Making legislation accessible

Lord Norton

44080David Cameron has produced a substantial reform agenda for Parliament.  It appeared in The Guardian this morning and was delivered in a speech today at the Open University.

His recommendations cover three basic relationships: those of Government to Parliament, Parliament to the people, and the centre to the locality.  There is a lot in his speech, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  However, I thought I would pick up on one particular, but important, proposal in relation to the legislative process.  It relates to what has been discussed previously on the blog.

I have, both here and in the House, drawn attention to the problems created by the way legislation is constructed and then processed.  Various contributors to the blog have stressed the need to make Bills available in an open-source format.  Here’s an extract from David Cameron’s speech:

The way bills are published online today is stifling innovation and blocking democratic engagement.  So a Conservative government will publish all Parliamentary information online in an open-source format.”

That’s just one of many proposals, but we should not under-estimate its importance.  Much attention will be focused on the other proposals, such as reducing the size of the Commons, allowing Conservative MPs free votes in committee, and examining the arguments for fixed-term parliaments.   The line I have quoted may not excite as much attention, but it is significant in strengthening the relationship between Parliament and citizen.

David Cameron has accepted an invitation from Jack Straw to enter into cross-party talks to see whether consensus can be reached on proposals to strengthen Parliament.  This is one of the proposals that could be the subject of agreement and early action.

9 comments for “Making legislation accessible

  1. FinnishCowl
    26/05/2009 at 8:42 pm

    I have read a few articles on his speech, and the proposals are certainly interesting. I noticed the absence of any reference to further reforms to the Lords. I know Mr Cameron mentioned this quite some time ago, but I found its absence here interesting.

    I also thought the wording regarding royal prerogatives was interesting. I have seen several Labour proposals have been discussing making statutory changes to eliminate certain prerogatives and give them to Parliament. However, here he says that their “use” needs to be limited. Am I right to interpret this to mean he does not plan to limit the powers of the Crown (as exercised through ministers) by law but merely in practice?

  2. Len
    26/05/2009 at 9:29 pm

    I have to admit Lord Norton, I hadn’t really heard too much about this before recently – is this what “Free Our Bills” want, from theyworkforyou.com?

    Oh, and also, in these times of constitutional upheaval, isn’t it time to get lobbying to the Commons about keeping the Lords appointed? Both Labour and the Lib Dems look to be pushing for an elected Lords next election, surely one can’t be too careful? Only a temporary solution of course; convincing the public would be better for a long-term solution – though I understand you’re promoting the House’s work through the Information Committee for one!

  3. Croft
    27/05/2009 at 9:10 am

    I doubt I’m the only person who listened with some interest to the speech but the problems come when you translate this to the real world and need detail. I’m not certain I’m sure what the quote Lord Norton highlighted means. The full section reads:

    So a Conservative government will publish all Parliamentary information online in an open-source format.

    This will help people easily access Bills and other legislation in order to create useful applications – like text alerts when something you’re interested in is debated.

    And it will mean many more expert eyes helping to explain laws as they’re formed, flagging up flaws and suggestions for improvement.

    Anything that acts as a barrier between politics and the public has got to be torn down – including the ridiculous ban on parliamentary proceedings being uploaded to YouTube.

    This sounds like movement towards, as Len mentions, the Free Our Bills proposal. But I think we need detailed commitments nailed irrevocably to the mast as past warm words to the IT community have proved a disappointment.

    Obviously publishing online in an open source format is of little value unless sensible funding is given to ensure it’s properly marked up at the earliest stage so the public can engage at the bill formation stage, can see all changes and have clear and appropriate commentary alongside clauses/amendments so they can properly understand the meaning. The IT world has Linus’ Law which says ‘given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow’. The same should apply to laws and the above words suggest this, of course identifying problems and solutions is not the problem: convincing the party bureaucratic machine to change its views will be.

    FinnishCowl: I seem to remember that the Tory position on Lords’ Reform was that it was a third term ambition.

    • 28/05/2009 at 2:58 pm

      I must admit the prospect of being able to drill down on the change
      history of a particular bill appeals to my inner software geek. The
      equivalent of “annotate/blame” that can tell you when each line was
      last changed and the change-log associated with it. I expect it would
      make judges lives easier if they could bring up the particular
      line/paragraph of a given bill and immediately refer to the
      debate/committee session that led to that line being changed.

      @lordnorton I’d urge you to find a friendly geek to show you the sort
      of things they can dig out of a software version control system and
      see if that sets of any light bulbs for ideas on what “open source”
      law making could be like.

  4. Adrian Kidney
    27/05/2009 at 10:02 am

    Lord Norton,

    What are your views on fixed term elections? I am unconvinced myself, as there’s no possibility of sustaining such a system in a parliamentary system. Even Germany has loopholes to allow for early elections.

    • Croft
      27/05/2009 at 2:50 pm

      Adrian: Of the Tory s-ministers interviewed so far they seem to be suggesting, as expected, exactly the sort of early election exceptions one might imagine. I was going to jump in and say I rather liked the proposal (with exceptions – change of PM / lose vote of confidence) but on reflection this seems like complex engineering where a simpler solution exists. As the average parliament, if I remember correctly and conscious of the all seeing eye of Lord Norton 😀 , is presently just over 4 years then would not reducing the maximum duration from 5 to 4 years achieve the same end. It would force more regular renewal of the mandate and in such a shorter time there must be far less room for prime ministerial mischief with election timing as going early would risk a very short time in office. Certainly it would remove the need for rules governing dissolution exceptions and the almost inevitable (see your example of Germany) court cases over the decision.

  5. senex
    27/05/2009 at 12:54 pm

    The Commons is in a hole of its own making. Like a poor workman it blames the tools available to it. It now proposes change but fails to tell us that constitutional change takes many years to enact and often over many Parliaments.

    As for opening up legislation to the web, there are security issues in terms of web defacement by internet malcontents. Such alterations would cause a storm in the press and media when discovered. These things whilst desirable might better be non-web based but available from Parliament for public scrutiny.

    However, an open source format is compelling in that it could contain substantial amounts of metadata (data about the data) to assist with external scrutiny. There is however an upside and a downside to this. The upside would be better quality of legislation the downside would be, there might be more of it. The downside comes from increased productivity in creating legislation.

    I don’t hold democracy as the holy grail of governance because over the historical long term it has too many flaws that operate to weaken it. Instead I much prefer what we have now, a balance of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy.

    It seems to me though that Parliament is filled with individuals who have an almost religious faith in democracy to such an extent that they would do away with both the Monarchy and Aristocracy or weaken both to insignificance. Confound them I say!

    It comes as no surprise to see none of the proposed constitutional changes that are floating about working to strengthen the Monarchy. Should the Monarch for instance have a largely symbolic role as the head of the Cabinet at number 10 Downing Street with a discretionary power to remove ministers from office?

    It is the fairly new Dutch paradigm, a democracy based Monarchy that leads me to consider this. There are for instance desirable aspects of their Parliamentary system (it has an academic grouping in common with that of the Northern Ireland Parliament) that allows minorities’ fairer representation. This would pre-empt the unfairness of a British multicultural society.

    Should the Monarchy have a formal voice in the House of Lords? Perhaps it could elect a triumvirate to translate and formally make its views known. The power of three could represent many things in our political system such as the United Kingdom, Parliament or the combination of Monarchy, Parliament and people.

    Such a body would not have the power to vote in the Lords except when the removal of deadlock was required? Its appointment would be at the discretion of both the Monarchy and Parliament. It would release the Lords from being subordinate to the Commons.

    Should we not be eclectic in prescribing constitutional reform? Why create something entirely new when we could make better use of what we already have or what can be learned from the example of others?

    Ref: Formation of the Cabinet
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_the_Netherlands

  6. 28/05/2009 at 3:55 pm

    Great to see this moving up the agenda – hiding the law is no defence. Encouraging that at least some legislators are beginning to grasp the Internet as a way to openly and transparently engage with people, but real action is required.

    What on earth is the so-called “Digital Engagement Team” in the Cabinet Office actually doing?

  7. lordnorton
    28/05/2009 at 9:33 pm

    Finnish Cowl: Thanks for your comments. On prerogative powers, some can be transferred by convention (as presently proposed for the decision to commit troops to action abroad) and some embodied in statute (as proposed with treaty ratification). It is generally easier to go with the former: it is difficult to embody some in statute.

    Len: yes, it is what MySociety has been pressing for. On constitutional issues, I agree with you and may do a separate post. To suggest that the behaviour of MPs leads axiomatically to a case for electing another body of politicians strikes me as intellectually incoherent. Electors are not daft and can recognise a knee-jerk reaction or one that may appear to be designed to divert attention from the current controversy.

    Croft: I agree. It requires a considerable investment. It is a necessary one: it fits very much with what I was saying to the Information Committee. It should become a major part of parliamentary activity. That requires a major commitment of resources.

    Alex Bennee: Thanks for your comments. I am already working on your suggestion.

    Adrian Kidney: I am rather drawn to Croft’s suggestion, for the reason he gives. Parliaments tend to last four sessions unless a Government loses a vote of confidence or has no clear majority (in which case the Parliament is shorter), or is very unpopular (in which case it lasts the full five sessions). The maximum life of a Parliament was reduced to five years, from seven, by the Parliament Act 1911. Reducing the period to four years would be a more effective way of proceeding than opting for fixed-term Parliaments.

    Senex: Thanks for your comments I agree on the upside. On the downside, we need to look for alternative means to reduce the volume of legislation. On the monarchy, I think it is working extremely well. I don’t see a strong case for changing the one part of our political system that is working well and enjoying popular approval. I like to think the next element that is working well is also unelected!

    Pragmatist: Thanks also for the comments. The Digital Enhancement Team is seeking to ensure that Departments exploit modern technology effectively, but it lacks the power of enforcement. There is also the problem of divided responsibilities within Government. It is something I have been pursuing.

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