I was delighted to see the number of comments on my last post, and on the debate I led in the Lords ten days ago. In response:
1. Scrutiny: There seems to be a consensus both among commenters, and in the Lords debate (both the other day and on the Queen’s Speech) that we should do more to give legislation proper scrutiny before it reaches the formal parliamentary process, and that we should review how laws are working after they’ve been passed.
A major area of failure in Parliament is the scrutiny of public expenditure: the Commons Public Accounts Committee produces excellent reports, but these are almost always retrospective looks at how Departments and Agencies have wasted money over the course of years. Parliament needs better access to Departmental budgets and practices throughout the year, so it can keep a better eye on how public money is spent. Money (or ‘supply’) has traditionally been the exclusive province of the Commons, so it may be that we should leave improvements in this area to them.
That gives the Lords an extra responsibility, though, to improve our scrutiny of other parts of public policy. We could start by taking evidence from experts – as already happens in the Commons – on the contents of legislation before we go into line-by-line scrutiny of a Bill in the chamber. I’ve long thought, too, that there should be a special Lords Committee to sift through all the international treaties and agreements the government signs in our name each year.
In terms of post-legislative scrutiny, we could – for example – establish a committee to keep track of how effective and necessary are the thousands of criminal offences created by Government each year. Since Labour came to power, Ministers have just about invented one new offence for every day they’ve been in office! It’s up to Parliament to look at the merits of each of these and expose Ministers where they indulge in pointless headline grabbing.
2. The Salisbury-Addison Convention: This was always an agreement between two parties: the Conservatives and Labour. The Liberal Democrat position is that there is certainly no way to codify, or even have a common understanding, the idea that some bills constitute ‘manifesto legislation’. It makes sense for the Lords to avoid voting down whole Bills at second or third reading, since doing so would turn us from careful revisers into blanket vetoers, but that’s about all the convention means in practice. That’s why the Joint Committee on Conventions advocated renaming it “the Government Bill Convention”. The name hasn’t yet stuck!
In 1945, the Labour manifesto was eight pages long; it was incredibly simple. Today, manifestos are typically more 100 pages long, and it really is rather difficult to ascertain which policies are those which enjoy a popular mandate, and which were popped in at the last moment, read by no one and swung no votes at all. Even Conservative Lord (Terrence) Higgins, who sat with me on the Joint Committee on Conventions, and originally didn’t accept this case, has come round to my point of view.
Ultimately, if people are concerned that a second chamber full of people you didn’t elect (and can’t get rid of) might stand in the way of a popular government attempting to get its programme through, it might be worth considering the merit of having a second chamber full of people you did choose and can boot out if you don’t like what they do. There’s no point having a legislative chamber that is afraid to vote down laws it opposes, so you have to have it constituted in such a way that it’s accountable. I think regular readers already know my views on that!
3. Parliament Acts: These do act as a ‘long-stop’ irrespective of the vagaries of what is ‘manifesto legislation’– and even reformers like me, who want an elected chamber, do not suggest they should be altered. The Acts ensure the Commons can get its way if it insists on doing so, but only after a period of one year – its keeps the Lords in place as a revising chamber, there to make the Government think again. The Acts also enshrine the Commons’ right to have its own way over tax and public spending, without a delay.
4. The Lisbon Treaty: following some probing, in which I was involved, we discovered this last week that Parliament – not least the House of Lords – has significantly more power over European decisions as a result of the Treaty. More on that when our Procedure Committee’s report is available.
5. Electoral Reform: I am amused to note how the Westminster obsessives are all concentrating on the effect on parties and parliamentary politics of a fairer voting system. What about the people? Why should a small section of electorate have far more power to influence what happens than the majority? Why should so many voters be completely powerless? The First-Past-The-Post system simply does not work any more. The Conservatives had a substantial majority of votes over Labour in England in 2005 but 92 fewer seats. Is that fair? What happens if that is the case for the whole UK this year? Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat supporters have tended to get much less valuable votes than the supporters of the other two. Why? Not one single current MP enjoys the endorsement of more than half his or her constituents. There is a direct correlation between those with the safest seats and those with the most questionable expenses claims, because they knew they only needed to be accountable to their parties rather than to the public at large. Let’s stop looking at the need for reform through the eyes of politicians and examine it from the viewpoint of the people – that’s what democracy is all about, isn’t it?