Tom Harris is right that devolution is irrelevant to the argument, but Iain Dale is still right that the Barnett formula needs to go

Iain Dale has had a pop at the Barnett Formula (the agreement forged when Lord Joel Barnett was Chief Secretary to the Treasury more than thirty years ago that residents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should automatically and in perpetuity get a larger slice of public spending per head than people living in England) and Tom Harris has then had a go at Iain Dale for saying that the Formula is outmoded because of devolution. 

Tom Harris is right in saying that the devolution argument is irrelevant to the case against the Formula, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the Barnett Formula does need to be replaced by something that genuinely reflects the needs of the population in the different parts of the country. 

Of course, Tom Harris spoils his argument with a gratuitous side-swipe at London.  London has Boroughs that consistently have the greatest levels of deprivation and needs in the UK, but London and Londoners have to subsidise the rest of the UK year in and year out to the tune of more than £20 billion.

Yes, of course, the Barnett Formula needs to go and the rest of the UK that relies on London for its prosperity should stop knocking the Capital.

President Obama to appoint a “Cyber Tsar” – when will the UK get an equivalent

I have already commented on how the Obama administration takes the cyber threat seriously.  Now there is more evidence.  While it is not yet clear, what the substance will be in this latest announcement – it may be no more than recreating a role that existed under President Clinton – there is no doubt that President Obama is taking the whole issue much more seriously than the UK Government.

Given the abundent evidence of an increasing threat to the critical national infrastructure from cyber attacks – whether from teenage delinquent-type cyber-nerds, organised crime, foreign governments or terrorists – the respose in the UK has so far been extremely limited.  Yes, money was eventually found to support a national Police-E-Crime Unit based at New Scotland Yard, and yes, the Centre for the Protection of the National Infrastructure now at least acknowledges that the cyber-threat is an issue.  However, this falls a long way short of a coherent strategy to protect the UK’s interests.

Metropolitan Police Authority is meeting … but everything is being referred to the Civil Liberties Panel

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session and Mayor Boris Johnson is in the Chair.

Before the discussion of the G20 protests and the Tamil demonstrations in Parliament Square could begin, however, John Biggs AM – in full Mr Grumpy mode, although.  he was smiling – set a high moral tone, noting that one of the Mayor’s flunkeys had brought him his morning latte (or whatever it was) and that he (John Biggs) was still humble enough to make his own tea.

As the meeting went on, however, the Authority got quite tangled up on consistency: were the police too “rough” with the G20 demonstrators but being too “lax” with the Tamils?  How do you police Parliament Square if people are determined to protest and want to be arrested to fuel the publicity for their protest?  Should the legislation governing the area round Parliament be changed (apparently representations from the Mayor’s Office have led to the protestors moving from the GLA-controlled part of the Square to the Westminster City Council-controlled part and taking down their catering tent)?  No conclusions were reached.  It will all be referred to the new MPA Civil Liberties Panel that is to be set up.

This new Civil Liberties Panel is going to be an interesting group.  The Panel was the idea of Uber-Vice Chair Kit Malthouse AM – no doubt it seemed like a jolly wheeze when it was first proposed (it would demonstrate the Conservative Party’s new-found enthusiasm for human rights and civil liberties and would be a convenient long-grass repository for difficult issues).  However, the Panel is acquiring greater prominence as the weeks go on.  There are now enormous expectations on what it will achieve and its agenda grows meeting by meeting. 

Yet, the terms of reference are only being approved at this meeting of the Authority and its membership (and even its size – the paper proposes a limit of six members) will not be confirmed until 25th June.  Critically who will chair it?  It is difficult to see Uber-Vice Chair Kit Malthouse being happy to cede ontrol of the Panel to a Labour, LibDem or Green politician and he doesn’t have much time for the Independent members.  However, would one of the Conservative members be acceptable to the rest of the Authority.  It looks increasingly likely that the Uber-Vice Chair may have to do it himself.

People are talking of nothing else but constitutional reform …..

There seems to be a media response to the current anger about Parliamentary expenses that says that what is needed is wholesale constitutional reform.  I tend to agree that many of the constitutional reforms suggested might be quite a good idea, but I am not sure that they are the response  that the public are looking for.  Tom Harris has it right when he suggests (with considerable humour) that this may be something of a diversion away from the real issue that has grabbed the attention of the public.

I suspect that the public will not be satisfied until there is a substantial change in personnel in all of the established political parties with those who are felt to have abused the spirit of the expenses system being exiled from Parliament.

However, having said that, if there is a mood for there to be constitutional reform as well, then that is no bad thing.  So here is my personal list of seven reforms to add to the pot:

  • fixed term Parliaments with general elections every five years;
  • retaining single member constituencies in the Commons but with elections on the alternative vote system;
  • a power to recall individual MPs if more than a certain proportion of the electorate (probably at least a third of the number who cast their vote in the previous election) formally request a fresh election;
  • powerful subject-based Select Committees that not only hold inquiries but scrutinise and amend Bills before they are passed into legislation and go through departmental budgets;
  • directly-elected regional governors with powers over transport, economic development, major planning issues, further education and skills training, health provision, policing resources etc;
  • a shift of taxation-raising powers with far more being raised by local and regional government than is currently the case (with proportionately less being raised centrally); and
  • a power of general competence for local government.

I deliberately haven’t mentioned the House of Lords – partly because I can hardly be described as disinterested, but also because I think there has to be some prior debate about what the Second Chamber is for.

Anyway, there is more than enough in what I have written for people to disagree with ….

Where will it all end? Will “An Independent Clean Hands Movement” overturn the mainstream Parties?

There was the start of an interesting discussion on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning about celebrity independent candidates standing at the next General Election. I say “the start” because it did not really pursue the issue to its logical conclusion.  There is no question that public anger with politicians of all Parties is now at unprecedented levels following the expenses revelations in recent weeks. 

Two backbench MPs (one Labour, one Conservative – neither of whom have been named in any of the national newspaper articles so far) I was with a week ago were already traumatised by the reactions that they had faced in their constituencies.  Some MPs are said to be suicidal.

There are the stories that Esther Rantzen is prepared to offer her services to the nation (whether the nation will accept her offer remains to be seen).  Joanna Lumley is on her way to political sainthood.  Jeremy Clarkson has already been touted as a possible Prime Minister.

Where will it all end?

All the mainstream political parties have to face up to the fact that so far the public do not think they have done enough to clean up politics.  If a well-financed campaign (will the Barclay brothers be prepared to follow through what their newspaper has started?) centred round a popular and plausible figurehead, started now with a stated mission to purify the political system, it could by the time a General Election is called later this year or in the spring of 2010 have built up enough momentum to overturn the current orthodoxy.

Some may say that would be a good thing (Guido for example?).  However, the danger is that such a popular ‘revolution’ may throw up untested (maybe unknown) individuals that turn out to be far more venal than any of the MPs who have been named and shamed (UKIP’s track record on expenses in the European Parliament is hardly exemplary).  More significantly, the existing established political parties each have their own guiding philosophy and history and, whilst many would say that this is blurred these days (Is Cameron the heir to Thatcher or Blair?  What do the LibDems really believe?  Is Gordon New Labour?  Is New Labour Labour etc?), what would any new “Clean Hands” Party stand for apart from the overturning of the existing order?  What is more would what it stands for be subjected to any scrutiny at all in an election focussing on the alleged venalities of the existing Parliament and the mainstream political Parties?

Some people – and the newspapers – should be careful what they wish for.

Parliament to be sponsored – official

I have just been informed by an authoritative source – no less a person than a London cabbie – that as part of the Parliamentary reforms currently being proposed Parliament itself is to receive commercial sponsorship for the first time.  In the running are Premier Foods plc – one of the leading food producing companies in the UK.  They are keen to sponsor Parliament as part of a promotion of one of their major brands.  If the deal goes through, the Mother of Parliaments will henceforth be known as “The Aaaah Bisto Parliament – Home of the Gravy Train”.

I think he was joking ….

With British politics in meltdown, the House of Lords debates bees

One of the features of the House of Lords is its ability – sometimes its almost surreal ability – to disconnect itself occasionally from the political hurly-burly and focus on other matters that are important but rarely get much political ‘airtime’.  Today, as Parliament packed up for a week’s recess to recover from one House losing a Speaker for the first time in over 300 years, the other House reviving a power last used in 1642 to suspend two of its members, and the expenses of members of both Houses under embarrassing scrutiny, the House of Lords spent 90 minutes discussing the effect of disease on the British bee population.   And quite right too.

A senior Tory talks sense about the 7/7 bombings

I have just heard the Rt Hon Michael Mates MP talking eminent sense of Radio 4’s World Tonight (he’s about 30 minutes in).  He is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee (the Parliamentary Committee that oversees the Security Service and whose report “Could 7/7 have been prevented?” is published today).  His comments were measured and dispassionate.  They didn’t treat national security questions as a political football or an occasion for political point-scoring.  He was being statesmanlike and behaving responsibly – exactly what I suspect most members of the public would like to get from their MPs.

Outbreak of sanity after fifteen days of debate

I have posted before about the interminable discussion on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill – we are now on the fifteenth day of detailed consideration (a day at Second Reading, eleven days in Committee and this is now the third day on Report).

I am promised by the Whips that tonight the discussions will stop by 7.30pm.

Why?  Because everything that could conceivably be said – by everyone who conceivably might want to say it – has been said?  NO.  Because common sense has broken out and the LibDems now recognise that this is a good and sensible Bill bringing useful improvements to the legislation governing the protection of the coast-line? NO.

The real reason?  It is Lord Philip Hunt’s birthday today (he is 60, since you ask).  As the Minister he has had to answer the debates on all the myriad of points that have been raised over the last fifteen days of discussion and, I am told, he has said “Enough is Enough”, and that at half past seven he is taking his family to dinner.  At last, a breath of sanity …..

Lord Mackay of Clashfern rules OK

I have now started reading the House of Lords Privileges Committee report on the conduct of the four Members of the House.  Actually, there are two reports and it is the first that I have been through so far (I will probably save the 540 or so pages of the main report on conduct and the associated evidence until tomorrow).  The first report is on “The Powers of the House of Lords in respect of its Members” and its broad conclusion is that the House does not have the power to exclude a Member permanently but can suspend a Member for a period during the remaining life of this Parliament.

This may not sound like a very Earth-shattering conclusion, but it turns out not to be as straightforward as one might think.  The question turns on what powers the House of Lords already has, whether a House of Parliament can take extra powers upon itself without primary legislation and whether the House’s rules can over-ride the Monarch’s Writ of Summons to a Member.

What is interesting is that the Committee first took advice form the Attorney General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, the senior legal advisor to the Government.  However, when she concluded that the House did NOT have the power to suspend a Member, but could merely resolve to invite a Member to take “leave of absence” for a specified time, the Committee asked one of its members, the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to give a second opinion.  When he gave his view that the House DID have the power to suspend, the Committee decided unanimously to accept his advice rather than that of the Attorney General.

The whole issue rests on the mystical significance of the Writ of Summons from the Queen, which each Member receives on first being appointed to the House and then on each occasion a new Parliament is called (ie after each General Election).  This was a big issue at the time of the House of Lords reform when all but 92 hereditary peers lost the right to sit in Parliament.  Could an Act of Parliament over-ride the Monarch’s Summons?  Parliament (and the Courts) eventually concluded that yes it could.

Intriguingly, according to John Wells in his book “The House of Lords“, this same issue was tested by Lord Tom Taylor (one of the four Members who are the subject of the other Privileges Committee report).  According to page xiv in the paperback edition I have, Tom Taylor “argued in the early 1980s that insanity should not prevent peers from attending”.  The book goes on: “He himself had been detained in a psychiatric hospital, where his wife would have preferred him to stay, but he secured his release by claiming parliamentary privilege and made his way back to Westminster.”

Patricia Scotland took her argument back to 1705 when both Houses of Parliament agreed that “neither House of Parliament hath power, by any Vote or Declaration, to create to themselves any new Privilege, that is not warranted by the known Laws and Customs of Parliament.”  She then argued that as the House had never suspended anyone since then to introduce a power of suspension now would indeed be a “new Privilege” contrary to the 1705 decision.

Lord Mackay’s contrary argument was that suspension would not interfere with the Writ of Summons itself.  The Writ of Summons does not confer a right or privilege; it is a command to fulfil a duty (ie attendance at Parliament) and the duty includes an obligation to perform the duty in accordance with the rules of Parliament.  It follows therefore that a breach of those rules is a failure properly to fulfil the duty and suspension might be an appropriate sanction.

Lord Mackay also argues that in any case the power to suspend already existed in 1705 – it had been used on 19th May 1642 when the House resolved that Lord Savile should not sit or vote for the remainder of that session.  Lord Mackay admits that the power has not been used since then, but the House would not be voting itself a “new Privilege” if it decides to suspend one or more Members.

The first thing the House will have to do next Wednesday when it considers the Privileges Committee’s reports will be to decide whether it backs the Mackay view or not (and by implication whether it is rejecting the advice of the Attorney General).  Then assuming the power of suspension is approved, decisions can be made about the two Members who the Committee is suggesting be suspended.  It will be interesting to see whether at that point anyone will raise the point that retrospective penalties are being applied (an issue that normally vexes many Members of the House when it is deemed that a piece of legislation has a retrospective effect).  It may be a long debate.