Strengthening the House

Lord Norton

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was successful in the ballot for a Thursday debate and my motion – to call attention to the case for enhancing the means available to the House of Lords to scrutinise legislation and public policy – occupied the the first of today’s two debates. 

The debate was notable for the quality as well as the quantity of speakers.  They included all three party leaders in the House as well as such distinguished members as former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler of Brockwell and former ministers such as Baroness Shephard and Lord Rooker.   As both Lord Higgins and Lord Filkin were to note as the debate progressed, a consensus appeared to be emerging.  There was an acceptance that the House does a good job, but that there are no grounds for complacency.   We need to build on what we already do in scrutinising Government Bills and public policy.

I argued the case for more pre-legislative scrutiny (not least through Joint Committees), for the introduction of evidence-taking committees for Bills starting life in the Lords, and for a Joint Committee on Post-Legislative Scrutiny (to cover reviews of secondary as well as primary legislation).   As Lord Puttnam noted, we would have benefited from an evidence-taking committee on the Digital Economy Bill. I also wanted to see Select Committees get out and about in different parts of the United Kingdom to take evidence and to make greater use of online consultation.  These changes will enable the House to engage more with the public, ensuring there is not only greater awareness of what we do but more opportunities to help us do our job by feeding in informed comments from experts and others with knowledge of the subject under consideration.

Lord Rooker made the point, which I reiterated in closing, that a good Government needs a strong Parliament.  There was a clear mood in the House favouring change designed to enhance our ability to scrutinise Bills and public policy.  The likelihood is that a Leader’s Group will be formed after the next election in order to take forward proposals for change.  In the meantime, we will continue pressing.

UPDATE: The debate can be read here.

25 comments for “Strengthening the House

  1. 25/02/2010 at 8:59 pm

    These all sound like good ideas. What are the chances that changes will get stymied in the Commons? I would have thought that whichever party is in charge would discourage greater scrutiny for fear that it would slow/challenge attempts to enact their legislative agenda.

    • lordnorton
      25/02/2010 at 9:25 pm

      governing principles: One of the points I made – reiterated by others – was that if the Commons was not interested in utilising Joint Committees, we should establish committees in the Lords. That way, we can make progress and are not dependent on the Commons.

      • 25/02/2010 at 9:32 pm

        Lord Norton: Thank you for replying. What I was asking was, to make these changes to the Lords’ working practices, will you need Commons consent? If so, is there a risk that the Commons will oppose them?

  2. Wolfgang
    25/02/2010 at 9:02 pm

    You need to deal with your Spanish practices, or go the way of the printers.

    Looking at the TV, there weren’t 400 lords in the chamber, and I doubt there were in commitees either.

    • lordnorton
      25/02/2010 at 10:29 pm

      Wolfgang: Oh dear, still not reading what has been written in previous posts and responses. I spend long hours in the Lords, but relatively little time in the chamber. I spend considerably more time in committees and at my desk than I do in the chamber. It is the same for many other peers. I am still at my desk and it is 9.30 p.m. on a Thursday evening. Another peer in the office has only just left. Attendance figures don’t take account of that.

    • Senex
      26/02/2010 at 4:42 pm

      Wolfie: Not that one should really encourage you, but expenses scandals are nothing new to Parliamentary affairs. To place the HoL above reproach in this respect the blogs unofficial prospectus for an elected house provides a mechanism whereby it can remove itself entirely from any fiscal dependency upon the estates of the Monarchy or Commons.

      Of interest perhaps: Sir John Goldsborough was chosen as speaker of the Commons on Monday Jan, 14 1380. The author in the link below paraphrases what was discussed during that session:

      “There is no doubt that great abuses had taken place in the management of the King’s household and revenues, and the Commons boldly prayed that a commission to examine into the expenses and receipts in all the offices.”

      I understand where you are coming from and it is important but to labour the point is a recipe for your efforts to be passed over in favour of other less predictable offerings.

      The Commons by virtue of its power has become a ‘Monarchy’. The Lords is not fully independent as it once was, but it should be. Instead it has to rely on the public purse and what scraps are thrown its way from the Commons. It has no constituencies to deal with miscreants but when the HoL becomes fully elected they will be tossed aside.

      We have survived down the centuries as a nation because we have been fortunate in having three estates to our way of governance. We now effectively have one and as sure as day is night both the Lords and the Monarchy will go unless the power of the Commons is reined in by Parliament.

      Ref: The Lives of Speakers of the House of Commons. p8

      • Twm O'r Nant
        03/03/2010 at 11:26 am

        “We have survived down the centuries as a nation because we have been fortunate in having three estates to our way of governance”.

        I so often see this that it deserves negative comment. “We” have developed as a nation simply because it is a convenient group of islands.

        Even then when the Island of Ireland wishes to go its separate way, there is 400 years of argument about it.

        The estates of governance are a detail.

        Still comments such as “America is unmoved” is quite likely as well.

  3. Carl.H
    25/02/2010 at 9:14 pm

    This is very promising, my Lord and I hope the plans come to fruition.

    I would still like to see more public interest here. No link still on the BBC House of Lords page:

  4. Gareth Howell
    25/02/2010 at 9:16 pm

    Hard Work! Noble Lord Norton. Thank you for your vigorous efforts on all our behalves except for the party of course!

    “to make greater use of online consultation”

    I see that the email name of the Hansard ac that we use is “e-democracy” or similar.

    My own representations to Parliamentary committees only began, when electronic communication became possible. Before that sending hard copy correspondence in the name of a committee, or in my name, was not realistic.

    On occasion I was able to make oral representations in person, in the commons select committees, at the time ,if I caught the chairman’s eye or ear. Some are very good at dealing with members of the public who want to say something. Others are exclusive.

    I made these points below the other day, but I think they were gobbled up after hours so I will repeat:

    If the House of Lords could be a completely electronic chamber with nobody attending in person, unless they particularly wanted to, it would be a fine thing, (like chance)

    I started using Email and so on in 1997/8, and had a website in 1998. I was only convinced that most members of the lords were involved with the internet and Web by about 2004/5, and old folk that so many are, but intelligent, quite a few will still have not got deeply involved. There are so many.

    Lithuania had a completely electronic referendum in 2001.

    When they talked about extending the use of postal voting in the UK, I was delighted, since I assumed, quite wrongly, that it referred to E-postal voting.

    Shock horror! No such e-voting is being considered as far as I know, although one well known organisation allowed its 20,000 members to use a code and a website to vote in their annual elections. About 4 people including myself used it.

    Banks allow people to do things on their Mobile phones, but no such methods are being considered for voting. Security is not an issue. The competence of parliament to organize such things, is.

    Having a chamber of geriatrics, makes the task no easier. If you go to the HofL young, you get geriatric way before your time!

    Lord Norton may be an exception, unwilling to be old, unlike everybody else!

    E democracy and e an chamber for a second, and youthful chamber, would make it all worthwhile, and reduce the expenses to next to nothing.

    • Chris K
      25/02/2010 at 10:59 pm

      I’m sure Lord Norton isn’t the only one by a long way! The Earl of Errol, an hereditary peer no less, was a computer/technology consultant in the 1990s. Hardly a stereotypical old fuddy-duddy.

      While I am very keen on the public having much more of a direct say on legislation, and I’m sure that technology will be integral to it, I remain very uneasy at the prospect of e-voting. Heck, I’m (justifiably imo) suspicious of postal voting!

      • Gareth Howell
        26/02/2010 at 11:56 am

        Postal voting and E-postal voting are two totally different things for completely different purposes.

  5. lordnorton
    25/02/2010 at 10:23 pm

    governing principles: No, each House is the master of its own procedures. It is entirely up to the House as to what committees, for example, it wishes to create. The other House has no standing in the matter.

  6. Gareth Howell
    26/02/2010 at 11:53 am

    I am not against daily referend-ums provided, they are not of the once off Yes/No variety.

    What is foolish, is referend-ums on important subjects, which make a nonsense of the subject.

    If the questions are designed to extract replies, with a meaningful division, by means of several questions, and not just one, then some people could spend half their lives answering such referendums… electronically.

    With 4m people claiming benefits, and all of them with very strong opinions about what is right or wrong, then perhaps their self esteem would be further enhanced by involvement with daily referendum voting procedure!

    • Carl.H
      26/02/2010 at 1:38 pm

      The problem with referedums is education/information. We know from our own experience we feel that Politicians do not entirely understand things and certainly some of us come here comparatively uneducated in matters of Parliament.

      I also believe there are major parts of the law that are good that would never have been passed were they subject to referendums, seatbelt law for one.

      As a parent with three teenagers in the house if we did things democratically I`m pretty sure things would not be well.

      Regards our Parliament I`m pretty sure if referemdums were put at present we`d end up with PR and no second house due to ill informed views being put into peoples minds.

      I feel what is best is not always the most popular.

      • 26/02/2010 at 4:59 pm

        Gareth Howell: A digital house does not sound appealing. At least in the flesh I can see democracy in action. I also second Carl H and Chris K’s concerns about fraud and ill informed voting.

      • Twm O'r Nant
        03/03/2010 at 11:32 am

        “I also second Carl H and Chris K’s concerns about fraud and ill informed voting.”

        I suppose if you attend in person then it is not fraud but just claiming too much in allowances, and that if you read on the internet, then you will be ill informed?

      • 03/03/2010 at 3:16 pm

        Twn O’r Nant:
        1. I’m worried about voting fraud, not financial fraud.
        2. Do I trust members of the house to be better informed than Gareth Howell’s e-voters? Yes. Members of the house are briefed on every bill and have a research team. You not only need to know what you are voting on but also a whole host of contextual information. Juries work because they are presented with all the information needed to make a decision. They are not even trusted to read it on their own. It is presented to them so they have to see it. Would they work if they had to research/read it all themselves? Paid parliamentary members may not be forced to understand an upcoming bill but I do trust them to have given it a solid go.

  7. Croft
    26/02/2010 at 12:12 pm

    “the introduction of evidence-taking committees for Bills starting life in the Lords”

    The weakness in that is that government tend to put the more contentious matters through the Commons first, this move might only encourage this trend.

  8. lordnorton
    26/02/2010 at 1:51 pm

    Croft: The move is designed to bring the Lords in line with the Commons. The pressure on time is such that it is unlikely that the Government could shift more Bills to be introduced in the Commons. It would, in any event, be open to the House to refer a Bill to an evidence-taking comittee even if it had come from the Commons.

  9. Senex
    26/02/2010 at 1:53 pm

    LN: “No, each House is the master of its own procedures.” In the book referred to below, it says:

    “…in a previous reign, Henry IV., 1410 the Lords had been censured by the Commons for communicating the debates of the latter to the King. Then was passed an Ordinance to the effect that in all future Parliaments each house respectively should be competent by itself to settle its own business, and should not, while the matter was pending, divulge the proceeding to the Crown, and in so doing commit a violation of parliamentary privilege.”

    Some questions:
    1. It mentions a ‘Commons’ and a ‘Popular Chamber’, are they synonymous?
    2. Is televising Parliamentary proceedings a constitutional breach of privilege?
    3. The book makes reference to the ‘Parliamentary History of England’ as Parly. Should Parliament go to the expense of converting its many volumes to a searchable electronic form, freely available to the public?

    Lastly, should the chamber have several very large plasma screens in place to allow the clerks to assist with electronic based presentations in debate?

    Ref: Gentlemen of the House of Commons, p54

    • Gareth Howell
      26/02/2010 at 6:40 pm

      That is very interesting Senex. I hope you don’t mind my saying so!

      I see in reading a little bit of it that a French king assembled all landed proprietors and/or their deputies.

      The landed proprietors in those days must have meant those who were Lords of this that or the other.

      Even in the late 1960s early 1970s, the Conservative party played the deputies game
      and patronage from this marquis or earl, and probably still do try the same thing, if they possibly can. It is a question now of winning some of what were Tory safe seats back for the Tories!

      One wonders how many labour members are deputies sponsored by landed proprietors in the last few years!

      Baronets are an interesting bunch, since many of them are substantially landed, but go nowhere near parliament, and loathe it!

      None of which answers the questions you raised, as to whether there were two distinct chambers, which I have been wondering even about the early 17thC, without any luck in finding out!

      There are too many mebers and too little space to consider the possibilities of screen presentation that you mention.

      You could do screen presentation at a distance which would be effective, fewer
      real attendances and more remote voting, and thinking, even if only from the offices of Portcullis house.

      A good many people do watch in their office, and dash down, when they feel they have just GOT to speak! They would be at an advantage
      staying in their offices and voting from there… AND viewing screen presentations!!!
      Their vote would be better informed.

      Hope that helps a little!

      • Senex
        26/02/2010 at 11:21 pm

        GH: Not at all!

        From the same reference:

        The appearance of two separate houses of Parliament occurs on Sep 9, 1332 during King Edward III reign (p44) in a session titled “the affairs of France, and the King’s expedition”. One speculates that the reason for the separation was a pragmatic desire to make progress on the issues of war and commerce.

        To know where you are going, its best to know from whence you came; to remind you of the hard political lessons all but now forgotten.

      • Gareth Howell
        03/03/2010 at 11:37 am

        “To know where you are going, its best to know from whence you came”

        The King’s expedition at that time, being a Crusade.

  10. Gareth Howell
    28/02/2010 at 10:21 pm

    “GH: Not at all!”!

    Thank goodness!

    “To know where you are going, its best to know from whence you came;”

    So I wonder why unicameralists, of whom I am provisionally one, think in that way?

    How would it have helped to make progress on war and commerce?

    Have there often been times when there was only one chamber, or have there nearly always been two?

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