Constitutional renewal starts at home

Baroness Murphy

Lord Butler

Lord Bach

I was the only woman to speak in Lord Tyler’s debate on constitutional renewal last Thursday, and characteristically perhaps for a woman I looked at the domestic governance arrangements inside the House which I observe do not serve well the business of the House. The House is unable to respond swiftly and effectively to crises as we saw during the expenses debacle. We do not adhere to the fundamental principles of good corporate governance; these are clear leadership, overt lines of accountability, fit-for-purpose processes and clear mechanisms for proper engagement by Members. Unless we get our own House in order, we will never be able to assert the important role of Parliament in relation to the Executive, play our proper complementary role to the Commons or become a modern, proactive second chamber, whether or not we change the membership and whether it is elected or not. Members need to develop a sense of ownership of the House in relation to its administration and the way that we determine the business. I fully understand that the Government are entitled to get their business through this place in a timely manner.

Before coming here, I had naively believed that the government Executive and Parliament were two separate things and that the House of Lords would have governance and accountability systems in place that would be explicit, written and connect me as a back-bencher with the business of the House. I was given the Grey Book, which is supposed to tell us about the house administration systems but in fact leaves out one vital component, the “Usual Channels”. The Usual Channels are in fact the chief whips of the three main political parties who of course are there to do their political leaders’ bidding. All important committees of the house whether serving the administration or business are dominated by this group, which has no formal powers but is all powerful. Even the desk that I am allowed to sit at in parliament is determined by the Usual Channels. The Usual Channels are the lead weight that keeps the moribund body of self-governance from floating to the surface for some air.

The role of the Management Board as the executive implementation of House Committee strategy and policy is clear. We are served by a talented administrative  Management Board of clerks and directors of services who, to give them their due, have been in the vanguard of developing the annual plan, the strategic planning round, the risk register and so on, and who are improving daily the ways in which they serve us. It is we who let them down by our old fashioned procedures.

We should perhaps reassess the potential for the Lord Speaker to play a real leadership role in parliamentary business, both inside and outside the Chamber. It is of pre-eminent importance that we should prise the administration and business of this House from out of the control of government and politically negotiated deals to allow the House of Lords to exercise its proper functions.

In his reply to my points and many other peers’ points about the business ararngements in the house, the Minister Lord Bach said that a review “ is a matter for the House authorities-I mention to the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that they are not quite the same as the usual channels”.

I rarely have the temerity to interrupt a minister in his response speech but Lord Butler of Brockwell leapt up “Will the Minister explain to a rookie what the difference is between the House authorities and the usual channels?” Lord Bach smiled “As I said that, I realised that I had probably made a mistake that the noble Lord might well come back at me about. No, I cannot explain the difference. I am sure that, with his experience, he will understand that there probably are some subtle differences, but they are well beyond me.”

And if the former cabinet secretary calls himself a ‘rookie’ in his understanding of the House of Lords, what hope for little old me?

11 comments for “Constitutional renewal starts at home

  1. Carl.H
    31/01/2010 at 2:38 pm

    Having a dislike for whips before my Lady`s blog I now find myself bemused by the power they appear to have in the HoL. I took the time to look up “The Usual Channels” and came up with this:–$450906.htm

    “The Usual Channels are responsible for putting names forward for consideration as committee members and, crucially, it is the Usual Channels that hammer out compromises on Bills, to safeguard their passage before prorogation.”

    I know I`m not the brightest when it comes to the methodology of the House or it`s ancient ways, and they are archaic but some of this appears to beggar belief.

    I`m here in the public domain sitting thinking the second House is there as independent body to scrutinise the often rushed and ill thought out Bills from the executive.

    From reading the above link it appears the Whips set the agenda, control who is on committee`s and negotiate the compromises on Bills ! Seem`s to me I may have got it all wrong in opposing those who wish to abolish the House, if all business is controlled and negotiated by the few(I hope)Whips.

    It is little wonder that whenever challenged the Whips fight back tooth and claw, emphasising the importance of their role but failing to completely tell the whole of it. I`m aghast.

    What of the “independents”, how are they represented ? Are there infact ANY ?

    “The Usual Channels”….Now this is beginning to sound like a club where the old School tie plays it`s part.

    The more I learn of our “democracy” the less it becomes so.

  2. Wolfgang
    31/01/2010 at 8:02 pm

    When you start to deal with your 2,000 pounds a minute cost people might start taking notice.

    Why employ any of you if you allow yourselves to be whipped? We could just employ the whips?

    Looks like you are finally realising what a sham the Lords is in reality.

    As for expenses, there isn’t any reform going on. What about a bit of retrospective law making? You’ve already passed retrospective laws so no difference.

    What about corruption such as selling changes to legistlation for cash? Still no laws on that.

    Or you could do the honourable thing and resign

  3. Bedd Gelert
    31/01/2010 at 10:03 pm

    Another wonderful post, Baroness Murphy !!

    • Gareth Howell
      01/02/2010 at 10:39 am

      Cabinet secretary does not know much about the practical workings of the chambers of the other place, surely.
      He is probably called twice a year to Select committee.

  4. Croft
    01/02/2010 at 1:34 pm

    I don’t see how the Speaker could control the business of the house other than with the consent/co-operation of the parties via the usual channels. The more real power the speaker gets the more certain the election of the speaker (which already showed obvious party block support) would become partisan.

    • Twm O'r Nant
      01/02/2010 at 4:46 pm

      “The Usual Channels are the lead weight that keeps the moribund body of self-governance from floating to the surface for some air.”

      You mean it sank there as though dying, and could be resuscitated?

      Disregarding the excellent metaphor from the noble pen, ‘Usual Channels’ is the Master, pulling the poodles’ lead.

      Actually I saved a travellers’ dog from drowning in my pond like that; the problem was that,when he fell in, he did not count on having such a water absorbent, and very long coat!

      Had you said the

      “moribund body of the Poodle of self governance”

      I would have been mighty convinced you are the local vet!

      Yap! Yap! Woof!

  5. Baronessmurphy
    02/02/2010 at 10:22 am

    Carl H you’ve got it!. About the independents: in recent years the crossbench convenor has been included in many discussions with the Usual Channels but ultimately it’s the party leaders who decide. I discovered yesterday when I tried to book a table for dinner in the Dining Room in late February that the opening evenings on mondays and wednesdays are decided by the Government Whips Office? Isn’t that extraordinary? (I couldn’t book because the Whips hadn’t decided yet).

    Wolfgang, can you send your calculations on £2000 per minute? I’m obviously being shortchanged. And of course as an independent I am not whipped.

    Croft I do take your point about the difficulties the Lord Speaker might have and it would be important to get the support of all parties to such a role. But it has been possible to achieve general consensus support for many speakers in the Commons (I admit some recent difficulties) and I think it would in fact be easier in the Lords where there is respect across parties for many senior players from all parties and none. I am not suggesting that the business of the Chamber should be controlled by the Speaker, merely that the ‘football referee’ role which is currently done by the Deputy Leader could be done by a neutral parliamentarian, not a member of the Government

    • Croft
      03/02/2010 at 11:34 am

      “I tried to book a table for dinner in the Dining Room in late February that the opening evenings on mondays and wednesdays are decided by the Government Whips Office?”

      🙄 😯

      I don’t have the words

  6. Bedd Gelert
    03/02/2010 at 11:04 am
  7. Bedd Gelert
    03/02/2010 at 11:13 am
  8. Gar Hywel
    03/02/2010 at 11:31 am

    For those good Christians who do not follow the Pagan Calendar, February 2nd is known as Imbolc, the Day of the Devil, the lowest day of the year, mid winter.

    You can only look forward now…. to a keenly fought general election, and a
    ………… victory; fill in the missing letters!

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