Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Doing the Wrong Thing?

I've always been passionate about Parliament. It has been my main interest in research and teaching. I love to watch the debates, and particularly the activities in the Select Committees. I've fought two parliamentary elections as a candidate, and worked in the Palace of Westminster - both on a voluntary and (low) paid basis. The history of Parliament inspires me - and I maintain the highest regard for the institution and many of its members and staff - who work long hours, often doing work for which they get no thanks - and which poorly rewards skills that they have chosen to use in the service of others when they could have been much better rewarded elsewhere.

But I'm rather sad today. I fear that tonight will be one of the House of Common's low points. It has had its high points - it has stood up to tyrants; established rights that we should cherish; created institutions which have served the people well; - most of all it has been the scene of many significant victories in the march towards liberty for all.

Yet tonight - despite having had the principle of parliamentary sovereignty upheld only a few days ago in the Supreme Court - it will probably hand the Executive a blank cheque.

Don't underestimate the significance of the Second Reading of a bill. It is the point at which the House gives its approval in principle to a legislative measure that has been proposed to it. After ceding the agreement in principle, it can make amendments to the details - but the principle has been adopted.

We had hoped that before the House of Commons did that a White Paper would have been produced - so that the Members of the House could see where the Executive was going with the power the House was about to give it. Well - and this adds insult to injury - it will NOT be published until the House has voted to cede power to the Executive.

The Bill is short - it is the worst kind of enabling bill - this is what a blank cheque looks like in parliamentary language.

Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and 
consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present 
Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—

1     Power to notify withdrawal from the EU

(1) The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European 
Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.

(2) This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European 
Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.

2      Short title

This Act may be cited as the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 

Good legislation, when granting powers, should state any restrictions that Parliament thinks necessary, any requirements for reporting back or when parliament should be consulted when the power is used. There are none here.

And the first thing that the Government will do if it wins the vote on Second Reading is to move a programme motion which will restrict the time available for debate. [Such a motion requires notice - you can read it in today's Order Paper - https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmagenda/OP170201.pdf pages 6 to 7]

I hope I'm wrong. But within hours the House and its members will decide. Your member of Parliament owes a duty to you. Edmund Burke.

"I am sorry I cannot conclude without saying a word on a topic touched upon by my worthy colleague. I wish that topic had been passed by at a time when I have so little leisure to discuss it. But since he has thought proper to throw it out, I owe you a clear explanation of my poor sentiments on that subject.

He tells you that "the topic of instructions has occasioned much altercation and uneasiness in this city;" and he expresses himself (if I understand him rightly) in favour of the coercive authority of such instructions.

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for."

Some will say that the Referendum result gags MPs today. But declining a Second Reading to this bill - is NOT a rejection of that result. This bill, if passed, will cede the right to oversee our departure from the European Union from Parliament to the Executive. If you feel strongly about this - then contact your MP straight away. If you don't know who your MP is - then this LINKtakes you to a page that will help you find him or her.