought to a complete standstill - have led to much concern.

Monday 1 June 2009

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Some attribute the phrase above to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Certainly it was popularised in the USA (and beyond) by Mark Twain. In the House of Lords today Lord Hamilton of Epsom is due to ask a "Question for Short Debate" which will "ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to secure confidence in the use of Government statistics".

There has been concern about statistics for some time. An interesting paper relevant to the issue was published by the House of Commons Library as background to the Statistics and Registration Service Bill - an attempt to address some of the concerns.http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2006/rp06-066.pdf

The website for UK Government statistics is http://www.statistics.gov.uk/hub/index.html