Parliament in the Dark? Responses.

Lord Tyler

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?

14 comments for “Parliament in the Dark? Responses.

  1. Chris K
    08/02/2010 at 10:03 pm

    “Not one single current MP enjoys the endorsement of more than half his or her constituents.”

    I take it that you’re including the people who don’t vote? Or perhaps even criminals, minors and non-citizens who are ineligible from voting but who are nonetheless still constituents. They would, of course, still exist whatever electoral system we had.
    How should those people are represented? Empty seats in Parliament?

    As you mention constituents and constituencies, perhaps you could explain why the Liberal Democrats don’t support either of the two voting systems which effectively retain the MP-constituency link?

    “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.”

    That statement about MPs sitting pretty on huge majorities does, I fear, carry some weight. Although there is of course evidence that MPs with quite narrow majorities have misused office expenses for party-political activities.

    I don’t believe the electoral system needs changing to remove safe MPs. Already FPTP allows constituents to remove poor-performing MPs in a way that PR systems do not. If political parties involved the general public more in selecting candidates, and had regular re-selection processes then that would go a long way to fixing the problem. A PR system by contrast would be a huge step backwards to party, not public, accountability for individual MPs.

    Personally I would be quite happy to see Party labels removed from ballot papers. That would go a long way to removing the flawed perception that some political parties are being hard done by the electoral system. The inconvenient truth about why the LibDems and other minor parties don’t have many MPs then becomes clear: not enough constituencies want one as their MP.

  2. Dave H
    09/02/2010 at 11:53 am

    On the subject of scrutiny, I would hope that the Lords will be carefully going over the current crop of Bills that are about to appear before them that had no significant pre-legislative scrutiny and and insufficient committee time in the Commons. It is all very well for the government to want to move things along, but if by doing so they allow into law things that have not been properly scrutinised and debated then I consider them to be negligent in their job.

    As for the Parliament Acts, I would say that if the Lords is converted to a fully-elected chamber then it should have the power to block legislation as it will be as representative of the people as the Commons. Why should the government, in proposing reforms, have its cake and eat it?

    Elect the Lords for fixed five year terms, 20% of the House per year and you’ll get far better continuity than the potential handbrake turns we get in the Commons. Oh, and don’t, under any circumstances, agree to any sort of party list system (as we have with EU elections) because that would mean that we get to elect those that the party wants, not who the people want.

    • 11/02/2010 at 4:03 pm

      I too would like to hope that the Lords will give proper scrutiny to the Bills heading their way-especially if those Bills have been somewhat rushed and may cause immense damage if allowed through.

      I truly hope some Lords have this sense of duty and responsibility and are willing to find out the facts.

  3. Croft
    09/02/2010 at 1:31 pm

    Chris K is quite right you are creating somewhat of a straw man here. The 25-40% who don’t/can’t/won’t vote makes an absolute majority of your constituents near impossible. Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill’s MP has an absolute majority of voters 24,725/38,344 (19k majority)

    I don’t have any objections on scrutiny except to say that the commons does such a lousy job that leaving finance to them alone ensures continued failure. The Lords probably has more members qualified in financial minutiae than the commons and it’s a waste not to utilise them.

    “Ministers have just about invented one new offence for every day they’ve been in office!”

    And the opposition have voted in favour of a majority of them. Stones…glass houses…;-)

    Unless there is more use of sunset clauses then you never will have a chance to revisit the offences created and no amount of well reasoned committee reports will make the slightest difference.

    Salisbury convention: I take that as a long way of saying ‘the LDs will move wrecking amendments’ probably with Labour to disrupt a likely Tory government’s bills.

    “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?”

    And what about the people? I have the credit the chutzpah in trying to add PR to the referendum, championing the right of the people to decide, when on the most popular recent referendum issue the LDs couldn’t run fastest enough away from the people!

    “The Conservatives had a substantial majority of votes over Labour in England in 2005 but 92 fewer seats. Is that fair?”

    No but in 1997 and 2005 (I don’t have the figure for ’01 to hand) Labour would have had a greater majority and the Tories fewer seats if we had been using AV according to research. But your party (I’m not clear from your comments how you will vote) is supporting AV in the commons.

    “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?”

    All well and good but I seem to remember a peer trying to push though a parliamentary reform bill, much of which I personally agree with, but that didn’t involve the public having had a say in its creation though it reflected the views, opinion and values of a section of the political class very well indeed 🙂

  4. lordnorton
    09/02/2010 at 8:14 pm

    “Not one single current MP enjoys the endorsement of more than half his or her constituents.”

    A bit like MEPs, then?

    • Wolfgang
      09/02/2010 at 9:58 pm

      And the Lords enjoy the endorsement of just 1 person

      Not democratic is it.

      More fascist than anything else.

      • lordnorton
        10/02/2010 at 9:52 am

        Wolfgang: Your knowledge of fascism appears to be on a par with your knowledge of how the political system actually operates.

      • Twm O'r Nant
        10/02/2010 at 12:39 pm

        “More fascist than anything else.”

        Monarchy as such is totalitarian, of the right.

        Do we need to think about that? There must surely be more practical political problems to exercise our “minds” upon.

        Bill and act scrutiny is dealt with by case law.

      • 15/02/2010 at 4:18 pm

        To equate a constitutional monarch with a fascist dictator is lunacy.

        Also, in terms of how many people endorse a given member of the upper house, it really depends which Lord we’re talking about.

    • Croft
      10/02/2010 at 1:40 pm

      Lord Norton: Did you by any chance cast your eye over the LD amendment setting up the “Constituency boundaries for single transferable vote system” !

  5. Gareth Howell
    10/02/2010 at 10:51 am

    Noble Lord Tyler presents an interesting Winter time set of ideas.

    Scrutiny.

    I am, and have been, concerned with the way scrutiny is dealt with by the HofL committees
    over the last few years, particularly the EU Del Leg committees, the main committee responsibility of the second chamber.

    “…legislation proper scrutiny before it reaches the formal parliamentary process, and that we should review how laws are working after they’ve been passed.”

    Surely Case Law is a very effective method of ascertaining how laws work after they have been passed?! When Judges throw the law back to parliament saying they need better clarification than they can themselves provide, then parliament knows it has got to start jawing again?

    I’ll leave it at that for the moment since Noble Lord Tyler’s post covers so many subjects. Thank you for letting me join in!

  6. 15/02/2010 at 4:28 pm

    Lord Tyler

    the numbers I’ve seen suggest that the vote totals gave Labour a slim majority. Certainly the make-up of parliament wasn’t reflective of the different proportions of votes cast — Labour were overrepresented and the Lib Dems fearfully underrepresented — but I’m interested in where you got the numbers that say the Tories actually took home a majority of the total vote.

    While not relating to our system, it’s worth quoting Jon Stewart in relation to the last election in his own country:

    “Basically, a 6% popular vote victory translates into a 2-to-1 electoral college drubbing, proving once again that the electoral college makes perfect sense.”

  7. Senex
    23/02/2010 at 8:04 pm

    LT: “A major area of failure in Parliament is the scrutiny of public expenditure:” Some months back the Japanese Budget Committee in the House of Councillors, its upper house approved some 5 billion USD to civilian aid in Afghanistan. It was the fact that the upper house was able to do this that caught my eye.

    Nakabayashi Mieko in the link below explains that the Japanese budget process takes 3 years to complete. Not only do the House of Representatives, its lower house have influence over the budget but so does the upper house.

    She goes on to say:

    “When the budget document is submitted to the House of Representatives, it is subject to deliberations in the Budget Committee and hearings before being voted upon. Upon approval, it is sent to the House of Councilors for consideration. However, if the upper house is unable to build sufficient consensus for a vote within 30 days, or if the House of Councilors drafts a different proposal that a joint conference is unable to reconcile, then the original vote of the lower House of Representatives is the final word.”

    Lets hope an elected HoL at some point will be able to cite this as precedent with a view to having a similar arrangement put in place?

    The chart depicting general government gross debt as a percentage of GDP is eye watering. However, the updated chart for 2009 shows that it has levelled off and that our own debt burden is modest by comparison. No doubt the next chart may look somewhat different?

    Ref: …Japans Budget Process, para 9
    http://www.rieti.go.jp/en/papers/contribution/nakabayashi/01.html
    Ratio of General Government Gross Debt to GDP, 2009
    http://www.stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook/pdf/f4_4.pdf

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