Sunday 28 February 2010

The Stables

This morning, at the Stables in Wavendon, I enjoyed listening to a presentation (with some great music) - with contributions from the "audience" - about the original Stables. It was presented by Brian Whitehead who was involved in recordings made there.

This month has been one of reminiscences - as we have mourned the death, and celebrated the life of Sir John Dankworth. The Stables are adjacent to the home of Sir John and his wife, Dame Cleo Laine. They were the moving spirits behind setting up what has become one of the top ten music venues in the UK. As well as jazz - the 350 or so concerts a year include all types of music and also a fair range of comedians.

During the first half of this mornings presentation the 'old' Stables were described and the theme of the music played was "Mostly Home Grown" performers. The second half's theme was "the transatlantic stars".

The current Stables is a modern building with a decent sized auditorium, but the 'old' Stables was just that - a converted stables. During the Second War War it was used as a nuts and bolts factory - and local rumour has it that these were produced for the work going on at Bletchley Park.

"Jazz Matters" are held on Sunday mornings in "Stage 2" - where the outside wall is original - and the interior stands where the foyer of the 'old' Stables were. Sir John Dankworth started these Sunday morning sessions - and he attended and participated in almost every one when he was in the country. Many of the regulars have been coming for many years, though I've only been attending frequently for the last 12 months or so. Further details are available here. Tickets can be purchased at The Stables website.

The Week Ahead

Two useful pdf documents -

The Week Ahead - from the House of Commons' 'Weekly Information Bulletin (although it summarises business for both chambers and committees of both Houses.) 'The Week Ahead' is usually around p6 of the online pdf.

The Weekly Leader - the week's business, provided by the office of the Leader of the House of Representatives.

The current TV schedule for C-SPAN is available here
BBC Parliamen't schedule is available here

Saturday 27 February 2010

R (Binyam Mohamed v Secretary of state for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

The Court of Appeal's further judgement in this case (see earlier post) has now been published. The issue is whether the redacted paragraphs from the main judgement should be made public. It can be accessed here.

It's a useful judgement to read

firstly, it is readable - some reports can be very long and the reasoning complex. This is logical and can be followed with ease.

secondly , the issues are of great importance.
Press Coverage is available -

Friday 26 February 2010

Scrutiny in the Lords

Yesterday I had a meeting which prevented me from attending the earlier part of the debate initiated by Lord Norton of Louth on "the case for enhancing the means available to the House of Lords to scrutinise legislation and public policy". I did however sit through a number of speeches. It was an informative and interesting debate. I will be reading the debate in Lords Hansard and would recommend the same to you. The work of the House of Lords and the challenges for the future are well described.

There were useful summaries of the work of scrutiny undertaken by this 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom (or the '2005 Parliament' as it is usually referred to). Lord Strathclyde and Baroness Royall gave such summaries for the House generally and Lord Roper did so for the 'family' of European Union committees.

The weaknesses of current scrutiny were also highlighted - and various suggestions put forward. All the leaders of the parties in the Lords and the convener of the Cross Benches were present - and I left confident that there was a mood and a will for enhancement.

The debate can be read in the Lords Hansard of 25th February - which can be accessed via here.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Written Question

Yesterday's Hansard for the Houuse of Lords published the following written question and answer -

Lord Elton - To ask the Chairman of Committees whether consideration will be given to acquiring a number of respectable cats to reduce the rodent population of the Palace of Westminster.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): The possible use of cats, respectable or otherwise, to control the rodent population in the Palace of Westminster has been considered and ejected on a number of practical grounds. For example, the cats would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice; there would be nothing to keep them in the areas where they are most needed, or to stop them walking on desks in offices and on tables in restaurants and bars; they can carry fleas and other parasites; and many people are allergic to cat hair. However, the Administration is taking a wide range of other control measures such as significantly increasing the number of bait boxes and traps, sealing mouse access points and intensifying the cleaning regime to minimise the presence of crumbs in the bars and food outlets. The age, construction and location of the Palace of Westminster are such that it will never be possible to eradicate mice entirely, but all appropriate measures are being taken to minimise the numbers.

I am aware from internal emails that mice have been spotted around the House of Lords end of the Palace - but haven't seen them myself! The Speaker's wife (who lives in the Speaker's House which is in the Palace) revealed a few weeks ago in a tweet - "Eeek we have a mouse again! Just seen it run under the dishwasher. The mouse-catcher man doesn't work on Sundays though... what to do?"

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Pennsylvania Places

The town of Scranton is better known these days. Vice President, Joe Biden was born there - as was Hillary Clinton's father (Hugh Rodham). It is of course the place in which The Office (An American Workplace) is set. I had heard of it long ago as an uncle of my mother had emigrated to the town and lived there before moving to Denver. When my family took a holiday in the USA we stayed near Scranton (on a lake in the Poconos) - and I was struck how similar the architecture was to the mining villages of South Wales. (where my great-uncle had come from.)

Nearby is Wilkes-Barre - where we went to our first baseball game. The town is named in honour of two English Parliamentarians who supported the cause of American during the struggle for independence - the figher for liberty, John Wilkes and Isaac Barre.

They had known each other for a number of years - serving in the Commons, and Wilkes was a lieutenant colonel for the militia of five counties and the 34th Foot, which was commanded by Barre. Apparently though they didn't really like each other.

Isaac Barre had a significant military career. He fought with Wolfe in America, and was with him at the Battle of Quebec. It was during that battle that he lost an eye. He entered Parliament in 1761 and has been described as "the most vocal champion of America in Parliament"

John Wilkes will be the subject of a forthcoming post (when I have completed Arthur H. Cash's biography 'John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty.')

Tuesday 23 February 2010

The Good Old Days?

"The King (George III) responded by giving (Henry)Fox the unofficial position of 'cabinet councillor and his Majesty's minister in the House of Commons'. His duty was to obtain a majority vote to approve the peace treaty (with France). How he did it would be no concern to the King, but he would have all the resources of the Crown at his disposal.

Fox vigorously attacked his new assignment, using the resources of the Crown to bribe the members of the House. He offered them places in the government, commissions in the military, or chairs in the universities. If such favors for themselves or their families failed, he offered money. John Almon wrote, 'The royal household has been increased beyond all former example. The lords and grooms of the bedchamber were doubled. Pensions were thrown about indiscriminately. Five and twenty thousand pounds were issued in one day, in bank notes of one hundred pounds each. The only stipulation was, Give us your vote. A corruption of such notoriety and extent had never been seen before.' According to Walpole, 'A shop was publicly opened at the Pay Office, whither the members flocked, and received the wages of their venality in bank-bills, even to so low a sum as two hundred pounds for their votes on the treaty'"

This account is to be found in Arthur H. Cash's biography 'John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty.' I've been enjoying this fascinating book about a hero of the fight for liberty in eighteenth century England. I will soon be at the point where his support for the American Revolution is described.

We might think that some MPs have not conducted themselves well in recent years. We may bemoan the way that governments are able to push legislation through with the force of their majority - but things have been worse in the past. Sometimes people paint a very rosy picture of parliaments in former days. The truth is that Westminster has seen some appalling behaviour. I'm glad to say that much of that behaviour is now illegal. Despite the view of MPs as sheep following the orders of the whips - MPs today are more prepared than ever to vote against their party. [The work of Lord Norton and Philip Cowley establishes this.] During the 1950s there was a whole session in which no backbencher voted against their Government - nowadays rebellions are frequent, and very few MPs have no record of 'rebellious behaviour'.

Monday 22 February 2010

The Rule of Law

Many books deserve a fulsome recommendation. A very few fall into that rare category of "books every citizen should read". One small book out this year more than exceeds the criteria for inclusion in this limited list [the criteria should be (1) the writer has something VERY important to say AND (2) it is written in plain, readable language]

Lord Bingham of Cornhill ['Tom Bingham' is the name on the book] has been Master of the Rolls (head of England and Wales' civil justice system); Lord Chief Justice (head of the judiciary of England and Wales) and the Senior Law Lord (in the House of Lords Judicial Committee - the highest court in the UK before it became the Supreme Court). When he writes about the law, he knows what he is writing about! (Times' Profile)

"The Rule of Law" [London: Allen Lane, 2010 ISBN 978-1-846-14090-7] is a short, but incredibly powerful and useful book. It explains - in a very readable way - a central concept in English Law. He sets out a history of the idea, then explains what it means. It is no obscure academic principle, but the foundation upon which liberty rests. Every citizen should read this book - because it explains the meaning and importance of the idea - and sets out how easily it can be threatened.

The book is also a superb introduction to English Law. In succinct terms Lord Bingham explains (in a way unrivalled by any textbook I've seen) -
  • sources of English Law (chap 3)
  • principles of the English legal system (Chap 9)
  • Judicial Review (Chap 6)
  • Human Rights Law - including key provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (Chap 7)
  • principles of International Law (Chap 10)
  • Sovereignty of Parliament (Chap 12)
If you are studying (or about to study) Law - [particularly those subjects traditionally known as 'English Legal System' and 'Constitutional & Administrative Law' (or the Open University's W100, W200, W201, Y166) - this is a book you will find very useful - both for understanding key concepts and for exam revision.
But this is not just a book for law students. Students of politics and history will also find it useful - as indeed (as I've already said a few times) ANY CITIZEN.

Sunday 21 February 2010

Reform of the House of Commons

The House of Commons will tomorrow hold a debate on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee Report, HC 1117, Rebuilding the House.

The details of the debate - and the various motions which the House has to decide upon are available on the Order Paper, available here.

Also relevant to the debate is the Liaison Committee Report responding to the Reform Committee's report.

The debate, which should begin around 3.30pm (UK time) can be watched on the House of Commons feed on Democracy Live.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Is there an election coming up?

This weekend the South East region of the Labour Party is holding its conference in Reading. Senior Cabinet Members and leaders of the party (past, present and future) will be addressing members as they prepare for an election which can now be, at most, less than three and a half months away (though most people would now bet on May 6th as the most likely date - if that is correct Parliament must be dissolved in less than 8 weeks). Plaid Cymru started their "Pre-Election Conference" on Thursday.

The Conservatives have their Spring Conference in Brighton next weekend. The Liberal Democrats have their Spring Conference in Birmingham from 12th to 14th March.

Friday 19 February 2010

Packing the Court

I use the trains frequently - travelling between my home in Milton Keynes - and my academic work in Leicester for Leicester University; Birmingham for the Open University - and my three days a week working in the the House of Lords, London. One great advantage of using public transport is that I get some time to read or listen to audio books.

Over the last three weeks, ending yesterday, I have listened to the audiobook, "Packing the Court" by James MacGregor Burns. It is an excellent book - combining a thorough survey of the history of the Supreme Court with an argument against the Court's practice of 'Judicial Review'. The book highlights the political nature of the Supreme Court. Many Justices have been former politicians - and all have been nominated by Presidents and confirmed by the Senate - so many of the choices have been overtly party political. I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone wanting a good history of the Court and its justices (and American history generally). Its arguments are worth reflecting upon too - whether you are an American citizen - or a citizen or resident of another country. The issues of the role of the judiciary - and its relationship to democratically elected institutions - are relevant worldwide. In the United Kingdom - which its constitutional setup evolving quickly - it is of particular importance to reflect upon these themes.

There is an excellent review from the New York Times accessible here.

Details of the book (in many forms) from the publisher are available here.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

1000th post

This is the one thousandth post on Washminster! So here's to the next thousand! With a General Election just weeks away - and many months of congressional manoeuvring before the mid-terms, we can expect some interesting issues to cover.

I was asked recently about the study of 'rollcall' votes in the British Parliament. In the United States the individual votes cast by each Member are studied in detail. Figures can be produced showing how individual members compare to their colleagues - in terms of party loyalty & assessments made of their labor, liberal, business and conservative viewpoints. In the UK this data is of less value. Party voting by members is much stronger. In the House of Commons almost all Members vote almost all the time, in line with the party whip. As a result there is much less analysis of rollcall votes.

The Lords Divisions Analysis is a useful tool for looking at votes in the Lords - it can be used to see who votes - and (of particular importance) who is prepared to vote against the party whip. It can be accessed here.

There is an excellent website which looks at Common's rebellions called revolts.co.uk.

To look at the record of particular MPs or Peers - the 'they work for you' site is useful (though it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt - it is easy to manipulate the result - by asking pointless questions, or intervening unnecessarily).

Monday 15 February 2010

The Week Ahead

It recess week both sides of the Atlantic - or as the House of Representatives puts it - this is a "District Work Period". The US observes 'President's Day' (Washington's birthday 22nd Feb; Lincoln's 12th Feb - it is now the practice to celeberate these two & other Presidents on the third Monday in February). In the UK the recess coincides (by design) with the half term holiday in most schools.

Washminster will appear tomorrow - for a very special occasion. It will then take a couple of days off - though of course events can always take over!
It is also the anniversary of the day that Britain introduced decimal currency (in 1971) - we were a little behind the US in that!

Sunday 14 February 2010

The Ship Money Case

The right of Parliament to approve (or not) taxes has been claimed from the fourteenth century. A statute of 1362 established that Parliament must assent to all lay taxation. Many Kings would have liked to evade this - and some tried - but Charles I was probably the greatest offender. He sought parliamentary approval - but when he failed to get it, attempted to live without calling Parliament. Ship money was a charge sometimes made on coastal towns for their defence. Charles attempted to impose this charge across the country. John Hampden - who had property in Buckinghamshire - a land-locked county, far from the sea (I know, Milton Keynes where I live is a long way from the coast. Hampden's property was in Stoke Mandeville) - refused to pay his assessment of One Pound.

Hampden lost the case - Rex v. Hampden, (3 State Trials, 825) by a vote of 7-5 in the Exchequer Chamber - but the closeness of the result, and the fact that Hampden was prepared to be taken to court for non-payment - encoraged many others to refuse. It was also the subject of many partisan pamphlets prior to the outbreak of the civil war. [If you have acess (possibly through a university library to JSTOR - you can read an article about the use of the case at the time here)]

The English have rightly regarded this case as an important part of the struggle which ultimately led to the Sovereignty of Parliament.

Further information on Parliament and control of taxes can be found here.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Their Lordships' Behaviour

On Wednesday (the last day before the recess - which lasts until Monday 22nd at 2.30pm) a question was put by Lord Campbell-Savours (and the reply and supplementaries tell us much about how the House of lords works)

To ask the Leader of the House on how many occasions in the past 12 months she has intervened in the House to draw the House's attention to the need to comply with the Companion to the Standing Orders; and what assessment she has made of the response of Members.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, no such statistics are kept. In a self-regulating House, interventions to draw the House's attention to the guidance in the Companion are not confined exclusively to the Leader. In the Leader's absence, this role falls to the Deputy Leader or to the senior Government Whip present; and the opposition Front Benches and the Convenor also can and do draw transgressions to the attention of the House.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, have not attempts over the past week more vigorously to enforce the Companion clearly indicated, despite some success, that some Members simply ignore or refuse to accept the authority of the government Front Bench? That being the case, should not the Procedure Committee be prevailed on to ask the Lord Speaker to intervene and act to defend the finer aspects of self-regulation?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I believe that many Members of this House strongly support self-regulation, and I believe that most Members of this House accept the authority of the House. I, of course, was present yesterday and I think that most of the House were very much with me yesterday in what I was doing.

The role set out for the Leader in the Companion is simply to draw the House's attention to the guidance in the Companion and to any transgressions of the guidance. In relation to the Procedure Committee, I know that on the Benches behind me, and in other parts of the House, there is a strong desire for change-not throughout the House, but on the Benches behind me. I suggest that if any Members wish to take matters to the Procedure Committee, they can so do.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that from this side of the House, we greatly support and admire the work that she does in drawing the attention of the House to those Members who occasionally transgress the rules? Before making any change, would it not be a very good idea for more Members of this House to visit another place and judge for themselves whether discipline and behaviour in the House of Commons are better than in the House of Lords?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful for the support of all Members of the House in ensuring that discipline is properly maintained in this House. I do not think that I want to comment greatly on what happens in the other place, but I am mindful of it.

Lord McNally: My Lords, there is a mood for change in this House, as the Leader rightly says. Why is she shilly-shallying about setting up a Leader's Group? This House is not affected by a general election. We could get on straight away with listening to ideas for improvement. If there are worries about the composition of the group, why not hold a ballot of all Members of the House on the composition of such a group-to be conducted by STV, of course?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I could not go as far as STV. I understand that there is a mood for change in some parts of the House. The Leader has not been shilly-shallying. The Leader has been doing what it is appropriate for the Leader to do, which is to try to ensure that all parts of the House are included in such a Leader's Group. I accept that not everybody wishes to establish a Leader's Group at this point. Notwithstanding what the noble Lord said about the election, I think that with six weeks-who knows?-before an election, although we know that an election will come before June, perhaps it would be better to wait until we return after the election. I can see the noble Lord nodding his head. We are all coming back. If, as I very much expect, we are still sitting on this side of the House and it should please the Prime Minister that I should still be the Leader of this House, I will set up a Leader's Group. But I do not think that it is appropriate to do so in the last six or eight weeks before an election.

Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, does the Leader of the House accept that her strictures, especially over the past week, are very welcome in all parts of the House? Does she agree that frequently these days, when the fourth Question is reached, we are well into the 23rd minute of Question Time? Will she encourage noble Lords to bear that in mind because it prevents the fourth questioner having the time he or she should expect?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for pointing out to the whole House that when the clock says 23 we are actually in the 24th minute.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us on the Benches behind her and elsewhere in the House regard self-regulation as we have it, supplemented as it is from time to time by the government Front Bench with suitable tact and lightness of touch, as infinitely preferable to rule from the Chair or the Woolsack which would, whatever the merits of the occupant, lead, as we see every day in the other place, to excessive adversarialism across the House and constant challenge to the rules of the House?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is interesting to have another view from the Benches behind me. That encapsulates the different views around this House. I am Leader of the whole House and, therefore, I have to ensure that all views are taken into proper consideration and that proper procedures are followed.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Leader consider the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, as applying, as I am sure he intended, to Ministers as well as to Back-Benchers?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords. I frequently remind my ministerial colleagues in our weekly meetings that they should keep their answers short in order to ensure that Back- Benchers have proper time for questions.

Lord Dykes: Should there not be wider aspects of reform at this urgent moment? Why should not all Peers pay UK taxes and declare in the Register when they make extra payments as inducements to prospective candidates?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that question is rather wide of the mark. However, as all noble Lords will know, an amendment was put to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill in the other place, and I am confident that in future all Peers will pay tax.

Friday 12 February 2010

Lincoln's Birthday

On February 12th 1809 Abraham Lincoln was born - in a log cabin, measuring sixteen by eighteen fight, comprising a single room. He grew up to become of the greatest Presidents of the United States. Amongst many accomplishments he is known for his short speech delivered at the cemetery in Gettysburg.

The concluding words are worth reflecting upon, and striving for - that
government of the people,
by the people,
for the people,
shall not perish from the earth.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Constitutional Meat

The case of R (Binyam Mohamed) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs raises a host of important constitutional issues. There is much in the case meriting reflection upon. The two key issues are –

Firstly, how far should the demands of National Security be allowed to compromise fundamental constitutional principles – such as the Rule of Law; accountability to Parliament and individuals’ rights? This is a very important – perhaps the most important – constitutional issue. By chance I’ve been listening to the audiobook of “Packing the Court” and have reached the point where the conflict between President Lincoln and the Supreme Court over this issue is discussed. To complement that I glanced again through former Chief Justice Rehnquist’s book “All the Laws but One”. (I also came across a very useful article by Lord Bingham - Personal Freedom and the Dilemma of Democracies') I recommend all of these if you are reflecting on the issue.

The deleted paragraph in the draft judgement in the Binyam Mohammed case contains the following criticisms of MI5
• It failed to respect human rights
• It deliberately misled Parliament
• It had a ‘culture of suppression’

National Security – and its oversight by Parliament and Congress is an interesting topic itself. Many of the works of Christopher Andrew deal with the subject. By coincidence yesterday also saw the passing of former Representative Charlie Wilson – and both the film and book about him “Charlie Wilson’s War” are useful primers on Congress and National Security.

The second issue concerns the rule established in the famous “Ship Money” case of the Seventeenth Century involving John Hampden [a case that Washminster will be discussing shortly] that there should be no secret communication between lawyers and the Court in legal proceedings (unless the Court has given specific directions).

The Guardian reports today that the Government’s QC, Jonathan Sumption, sent his comments on the draft judgement to Lord Neuberger, copying in only one of the parties to the case (Binyam Mohamed) - and not the representatives of the Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, Liberty, Justice, Index on Censorship, who were also parties. Lord Neuberger assumed (as is standard practice) that all parties had seen Sumption's comments and had not felt the need to sumbit comments on Sumption's - and took this into account when he amended the draft.

Hansard contains the statement (and supplementary questions) made in the House of Commons on the case by Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Your comments on these matters would be appreciated. You can make a comment directly - or send to me here.

The Walk

For a healthy walk you can't beat a sunny, pleasant stroll from Arlington to Capitol Hill. While I was in Washington in January I took this walk again - and recorded highlights on video. I hope you enjoy - I did!

Wednesday 10 February 2010


All Party Parliamentary Groups can, and are, formed for all kinds of topics. The current list (with links to details of each APPG) can be found here. Some represent particular industries; others - such as the All-Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group exist "to promote the use and enjoyment of jazz as a music form." The Jazz Appreciation Group has an annual awards ceremony at Westminster.

The APPG on Agriculture and Food for Development has just published a report on global food security entitled Why No Thought for Food? It's an example of the very important; and often influential, work done by these barely reported groups of parliamentarians.

Tuesday 9 February 2010


Leader of the House of Representatives, Steny Hoyer, explains what "PAYGO" is, and how it works.

CRS Documents on PAYGO rules include
Budget Enforcement Procedures: Senate Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) Rule

Pay-As-You-Go Procedures for Budget Enforcement (2007)

The sub judice rule

Parliament can discuss whatever it wishes - but there is a long standing internal rule that matters before the courts in a specific case should not be raised, until the Court has disposed of the case.

Yesterday the Speaker made this brief statement -
Mr. Speaker: I wish to make a statement to the House about the application of the sub judice rule.

Once criminal proceedings are active by a charge having been made, cases before the courts shall not be referred to in any motion, debate or question. The House will be aware that charges have been made against three Members of the House and that therefore the sub judice rule applies to their cases. The matter is therefore before the courts, and the House and Members would not wish to interfere with the judicial process, risk affecting the fairness of a criminal trial or, furthermore, prevent such a trial taking place.

A Standard Note from the House of Commons Library (which can be accessed here) gives the background to the rule.

Politicians in Space

Four members of Congress have flown in space. The most well known is John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, who represented Ohio in the Senate from 1974 to 1999. The other former astronauts are

Senator 'Jake' Garn - who flew on the 'Discovery' Space Shuttle in 1985 as a payload specialist - and was the first sitting member of Congress to enter space. (Senator Glenn flew again - on Discovery - in 1998), Senator Garn was a Republican who represented Utah.

Senator 'Bill' Nelson flew on 'Columbia' in 1986 - he has been a member of the House of Representatives (1979-91) and is now a Democrat Senator for Florida.

Before entering Congress, 'Jack' Schmitt was a scientist-astronaut, and walked on the moon. He was the last but one person to do so. He served as a Republican Senator for New Mexico in 1977-83.

Monday 8 February 2010

Sir John Dankworth

My posts over the weekend indicated that I intended to celebrate American Football, and Jazz - with the Superbowl featuring the New Orleans Saints. Sadly this weekend will be remembered for the loss of a British Jazz giant.

On Saturday, Sir John Dankworth passed away. He had been ill for some time - but we are very sad to lose him. Over the last year my wife and I have been attending the Sunday morning "Jazz Matters" at the Stables in Wavendon. John, whose baby the Sunday sessions were, really brightened those mornings up. He had a wonderful sense of humour - and was such a gracious gentleman. He was a giant of British jazz, a genius (as Jamie Cullum testified on Sunday) and a superb sax & clarinet player - but he was also a really nice guy who didn't have the arrogance that some 'celebrities' have. He had a real passion for educating people about jazz and music generally. I learned so much from his comments - as well as the sessions themselves - in "Jazz Matters"

My condolences to his wife of 51 years, Dame Cleo Laine and their talented children Alec Dankworth and Jacqui Dankworth.

Sir John was a prolific composer as well as a great performer. Thankfully through video and CDs we can continue to enjoy his work.

Sunday 7 February 2010

New Orleans

First, let me make this point clear, I am a fan of the Washington Redskins. Sadly they won't be in tonight's Superbowl (it hasn't been the happiest or most successful of seasons!). So just for one night I will lend my allegiance to another team - the New Orleans Saints.

New Orleans is the obvious choice for someone who - along with watching American Football - has as his main leisure interest - listening to Jazz. New Orleans was the birthplace of this music (though other cities made valuable contributions to the development of Jazz). I have the excellent set of documentaries on Jazz history made by Ken Burns, and I'll watch a few episodes today. New Orleans jazz as a specific style is explained here.

An appropriate piece of video to watch today has New Orleans born Jazz genius Louis Armstrong singing and playing "When the Saints go marching in"

Politically the City is represented by Steve Scalise (LA 01); Joseph Cao (LA 02) Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator David Vitter.

Saturday 6 February 2010


Tomorrow, at 6pm ET (11pm UK/ Midnight Central European Time) the 44th Superbowl will kick off in Miami. I shall therefore be turning my attention to American football (though, thanks to CNN, BBC 24 and the Internet I will continue to follow political events - and I may even go canvasssing).

This years game will be between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts. For British viewers the good news is that BBC One will be broadcasting the game live. Further details here. Britain will be represented during the half time show - by The Who!

Sadly I am teaching in Leicester at 9am on Monday morning (which means catching the 6:10 from Milton Keynes Central) - so no 'Superbowl Party' with the Coventry Jets for me this year

The NFL superbowl site can be accessed here.

Friday 5 February 2010

Age Discrimination?

It's a commonly heard comment today - that the political world is getting younger. Once the House of Commons had its contingents of retired trade unionists; or those who had made their money and had chosen to spend their declining years in a safe seat. That seems to be changing - as the list of prospective parliamentary candidates contains so many "fresh faced youths". Emily Benn (from a well established political family - her uncle is Hilary Benn; her grandfather Tony Benn; and her political family tree goes back to two of her great grandfathers) - will be 20 when the election comes. She is the Labour Party's Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in East Worthing and Shoreham. In Hemsworth the Liberal Democrats have selected an even younger candidate, Alan Belmore.

Perhaps I'm listening to too many older people. In fact in recent years the US Congress has been getting older!

Statistics produced by the Congressional Research Service show the average age of members at the beginning of each Congress. In 1983 the average age was 47.0 - at the start of the 111th Congress (just a year ago) the average had risen to 58.2 years, making this the oldest Congress on record.

Detailed figures - and graphs for the whole of Congressional History can be accessed here.

Thursday 4 February 2010

The Legg Report

This report on MPs' expenses has now been published. I have a copy and am ploughing through it now. I've been asked to be available for BBC Three Counties at 13.40 GMT, and may be on their phone-in programme. (live feed from BBC Three Counties accessible here).

The report (which is one inch deep in the printed version, is available as a pdf file here.

***note - details amended since first posted*****

The UK National Security Strategy

Lord King of Bridgwater (former Tory Defence Secretary Tom King) will today in the Lords introduce a debate "to call attention to the United Kingdom's National Security Strategy; and to move for papers."

The first NSS was produced in 2008 and can be read here. Debates on security matters are usually of a very high standard in the House of Lords. The House contains many former Defence Ministers and former civil and military defence chiefs.

Links to bodies specialising in UK defence and security

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Towards A New Politics

The text of Prime Minister, Gordon Brown's speech "Towards A New Politics" - which discusses a number of constitutional issues is available here.

Control Orders

Lord Lloyd of Berwick (A former Law Lord himself [1984-93] and Chair of an Inquiry into Legislation on Terrorism [1995]) is due to ask in the House of Lords this afternoon "what plans [Her Majesty's Government] have for phasing out control orders in the light of the unanimous decision of nine Lords of Appeal in Ordinary in Secretary of State for the Home Department v AF (No 3)."

This is the latest in a series of cases where the highest court in the UK (then the House of Lords Judicial Committee - which has subsequently become the UK Supreme Court) has ruled against Government attempts to restrict the activities of suspected but not convicted terrorists. The Court held that an individual in government control “must be given sufficient information about the allegations against him to enable him to give effective instructions in relation to those allegations. . . . Where, however, the open material consists purely of general assertions and the case against the controlee [individual held pursuant to a control order] is based solely or to a decisive degree on closed materials the requirements of a fair trial will not be satisfied, however cogent the case based on the closed materials may be.”

The full judgement can be read here

Tuesday 2 February 2010

The Budget

Yesterday the President sent Congress details of the budget he would like for Fiscal Year 2011 (which begins on 1st October 2010). The most obvious contrast with the Budget presented by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer is that Congress has control of the process - and will mould its own budget (which the President hopes will be close to his proposal). In Britain Parliament will, more or less, rubber stamp the Chancellor's budget. A defeat for a British Government on its budget proposals would bring the Government down. A critique of the involvement of Parliament in the budgetary process from the Hansard Society can be read here.

CRS has produced a number of useful guides to the US budgetary process - which are available via the House of Representatives Rules Committee website. The key to understanding the process is the distinction between authorization and appropriation. Congress gives legal authority for the actions involving spending through the authorization process. The allocation of the money comes through the appropriation process. So for defence spending the Armed Services Committees (and some others) deal with the authorizing legislation - and the money is granted by the Appropriation Committees.
The Congressional Budget Office was set up by Congress to provide expert advice and analysis.

Monday 1 February 2010

New Inter-Institutional Agreement

It is reported that last week agreement was reached on a new Inter-Institutional Agreement within the European Union. These agreements set out the powers and procedures of the institutions concerned. The one negotiated last week deals with the powers of the European Parliament - now that the Lisbon Treaty is in force. It governs relations between the Parliament and the European Commission for the 2010-2015 period. The IIA is due to be voted upon on 9th February.

You can read the EurActiv report here.

Harry Reid

When I was in the United States I took the opportunity to boost my library of autobiographies & biographies of current members of Congress. This week - after completing Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" - I began a programme of reading some of these works. This include books by or about John Lewis; Mitch McConnell; Barney Frank and Jim Webb. I have started with Harry Reid's "The Good Fight". Senator Reid represents the State he was born in (Nevada). In the book he describes growing up in Searchlight, a mining town. There are many insights into why he cares deeply about the healthcare issue.

I'm particularly interested in what legislators, especially whips, have to say about their work. In explaining why reform can take such a long time, Senator Reid says "Legislating is a process, a flurry of deals. What's impossible today is possible tomorrow, and sometimes you have to grind it out." Frustrating the the public - but a key truth about the involved process of negotiation which is central to the work of legislatures.
Senator Reid's website can be accessed here.