No way to legislate

Lord Norton

45007The Parliamentary Standards Bill was put together in haste in an attempt to address public anger over parliamentarians’ use of expenses.  It seeks to set up an independent agency to administer MPs’ pay and allowances, and establishes a commissioner to conduct investigations. 

The problem with the Bill is that it does not get to the root of the problem.   There will still be an allowance scheme for MPs.  Public anger was directed not just at mis-use of allowances but at the very fact of allowances.  MPs will still get money to cover such things as mortgages and furniture.  Furthermore, the Bill raises important constitutional issues, since it embodies in statute various requirements that could lead to judicial review and a clash between Parliament and the courts. 

The Bill was rushed in its preparation and pushed through the Commons in three days.  As the constitutional ramifications became more apparent, the Government agreed to the removal of one clause.  Another was removed by a vote of the House.  There was not time to consider the consequences.  This is being left to the Lords. 

However, the front benches in the Lords have agreed to expedite passage of the Bill and set aside the normal gaps between the stages of a Bill.  I very much object to this.  There is no clear case to rush through a Bill which has constitutional implications, has been hurriedly put together, and which has not been subject to consultations,  be it within Government or with people outside.   It is also not clear why the Bill should be rushed, given that the Committee on Standards in Public Life will report in the autumn and may make recommendations at odds with the provisions of the Bill.  Given that the party leaders have agreed in advance to accept what the committee recommends, this could lend itself to an almighty mess.

The Constitution Committee, on which I serve, has issued a report on the Bill, forcibly making the point that the Bill should not be fast-tracked.

How then to prevent it being fast-tracked?  After the Bill is given a Second Reading, the Leader of the House moves that the Bill be committed to a committee of the whole House.  I have now tabled an amendment to provide that the committee shall not meet until fourteen days from the date of Second Reading, in accordance with the House’s recommended minimum intervals between the stages of Bills.  The Government object to this because it means the Bill will not complete its passage before the summer recess.

The Bill is being debated on Second Reading tomorrow (Wednesday).   I have had members approach me to express support for my amendment, including some on both sides who have held senior office.   It should be an interesting debate.

11 comments for “No way to legislate

  1. 08/07/2009 at 1:46 am

    Fast-tracking, to me, emasculates both public and Members of both Houses, and seems to be based on a presumption of omniscience by the fast-trackers. On occasions – I would suggest this is one – it represents at best a waste of the resource of both the population and the remainder of the legislature, and at worst a contempt of them.

    Whilst I appreciate the very real desires of the Commons not only to do something but to be seen to do it over the expenses scandal, things seem to have got wholly out of hand. Both main parties have dealt with extreme cases in their own ways, perhaps peremptorily in some cases; Michael Martin put a moritorium on all but the most basic payments; and Sir Christopher Kelly has been asked to prepare his report. Meanwhile MPs have made their own decisions on refunds and the police‘s attention has been drawn to appropriate cases.

    Short of resurrecting stocks on Parliament Square for the miscreants, what else can be done? “A GENERAL ELECTION!” cries the Opposition (but then, it always has and it always will). “No, let’s fire some legislation at it!” cries the Government. “And fast-track it too, to boot, with – look – an extra cup of gunpowder, just to show ‘em we mean it!”

    What is the meaning of this? Do they think that if they throw a Bill harder and faster it goes in further, or something?

    What does the public want? Does it want to employ a new fulltime Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority? I would suggest not. What it want is to pay Members a fair wage for what they do and to reimburse their reasonable costs, without feeling anyone is taking it for a ride. As ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ are emotive subjects, the creation of a temporary independent committee to consult and sort out a formula would appear a reasonable solution.

    I think it was Sir Christopher himself who mentioned that transparency itself solves a great deal of the allowances/expenses issue. How many of the individual scandals would have occurred had the books been open to the media?

    Yet this new transparency – wrested from Commons almost over the last dead body of its last MP – cannot be allowed to settle in for five minutes before the Government has to cover it with a nice, new, expensive Quango for decency’s sake.

    Heaven’s knows what constitutional chaos will be created in the wake of all this but one thing is for sure – it will take a lot of court time and a lot of lawyers to disentangle the mess, costing a lot of money and taking up good brains that would usefully be employed elsewhere.

    With both parties against you, Lord N, I expect you will face problems with your amendment, but at least you will be able to say you told them so later.

    I have read you paper, discovering the Chatham House Rule on the way (which I Googled to discover that it’s a rule with its own web page: ) I wish I had known of it as a journalist, it would have come in very useful due to the ambiguity of “off the record”.

    • Croft
      08/07/2009 at 10:22 am

      I’d assumed the Chatham House Rule was pretty much ubiquitous in academic circles. In the past I certainly attended quite a few rather interesting meetings under such terms.

      Lord Norton: I’d like to believe you will get sufficient support but with all the parties backing it I fear we’ll all be disappointed. I have little confidence that the judiciary won’t jump in with both feet given review powers and fear that the next major disciplinary incident in parliament could well descend into farce as a sufficiently determined ‘defendant’ drags parliament/politics though every conceivable legal appeal and delaying tactic. At or around a hung parliament that could become serious very quickly.

  2. Adrian Kidney
    08/07/2009 at 7:06 am

    Good luck with your amendment, Lord Norton. However, with the prevailing attitude being that of ‘something must be (seen to be) done’, I can envision a Lords’ delay into the summer recess being portrayed by the House’s enemies as ‘killing’ the bill.

  3. howridiculous
    08/07/2009 at 8:06 am

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Bravo! I very much hope that you are able to prevent this outrage to our constitutional procedures.

    I don’t know why but it amazes me that our leaders spout the need for a change in the way we do politics in this country and then by their actions suggest the change they have in mind is cooking up a deal between the front bench teams to railroad legislation through the very institution our leaders are telling us needs to be strengthened!


  4. Bedd Gelert
    08/07/2009 at 1:53 pm

    off-topic, but very interesting, Hardeep Singh Kohli sticks up for the Lords in a sweet short film..

  5. Croft
    08/07/2009 at 2:16 pm

    Whilst I was having my lunch (strawberries in Crème fraîche since you all wondered!) I vaguely remembered a speech by Lord Norton on the Power Commission. It seemed on re-finding it (hat tip to that it could be dusted off and reused line for line in places. The sections on lack of definition(s), understanding of what the public wants and a the proper consideration of evidence all seemed all very familiar. Hansard

  6. 08/07/2009 at 3:29 pm

    Croft, if you used TheyWorkForYou to find the speech, you could have linked to it there 🙂
    Especially as Lord Norton has kindly provided us with a photo to use by it 🙂

    • Croft
      09/07/2009 at 11:55 am

      You’re right I could however I marginally prefer the raw format of hansard when actually reading a debate rather than the bells and whistles, aligned columns and pictures which while nice enough actually require more scrolling down. YMMV

  7. Senex
    08/07/2009 at 4:22 pm
  8. ladytizzy
    08/07/2009 at 5:29 pm

    The Parliamantary Standards Bill report you mention makes good points. For example, I would like to see a proper look at the case for establishing a new law specifically for parliamentarians rather than use existing tools aimed at holders of public office. Has this gvt made a specialisation out of producing new laws rather than looking at beefing up old ones?

    I am so pleased that you are doing your best to demonstrate the HoC has completely lost its principles in pursuit of some tatty politics. More!

  9. lordnorton
    10/07/2009 at 11:17 am

    stephenpaterson: Many thanks. I very much agree with what you say about fast-tracking as well as about what the public may want of Parliament. It is ironic that the Government seek to act in the name of public opinion without bothering to ask the public whether this is actually what they want. As you say, I fear it will be a case of being in a position to say ‘I told you so’, possibly in the not too distant future.

    Croft: I agree and, as we now know, you were correct in your assumption about the outcome of the vote. I fear you will also be right in your assumption about the judiciary.

    Adrian Kidney: Peter Riddell’s article in The Times on Wednesday gives weight to what you say as to how my amendment would be and has been viewed. However, I would rather have bad publicity and good legislation than the other way round. (Though, obviously, the ideal would be good publicity and good legislation!)

    Howridiculous: You make a very valid point. The front benches clearly want to strengthen Parliament by acting on behalf of back benchers, usually without consulting them. It is sometimes appropriate to remind the usual channels that they operate for the benefit of the House and not the other way round.

    Croft: I agree that the points I made about the Power Commission report – I am resisting the temptation to utilise some powerful adjectives – could well be utilised about the approach being taken here. The worrying aspect is that in this case it is Government acting in this way.

    Ladytizzy: You make a very pertinent point, one that has been pursued in debate on the Bill. The Government have already agreed to the removal of one of the offences and the others, I suspect, will follow. They add nothing that is not already covered in the law.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments.

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