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Archive for the ‘Parliament’ Category

May 22,2009

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 ….

May 21,2009

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.

May 19,2009

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.

May 19,2009

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 …..

May 14,2009

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.

May 14,2009

I have just introduced a short debate in the Moses Room (Grand Committees in the House of Lords take place in a room known as the Moses Room as there is a large fresco called ‘Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law from Mount Sinai’ there) on the possible use of the Segway Personal Transporter in the UK.  My interest in this was fired by seeing a demonstration of a Segway in use and hearing of the use of  them made by some 1000 police and law enforcement agencies around the world.

The police experience elsewhere has found a series of benefits: they can easily be integrated into patrolling, they cut down response times, they provide a better line of sight for officers (because the officer is on a platform 40-50cm above the ground), and they improve engagement between the police and the public (compared with officers in a car).

They are also of use for other specialised purposes.  For example, BAA deploy them at Heathrow and find that they speed up response times in the event of an incident or equipment breakdown and provide an efficient way of patrolling and doing routine maintenance tests.  A number of UK local authorities are also interested in deploying them in parks, city centre precincts, routine maintenance patrols and even for parking enforcement.

Finally, if made available for general use, there is evidence from a major study in Canada that a high proportion (62%) of car users would be keen to give up their cars for many short journeys – with a considerable saving in carbon emissions and congestion.

Most other countries permit their use.  In the UK, however, the Deparment for Transport is adamant that existing legislation does not permit their use on roads, on cycle routes or on pavements.  Moreover, there are – it is claimed – no powers that would even permit a trial to take place. (I am not convinced of this.  As a non-lawyer, Section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 seems to permit the appropriate exemptions to be made.)

Andrew Adonis, the Lords Transport Minister, stonewalled elegantly on behalf of the Department.  However, he did agree to try one out himself (although he insisted that I do so as well) and offered me a meeting with his Departmental colleague, Jim Fitzpatrick MP.

What was noticeable was the make-up of the discussion.  As Andrew pointed out, he and I, “as the representatives of the Proletarian Party were the only mere Life Barons present”.  The other speakers were the Earls Attlee (grandson of Clement, but now speaking on behalf of the Conservative front-bench), Liverpool (also a Conservative and descendent of another former Prime Minister – a Tory this time) and Erroll (a cross-bencher who is also the hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland), and Viscount Falkland (speaking for the Liberal Democrats).  The Earl of Glasgow (another Liberal Democrat, who had originally wanted to speak as well) also sat in for most of the debate.  When Earl Attlee expressed his sympathy to Viscount Falkland that he was only a Viscount, Lord Falkland hastened to point out that he was, in fact, also an Earl, but as it was a Jacobite creation it didn’t count.  All in all, five of the ninety-two remaining hereditary peers still sitting in the Lords were present.  I am not sure what it means, but it certainly felt strange.

May 6,2009

Michael White has written an extraordinary Comment piece in today’s Guardian, headlined in my copy “Mr Nice Guy asked to deliver the undeliverable”.  I can only assume that this is Michael White’s bid to win “The Political Assassin of the Year” newspaper columnist award. 

How can any Chief Whip – let alone one with the avuncular charms of Nick Brown – survive being labelled as Mr Nice Guy?  Michael White then makes it worse by quoting unnamed Labour MPs describing their Chief Whip as “decent” and “not at all the unsubtle brute”.

Chief Whips are MEANT to be brutal for goodness sake!

And how helpful is it to Nick Brown’s authority for Michael White to go on to list the Chief Whip’s disagreements with Government policy?

May 5,2009

The House of Lords is now on the first day of the Report Stage of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.  This exciting piece of legislation sets up a new Marine Management Organisation under which many of the existing, diverse areas of marine regulation would be centralised, streamlines the existing marine licensing system and provides powers to create a joined-up marine planning policy, introduces new measures to reform fisheries management, provides a framework for establishing marine conservation zones and enables the creation of a walkable route around the English coast.

The Bill has received eleven full days of detailed debate during the Committee stage.  For those not directly involved the discussion has been – shall we say – less than riveting.  The LibDems – in particular, Lord Greaves – have spoken often and at length.

A little earlier the first division of the day was called.  The procedure is that three minutes after the division starts, the question is again put to the House and, if at that stage those moving the amendment do not shout “Content”, the amendment automatically falls.  This is what happened: it was a LibDem amendment and they failed to repeat their shout of “Content” after three minutes. 

A chastened Lord Greaves was subsequently seen wandering round the House – allegedly – telling all and sundry that he must have dozed off at the critical moment.

Given the soporific nature of most of his previous contributions on the Bill, this was regarded as poetic justice.

Apr 21,2009

Let nobody say that legislation isn’t scrutinised properly.

It is 9.00pm and the House of Lords is on the eleventh day of Committee consideration of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.  We are now on amendment A342 and when we get to amendment A394 we will finish for the night.

Apr 16,2009

The Director of Public Prosecutions has now published his decision on the Damian Green case.  Many people will no doubt be saying that they knew it all along, but it is worth noting that the DPP does say:

“I considered an alleged offence of misconduct in public office against Mr Galley and an alleged offence against Mr Green of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the alleged offence against Mr Galley, and of conspiring with Mr Galley for him to commit misconduct in public office. …. I have concluded that there is evidence upon which a jury might find that there was damage to the proper functioning of the Home Office. Such damage should not be underestimated.”

He also makes clear that he applied a “high threshold” test before making his decision (ie. a higher standard of proof was required than would have been necessary for others) and warns:

“This should not be taken to mean that in future cases, a prosecution on other facts would not be brought. My decision is made on the particular facts of this case and the unauthorised leaking of restricted and/or confidential information is not beyond the reach of the criminal law.”

So the message seems to be:  Damian Green could have been prosecuted and was close to being prosecuted, but not this time and don’t do it again.