Tuesday 29 June 2010

Parliamentary Privilege

The Court of Appeal will today hear arguments in the case involving three former MPs and a Peer over the allegations of false accounting with regard to their expenses claims. The point is important because, as was stated in the judgement of Mr Justice Saunders "The Crown Court would not have jurisdiction if the conduct of a trial would infringe parliamentary privilege. If the Crown Court does not have jurisdiction, any determination of guilt or innocence, and if that determination is adverse to a Defendant, any punishment is for Parliament alone."

The original judgement can be read in full here.

At the heart of the argument is the question of what activities are covered by Parliamentary Privilege. It certainly covers words said in the Chamber - but how much further does it go?

"While the privilege is Parliament’s rather than the individual member’s, it is clear that it can and does attach to the activities of an MP in carrying out some of his Parliamentary functions. Although Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 is the best-known example of parliamentary privilege and has enshrined in Statute the privilege of freedom of speech in Parliament, it is part only of a much broader privilege which is found in the common law. Article 9 provides that ‘the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament’. The existence of a broader privilege, of which Article 9 is only a part, was accepted in a number of 19th century decisions. It is unnecessary to refer to them because they are encapsulated in the words of Lord Browne-Wilkinson in the Privy Council case of Prebble –v- Television New Zealand [1995] 1 AC 321 at p. 332D ‘In addition to Article 9 itself, there is a long line of authority which supports a wider principle, of which Article 9 was merely one manifestation, viz. that the courts and Parliament are both astute to recognise their respective constitutional roles. So far as the courts are concerned they will not allow any challenge to be made to what was said or done within the walls of Parliament in performance of its legislative function and protection of its established privileges’."

Mr Saunders further noted in his judgement "Very important constitutional principles are involved which must be respected, and that must be the case even if it leads to a result which is unpopular not only with the public but also with Members of Parliament."

In the ruling it was held that expenses claims do not come within the scope of privilege. That will be considered today. A House of Commons Library Paper sets out the issues and the background. It is available here.

The Death of Senator Byrd

At the start of hearings for the confirmation of Elena Kagan, Senator Patrick Leahy paid tribute to Senator Byrd - the longest serving member of Congress in history - whose Congressional career began in 1953. He was a Senator from 1959 - and was an authority on Senate history and procedure.

Monday 28 June 2010

Introduction of New Peers

There is a special ceremony to mark the intoduction of new peers into the House of Lords. A video of last weeks introduction of Lord Knight of Weymouth is accessible here.

The ceremony is outlined in the "Companion to the Standing Orders"

The Lord Speaker sits on the Woolsack, wearing court dress and a black gown. In the absence of the Lord Speaker, a Deputy Speaker in his parliamentary robe occupies the Woolsack.
The newly created peer and his two supporters, all in their Parliament robes, with Garter Principal King of Arms and Black Rod, assemble in the Peers' Lobby. Garter and Black Rod are sometimes represented by deputies. A procession is formed, which enters the Chamber in the following order:

1. Black Rod
2. Garter, carrying the peer's Letters Patent
3. junior supporter
4. new peer, carrying his writ of summons
5. senior supporter.
At the Bar each member of the procession bows in turn to the Cloth of Estate. They enter the House on the temporal side and proceed towards the Table.
 Black Rod passes in front of the Cross Benches, goes behind the Clerks' seats and stands on the spiritual side. Garter hands the new peer's Letters Patent to the Reading Clerk who has taken up a position by the first gangway on the temporal side. Garter then proceeds behind the Clerks' seats and stands next to Black Rod.

The junior supporter moves down the temporal side to a position beyond the Table by the second gangway. The Reading Clerk, the new peer and the senior supporter follow the junior supporter. On arrival at the Table, when the Reading Clerk has reached the Despatch Box, the procession halts and turns inwards. The new peer hands his writ of summons to the Reading Clerk.

The Reading Clerk reads the Letters Patent and administers the oath of allegiance or the solemn affirmation to the new peer, who then signs the Test Roll upon the Table. The new peer then signs an undertaking to abide by the House of Lords Code of Conduct.
The new peer and the supporters then process in front of the Cross Benches and turn to face the Woolsack: the senior supporter on the spiritual side, the new peer in the centre and the junior supporter on the temporal side. Meanwhile, Black Rod and Garter have moved to the spiritual side of the House between the Table and the Government front bench, facing the three peers. Together, the new peer and the supporters bow to the Cloth of Estate.

The procession then moves up the spiritual side of the House towards the Woolsack, with Black Rod leading, followed by Garter, the senior supporter, the new peer and the junior supporter. On reaching the Woolsack, the new peer shakes hands with the Lord Speaker. The procession passes into the Prince's Chamber through the door on the spiritual side of the House.

The new peer and the two supporters, without robes, then return to the Chamber, and the new peer sits for the first time in that part of the House where he intends to sit in the future.

Fifty Six new peerages were announced on 28th May - and it is hoped to have all of them introduced by the summer recess. The Procedure Committee in the Lords proposed that the number of daily introductions be increased to permit this to happen. The report is available here. It was agreed to by the House of lords last Thursday.

Today Roy Kennedy, who was a colleague on the European Parliament East Midlands Labour List during the 2009 election will be introduced as a Baron. I offer him my congratulations - and will be watching his introduction from the gallery.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Supporting Crossbenchers

“Cranborne” money has been provided to opposition parties since 1996. It provides financial assistance to opposition parties, enabling them to employ administrative and research staff. The crossbenchers are not a party, but individuals who sit in the House of Lords. There is a "Convenor" who represents this diverse group of peers in discussions with other parties about he arrangement of business and in other matters. There is a website about Crossbenchers accessible here. They obviously have less need for administrative support than the parties - but a sterling job has been done by a series of Convenors - and some assistance has been given since 1999.

On Thursday a short debate followed the introduction of a motion concerning the Cranborne money. An excellent speech was made by Baroness Boothroyd which can be viewed here (from 48 min 14 secs into the recording).

She said

My Lords, this is an important resolution. It is cloaked in technical terms and it affects the way in which opposition parties are funded in this House to help them perform their parliamentary duties. Sadly, no one would know that without recourse to Hansard and to the resolution of 2002 that the Government seek to amend. I regret that. Where public funds and parliamentary accountability are involved, the Government need to be more transparent.

I believe that the Motion before us is more than a tidying-up operation. Rightly, it recognises the changed fortunes of the Liberal Democrats; wrongly—unless I am corrected—it implies a severe cut in the distribution of Cranborne money to the opposition parties in this House by no less than 30 per cent. At the same time, it does less than justice to Cross-Benchers, whose independence will always disbar them from office and who operate on a shoestring.

The Cross-Benchers came late to the party when Cranborne money was distributed for the first time in 1997. They had to wait two years. By that time, the cake had been cut and they were handed the smallest slice—a meagre slice, some would say. Cross-Benchers received £10,000 out of a total allocation of £291,000. Our relative position has improved slightly, but it remains at a subsistence level. I am really quite shocked at the disproportionate way in which Cranborne money has been divided during the past 13 years. To some, the Cross-Bench share was almost a joke.

Eight years ago, when Lord Williams of Mostyn increased the Cross-Bench allocation to £35,000, he laughingly remarked:

“I stand amazed at our generosity”.—[Official Report, 30/7/02; col. 820.]

My colleagues were grateful all the same.

Last year, the Cross-Bench Convenor, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, received the princely sum of £61,003—a substantial percentage increase, you might say, but that was only because the starting point was so low. Cross-Benchers had trailed so far behind they were almost out of sight.

The £60,000 a year allows our Convenor to employ one full-time and one part-time assistant to administer her office and respond to the needs of the 187 Cross-Bench Peers. She also represents us in consultations with the Government and other parties. She sits on some nine House committees. I pay tribute to her fortitude, but it is wrong that she should have to bear so heavy a burden without adequate support.

In contrast, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats last year shared the rest of the Cranborne money on a 2:1 ratio. In 12 months, they received £770,000. If that is not lop-sided, I do not know what is. Sinn Fein received more than the Cross-Benchers for its non-performance in the Commons. Despite the refusal of five Sinn Fein Members to take the oath of allegiance, Sinn Fein netted £96,000 to finance what the previous Government described as “representative business”, a term capable of many interpretations. I take these figures from an excellent research paper on the public funding of opposition parties produced by the Commons Library. The section on the way in which the Cranborne money operates makes eye-popping reading.

Sadly, unless the Leader of the House enlightens us otherwise, this Motion makes matters worse. In the absence of further information, the Government appear intent on returning to the Treasury the funds previously allocated to the Liberal Democrats. If that is right, the total amount of Cranborne money available to the Opposition will be reduced by nearly a third, all without reference or explanation to this House.

A clever lawyer might argue that the Cross-Benchers are entitled to all the Cranborne money that went to the Liberal Democrats—not that I would think such thoughts, of course. But the pecking order set out in the resolution of 2002 is clear. Then, the Cross-Benchers were in third place; now, they are in second place. It is a position that the Government choose to ignore to save money and—who knows?—perhaps to reassure their junior partner that its entitlement to Cranborne money is secure if the coalition fails. I do not challenge Labour’s entitlement to the £475,000 which the Conservatives received as the Official Opposition last year—that is, of course, on top of the salaries paid to their Leader and their Chief Whip. Nor do I begrudge Ministers the command of resources needed to formulate their policies, run their departments and present their case as persuasively as possible. I do, however, believe in fair play and hope that the Government do too.

As the House knows, we on these Benches belong to no party. We have no common platform or agreed policies, and no leader. We speak and vote according to judgment and conscience, without the discipline of Whips to guide us through the Lobbies, and we may be swept away if this House is replaced by an elected Chamber. However, while we are here Cross-Benchers will, I know, do their duty to Parliament and to the country. They need adequate resources to do so. We are not partisans but share the same principles and, I believe, perform a useful role.

These Benches do not need the hundreds of thousands of pounds that routinely go to opposition parties. Your Lordships may be surprised to know that during Labour’s period of office, the Conservatives received over £4 million in Cranborne money, the Liberal Democrats £2 million and the Cross-Benchers £400,000. I was a Whip in Harold Wilson’s Government when the first public funds were allocated to opposition parties in the Commons. The aim was to improve the parliamentary effectiveness of parties and groups not in government. I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will agree that the need to do so has not changed. He is long experienced in the travails of opposition, and I hope that he will review the allocation of Cranborne money in the light of my unashamed appeal for a better deal for these Benches. I do not seek generosity; I seek fairness. Fairness will do for me.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Better Government Initiative

It is natural that much of the debate about "the running of the country" concerns issues of policy - what is the most appropriate economic policy (for an interesting article by Robert Skidelsky press here) or the best approach to the provision of education or health care. Yet it useful sometimes to reflect upon whether the practices of governing the country are themselves effective.

The Better Government Initiative "was formed as a response to widespread concerns about the practical difficulties which government today faces as it seeks to run the country against a background of rapid change." It is a private initiative by a number of individuals who have served in key positions within Whitehall and Westminster. A number of conferences have been held - and reports produced. Most helpfully a report entitled "Good Government: Reforming Parliament and the Executive" has been published.

It sets out some of the factors which have led to current malaise - and puts forward a number of recommendations. In coming weeks these proposals will be the subject of Washminster posts. I would urge you to take part in the debate.

BGI's website is accessible here.

Friday 25 June 2010

Select Committee Membership

This year membership of the Commons select committees is being determined, not by appointment by the whips, but by secret ballots within each party. The results from the Conservative and Labour Parties are available here.

The results of the elections for Chairs of committees are available here.

These elections are the result of reforms adopted after the "Rebuilding the House" proposed a number of changes to rebalance power towards MPs from government. A summary of reforms is available in a House of Commons Library Standard Note available here. The results of the Liberal Democrat votes are expected early next week.

Thursday 24 June 2010

House of Lords Constitution Committee

The following motion was agreed to yesterday in the House of Lords. In future posts I will look at the work of the committee and its members -

Constitution Committee

That a Select Committee be appointed to examine the constitutional implications of all public bills coming before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the constitution;

That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the Committee:

L Crickhowell, B Falkner of Margravine, L Goldsmith, L Hart of Chilton, L Irvine of Lairg, B Jay of Paddington (Chairman), L Norton of Louth , L Pannick, L Powell of Bayswater, L Renton of Mount Harry, L Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L Shaw of Northstead;

That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records;
That the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;
That the Committee have power to adjourn from place to place;
That the Committee have leave to report from time to time;
That the Reports of the Committee shall be printed, regardless of any adjournment of the House;
That the evidence taken by the Committee in the last session of Parliament be referred to the Committee;
That the evidence taken by the Committee shall, if the Committee so wishes, be published.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Local Government

In Britain, local authorities are the creation of Parliament - who can reorganise or abolish any of them. Unlike the states of the United States - they have no independent existence. Even the right for a community to call itself a "City" is dependent upon the Royal Prerogative.

The last major reorganisation took place in 1974. For most of England there was a two tier structure - with county and district levels. The metropolitan Counties were abolished - after resisting the policies of the Government in the 1980s. Some other authorities were given unitary status - combining and replacing county and district functions.

Milton Keynes is a unitary council. They have an extensive website accessible here. Citizens can access details of Cabinet and Council meetings - and read the reports which will be considered. Other documents relating to the council are available here. The Council is made up of 51 Councillors, elected for four years - with a third facing election each year (with 2013 being an election free year). The current list of councillors, listed by party, is available here.

The area is also served by a number of Parish Councils. I live in Furzton, which is in the south west of Milton Keynes city (the whole district includes rural areas to the north and east). We are served by Shenley Brook End & Tattenhoe parish council. Despite the name - this has nothing to do with church parishes - but is a local authority providing some vital services at a community level. For more details of parish councils in Milton Keynes press here.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Budget Day

Today is Budget Day - and while it will be, as always, a great parliamentary occasion - few are looking forward to it. Good news is likely to be in scarce supply. This has been labelled by the Government as an "Emergency Budget". The last Government introduced its budget in March - but now the new administration wishes to substitute its budgetary measures.

A Budget speech normally has two distinct parts. The first part is a report on the current and forecast state of the British economy. Much of the detail is already available in the Office of Budget Responsibility's recent forecasts - and the Government has produced The Spending Review Framework

The second part of the speech deals with taxation.

After the speech has been delivered the Commons need to pass a Provisional Collection of Taxes motion - this allows the continuation of existing taxes and any new taxes or amendments to take effect - prior to the passing of the Finance Bill. Without it the changes couldn't take place.

There is an excellent House of Commons Standard Note on the Budget available here.

Monday 21 June 2010

Music in the Garden

A weekend off from politics and constitutional matters - the coming week will be busy enough - with the "Emergency Budget" due on Tuesday at Westminster. Instead I had a superb couple of days listening to the first concerts in the "Music in the Garden" season, held in Wavendon - the home of Dame Cleo Laine.

I have been writing posts for a blog about this season - and already have some superb video footage; photographs; personal reviews and information. Some have already been posted - others will go up in the next few days.

Please do visit the blog - which can be accessed here - and if you are able to come along, you'll have a great time in this little village very close to Milton Keynes.

Here's a quick view from yesterday -

Sunday 20 June 2010

Rules for Referenda

The Coalition has announced that there will be a referendum on changing to the Alternative Vote method for elections (in place of the current 'First Past the Post'). Future Washminster articles will consider both systems and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The law governing the holding and conduct of a referendum is to be found in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). A summary and explanation of the main provisions can be found in a House of Commons Library Standard Note available here.

The rules deal with the timing of the referendum (there is a minimum time between the legislation authorising a specific referendum getting the Royal Assent and the actual referendum - to ensure an adequate campaigning period); donations and expenditure.

Last week Baroness Quin asked a written question - "To ask Her Majesty's Government what use of referendums they propose for the British political system."

The answer given was -

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): The coalition's programme for government includes proposals for future referendums and the introduction of a requirement for future referendums to be held in certain specified circumstances.

We will bring forward legislation providing for a referendum on the alternative vote system for future elections to the House of Commons.

Local people will be given the power to hold local referendums on any local issues to instigate change for the better in their local areas.

To further our aim of increasing democratic and parliamentary control, scrutiny and accountability over EU decision-making, any proposed future treaty that transfers competences or areas of power will be subject to a referendum. In addition, the use of any major ratchet clause which amounted to the transfer of an area of power to the EU will also be subject to a referendum. However, we have agreed that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers from the UK to the European Union over the course of this Parliament.

The Government will set out further details of how they intend to take forward these commitments in due course.

There are also plans for a referendum in Wales on the powers of the National Assembly of Wales

Saturday 19 June 2010

Hearing or Public Flogging?

Press coverage of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the Gulf of Mexico disaster has been mixed. Predictably, much of the British press have portrayed it as a "public flogging" - rather than a balanced inquiry. Frequent references were made to the fact that all members of the House will be facing elections in November. But are those cynical comments justified? How aggressive should hearings be?

There are important questions to be considered about the purposes and value of high profile hearings - I hope people will look behind the headlines and consider the importance of scrutiny withion legislatures.

The video of the hearing is available here

Friday 18 June 2010

House of Lords Blogs

Two blogs I follow give a valuable insight into the work of the House of Lords.

Lords of the Blog is a collaborative blog, written by a number of Peers from all parties (and none - the Convenor of the Crossbenchers, Baroness D'Souza is a regular contributor). By far the most active is Lord Norton of Louth - a Conservative Peer, but one held in high esteem for his knowledge of the British Parliament, legislatures in general and the British Constitution. If you have ever studied British Politics you are likely to have used at least one of the 28 books he has written. In the interests of full disclosure, he is my supervisor for my Ph.D. 

Lord Toby Harris writes a blog - which is often updated many times a day. It is unashamedly partisan - he is a Labour Peer - but is one of the best sources (other than Hansard itself) about what has been dealt with in the thirty minute Question Time held on Mondays through Thursdays.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Budget Deficits

At the start of this century there was a Budget surplus - now there is a deficit. In a recent CRS paper a detailed examination is made of the impact that legislation has had on creating and increasing the deficit.

It is a reminder that it isn't just "the Budget" that requires financial scrutiny - but "ordinary" legislation.

The report is available here

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Checks and Balances

If Lord Acton is correct that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", then there is a need to design institutional rules and procedures to ensure that the tendency is revealed and stopped. Political thinkers have sought to identify ways of doing that.

The Framers of the American Constitution attempted to build "checks and balances" into the foundation document. There was a deliberate attempt to create a separation of powers - building upon the warnings of Montesquieu - echoed by Madison who wrote that "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of opne, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny"

Other "checks and balances" include requiring special majorities or procedures to change the law - sometimes referred to as "entrenchment"; requiring confirmation by the legislative branch of executive branch nominees; control of the raising of taxes by the legislature...

The UK has its checks and balances. It has relied heavily on unwritten rules of behaviour which are enforced by social pressures. Conventions have been defined as "rules which are not legally enforceable, but which are regarded as binding by the constitutional actors". Some have been surprisingly effective. The House of Lords prides itself on "self regulation" - again which seems to work in practice.

But "checks and balances" can over time lose their effectiveness - the challenge for Britain and America - and every other country; city - even club - is to ensure that any system of checks of balances develops to continue the effective control necessary.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Magna Carta Day

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta by King John on the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede in 1215. If I didn't have to be at work today - I'd have taken a train and bus [Waterloo to Egham OR Paddington to Slough - and the 71 bus] - then walked (about 15 minutes) from the Beaumont bus stop near Runnymede House along the A308 to the monument.

But as I work in the House of Lords, I get a daily reminder of the Barons who forced the King to sign. In the chamber statues of these men are positioned high on the walls.

Barons, Bishops and Abbots who were party to Magna Carta - the Barons involved were -

William d'Aubigny, Lord of Belvoir Castle.
Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Hugh Bigod, Heir to the Earldoms of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Henry de Bohun, Earl of Hereford.
Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford.
Gilbert de Clare, heir to the earldom of Hertford.
John FitzRobert, Lord of Warkworth Castle.
Robert Fitzwalter, Lord of Dunmow Castle.
William de Fortibus, Earl of Albemarle.
William Hardel, Mayor of the City of London.
William de Huntingfield, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk.
John de Lacy, Lord of Pontefract Castle.
William de Lanvallei, Lord of Standway Castle.
William Malet, Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset.
Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and Gloucester.
William Marshall Jr, heir to the earldom of Pembroke.
Roger de Montbegon, Lord of Hornby Castle, Lancashire.
Richard de Montfichet, Baron.
William de Mowbray, Lord of Axholme Castle.
Richard de Percy, Baron.
Saher de Quincy, Earl of Winchester.
Robert de Roos, Lord of Hamlake Castle.
Geoffrey de Saye, Baron.
Robert de Vere, heir to the earldom of Oxford.
Eustace de Vesci, Lord of Alnwick Castle.

Monday 14 June 2010

Why the Register matters

The missing names on the Electoral Register became an issue at last week's PMQs. The coalition government has proposed cutting the number of seats in the House of Commons. It seeks to have fewer seats - but which are more or less equal in size. It is pushing forward with plans to redraw the boundaries quickly - in time for the next General Election. [Most Reviews take longer than a single Parliament - the existing procedure has a politically neutral Boundary Commission produce reports which can then be challenged and when needed public hearings held before a final recommendation is made - the express review will do away with those important safeguards].

In the USA the allocation of House of Representative seats is based on the census. It bears no relation to the number of people who have (or haven't registered) to vote. Currently it is estimated that there are 3.5 million people missing from the registers - so a redistribution based on the existing, flawed registers, could lead to unfairness. As Harriet Harman pointed out - this could exclude "a third of all black people, half of all young people, and half of all private sector tenants" - [based on the Electoral Commissions studies into non-registration].

Sunday 13 June 2010

Voter Registration

In recent posts I have discussed the accuracy of the electoral register - upon which elections and selection for jury service depend. Local Electoral Registration Officers have a duty under law to take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the register is complete as is possible.

The Electoral Commission have produced a spreadsheet showing how each authority has performed. Figures show how many households
  • were sent an annual canvass return
  • returned the form (which is a legal requirement) - in total numbers and percent

and how the form was returned

  • by post
  • after a personal canvasser had called round
  • by telephone
  • by internet
  • by text message

The efforts taken by the ERO is also indicated by the details of numbers of home confirmed by personal visit or other information to be vacant.

The number of persons prosecuted for not returning the annual canvass was 41 in Houslow; 20 in Scarborough; 6 in Aylesbury Vale and 6 in Woking. Otherwise there were no other prosecutions throughout the country.

One set of figures shows the number of suspicious returns. Birmingham appears to have identified the greatest number.

The spreadsheet is available here.

Friday 11 June 2010

Confirmation Hearings

The US Senate has a long history of "confirmation hearings" - rooted in its constitutional role to give its "advice and consent" to the President in respect of appointments to the judicial and executive branch. The process is described in a CRS Report available here.

It has long been a hope of reformers in the House of Commons that Select Committees will play a greater role in scrutinising major appointments. As with many things in the British Parliament, there has been a slow evolution of their role. The Coalition Agreement appears to suggest that things are about to change.

A House of Commons Library paper issued this week, outlines some of the background and issues. It is available here.

Britain is not about to adopt a system like that of the US Senate - we won't be rushing into the types of logjams in appointments that can occur when there are partisan divisions over particular nominations - and individual MPs won't be able to put "holds" on nominations - but there could be a significant improvement in the ability of Parliament to scrutinise.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Election 2010

With many of the primaries now behind us, the outlines of the November General Election in the USA are becoming clearer. It's going to be an interesting election season - which Washminster will be following.

A couple of newspaper articles may be of interest to you. CQ Politics gives an overview of the Senate races - which is accessible here.

The New York Times has a piece on the Republicans while CQ provides background on the Democrats.

Race rating information - including maps - can be viewed here.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Why no Government Should have a permanent majority in the Lords

Yesterday the Government, despite its large numbers, lost the first vote taken in this Parliament in the Lords. It illustrates the point that currently, where the Government loses the argument, it can be defeated. Proposals to pack the House with sufficient Conservative and Lib-Dem Peers to ensure that their representation equals the percentage of votes cast in the General Election would end that important check on the power of the Executive.

The issue was the status of the Local Government Bill - Lord Howarth had argued that the bill was a "hybrid" bill - part public bill, part local bill. His arguments can be found in his speech - which those who like the detail of procedural rules will find interesting - here.

He convinced sufficient Peers that when the division was taken, the Government lost by 154-150.

This was not a point about the merit of the bill - that will be discussed when the nature of the bill has been considered by the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills. Until that has been done the Second Reading of the bill is postponed. More information on hybrid bills can be found here.

Monday 7 June 2010

Cameron's Speech

To read the Prime Minister's speech, delivered today in Milton Keynes, press here.

I expect to be on local radio today arguing that while this is a speech about the deficit - Cameron is seizing the opportunity to impose his ideological beliefs on Britain. He isn't proposing a temporary tightening of our belts to bring the deficit down - instead - this is an attempt to overthrow the policies which have dominated the world economy during and beyond the second half of the Twentieth Century - a period of great prosperity and growth. It is a return to the ideological conservatism that last had a free run in the 1920s and 1930s - and was unsustainable.

In the speech he tries to focus our eyes on the "sins" of the Labour Government of the last 13 years. He does what every incoming government does - feigns surprise that the situation is much much worse than they had imagined. (for precedents see 1964; 1979; 1997).

He proposes massive cuts to deal with the situation - "the effects of...(which)....will stay with us for years, perhaps decades to come". But are these inevitable cuts? I will argue that while some belt tightening is necessary - he is suggesting a "conservative" solution which is flawed. He, and true conservatives genuinely belief in the minimal state. They believe that the free market will provide the optimal solution. Trouble is this belief is not shared by all - and I fear it is flawed - and history has shown it to be.

This was the ideology which held sway in the 1920s and was applied to great detriment in the 1930s. The market is not perfect. From the 1860s each recession grew deeper and longer. Market failures led to inefficency and suffering. In the 1930s and its aftermath there was a general consensus that there was a positive role for the state. Some true 'conservatives' remained - but they were out of power. Thanks to state action we educated more people than ever, to higher levels of education. State investment in education and the infrastructure enabled private business to thrive. We build road infrastructures and telecoms development was sponsored by Government.

But the 'conservatives' have grown in strength. They have learnt nothing from history - save how to package their message. Now in Britain - under the guise of addressing the deficit - Cameron is proposing a radical change to the role of government - in a way which, in his words "will affect our economy, our society - indeed our whole way of life".

I don't doubt the genuineness of the convictions of these conservatives - and look carefully at the people who sit alongside and behind Cameron! They genuinely believe that their ideology is the answer to our problems. But progressives need to wake up to this sleight of hand by Cameron. He is about changing how British society and the economy works - a warning needs to be sounded.

This is an ideological position as strong - and as discredited as communism. It will affect people's live - immensely.

Who's down to speak in the Lords?

Government whips clearly have a responsibility for organising the members of their own party. There are also responsibilities to the House as a whole. This is particularly true in the House of Lords. There are two offices in the Palace of Westminster. One side of the corridor contains the desks of the Government Whips themselves [the Chief & Deputy Chief Whip have their own offices]. Across the corridor is an office staffed b the officials. Members from all parties pop in to obtain information and to put their names down to speak in debates.

This 'non-partisan' function of the Lords' Government whips can now be seen on the internet. It can be accessed here. On the left hand column you can see links to various sources of information.
To find out who is down to speak in a forthcoming debate, go to "Speakers List" - before the debate starts the order of speeches is published at "Today's List/ Business"

Saturday 5 June 2010

Background on Economic Issues

The House of Commons Library produces each month a publication called - "Economic Indicators". The title suggests a rather boring monthly set of figures - in fact each edition gives the background to a number of the key indicators - and includes articles on particular subjects. For instance this month's edition includes articles entitled
- is the recent rise in inflation temporary?
- Household income and poverty 2008/09

It provides a useful and readable resource for non-experts (at least when they start) on economic issues.

Recent editions can be accessed here

Friday 4 June 2010

Foreign Affairs in the Lords

As has been noted in earlier posts, there is a lot of interest in the House of Lords in international matters. This is reflected in next weeks business.

On Wednesday the Lib-Dem Peer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer will ask Her Majesty’s Government what contribution they will make to the work required to achieve progress on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons following the resolution passed at the Review Conference in May.

Lord Teverson will initiate a debate on the Report of the European Union Committee on Stars and Dragons: The EU and China (7th Report, Session 2009–10, HL Paper 76).

On Thursday Lord Chidgey will ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to reports of human rights abuses by state organisations in the run-up to the recent elections in Sudan.

Later in the day Lord St John of Bletso will start a debate on developments in Zimbabwe.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Select Committee Chairs

New procedures are now in place for the election of Chairs of the Commons select committees. In order to give more powers to members themselves - it has been made harder for whips (both on the Government and Opposition sides) to choose the members and chairs. Back in 2001 a clumsy attempt by the Government to replace two Chairs seen as awkward backfired badly.

The party of a particular committee's Chair has been determined by agreement - to ensure that chairs are fairly allocated around the House

Business, Innovation and Skills - Labour
Children, Schools and Families [Education] - Conservative
Communities and Local Government - Labour
Culture, Media and Sport - Conservative
Defence - Conservative
Energy and Climate Change - Conservative
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - Conservative
Foreign Affairs - Conservative
Health - Conservative
Home Affairs - Labour
International Development - Liberal Democrat
Justice - Liberal Democrat
Northern Ireland - Conservative
Science and Technology - Labour
Scottish Affairs - Labour
Transport - Labour
Treasury - Conservative
Welsh Affairs - Conservative
Work and Pensions - Labour
Environmental Audit - Labour
Procedure - Conservative
Public Administration - Conservative
Public Accounts - Labour

To be valid, nominations for Chairs must contain a signed statement made by the candidate declaring willingness to stand, and must be accompanied by the signatures of fifteen Members elected to the House as members of the same party as the candidate, or ten per cent of the Members of that party, whichever is the lower.

The ballot will take place on Wednesday 9 June between 10 am and 5 pm. Nominations will close at 5 pm on Tuesday 8 June.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Today's Parliamentary Papers

Each day a number of documents are produced on the days business

House of Commons - available here

Summary Agenda - useful summary of key information for the day

Order of Business - the "Order Paper" setting out details of questions to be asked during the question times; Main Business; and items to be taken at the end of business. Details of committee sittings and debates in Westminster Hall

Votes and Proceedings - the formal record of actions taken - the basis of the House's Journal.

Hansard - almost verbatim record of previous days sitting.

Future Business - items (dated or not) for later action

House of Lords - available here

Today's and future business.
Hansard -almost verbatim record of previous days sitting
A live feed of activities at Westminster is available here

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Short Holiday ending soon

Today is the last day of the short recess. Both Houses of Parliament return on Wednesday 2nd June, to continue their debates on the Queen's Speech. Next week legislative business commences.

As you may know from earlier posts, I enjoy listening to music - especially jazz. On Sundays from September to May I regularly spend the mornings at The Stables, Wavendon where "Jazz Matters" is held. We have one live performance a month - with talks (accompanied by music on CDs, & even vinyl). In June and July the music moves to the garden of Dame Cleo Laine and the late Sir John Dankworth. This year I have started a blog - and you are very welcome to visit it. I'll be posting every few days - and as the season starts, friends will be contributing their comments on performances they attend.

The blog can be accessed here.
Do drop me a line if you are coming to any of the events.