How not to legislate

Lord Norton

There were over forty speakers in yesterday’s Second Reading debate on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill.  The various delays to the Bill – introduced a year after the Joint Committee on the Bill had reported and taking seven months before being brought from the Commons – was roundly criticised from all parts of the House, not least by cross-benchers such as Baroness Boothroyd and Lord Pannick, by Conservatives such as Lord Onslow, and by Labour peers such as Lord Grenfell, Lord Gordon of Strathblane (“I am worried about wash-ups becoming stitch-ups”), and Lord Hart.

Lord Hart was short and to the point.   He served as a member of the Joint Committee that examined the draft Bill: ” we reported on the Bill in July 2008″, he said, “but it took the Government almost exactly a year to produce a response and publish the Bill.  That is not the mark of a vigorous Government responding to a report, almost all of whose recommendations they have in fact adopted; it is characteristic of a comatose rabbit.”

In replying to the debate, the minister, Lord Bach, spoke for nearly thirty minutes without acknowledging the elephant in the room: namely, that the Bill was getting its Second Reading only days before a likely dissolution of Parliament.  When I challenged him to explain why it took a year to respond to the Joint Committee and to introduce the Bill, he said that it sometimes took time to reach agreement about what went in a Bill.  I pointed out that the Government had published a draft Bill, so clearly knew what it wanted in the Bill!  His defence was that a draft Bill is not always the Bill that is introduced (not a particularly persuasive argument given the content of the Bill) and that it was strange for me to get ‘high and mighty’ about it given my knowledge of the workings of government.   Given that he still hadn’t justified the delay, I reminded him that it took a year and, as a result, “this House is being denied the opportunity to subject the Bill to proper scrutiny.”  At this point he gave in: “I think I have got the  noble Lord’s point.”

It now remains to be seen what, if anything, is agreed between the parties in the wash-up.  However,  it will have been clear from yesterday’s debate that whatever is agreed may not necessarily be acceptable to the House.

19 comments for “How not to legislate

  1. Senex
    25/03/2010 at 6:32 pm

    Below some video highlights from the blogs owners – apologies if anybody missed; if you have time its worth watching all debates in their entirety. 10hrs?

    Lord Bach: 12: 56 – Size of House, Resignations

    Baroness D’Souza: 49:59 – Size of House, Resignations

    Lord Norton: 1:32.57 – Duty of House

    Lord Tyler: 2:12.40 – Overview of Bill

    Features Lord Norton – Informative, worth watching in entirety.
    Lords Constitution Committee – Work of Lords Appointments Commission

    Note to BBC/Hansard: these recordings should feature date and video counter as small captions. How are the public to know where one ends and the other starts?

  2. 25/03/2010 at 6:59 pm

    Good to see that you all gave them a hard time. Unless all controversial clauses are miraculously removed, I heartily endorse the Lords’ starring role as iceberg to the bill’s Titanic.

    May polar bears forever roam on your icy shores.

  3. Carl.H
    25/03/2010 at 7:19 pm

    My Lord I spent much of the debate applauding my Computer screen for the points made. I must have posted nearly as much on this subject as I did on the Digital Economy Bill but that pales into insignificance in comparison.

    Constitution ~ A set of rules for Government.

    Just how important is that to each and every member of our great Nation ? And how is our Government treating such a monumental issue ?

    With contempt is only answer. Contempt meaning something inferior or worthless because that is how this Bill of OUR constitution is about to be treated. To receive less scrutiny than all those others that passed through their Lordships House in the last few years.

    Our Constitution being treated to backroom wheeling and dealing without the proper scrutiny. The very rules that Govern how OUR parliament can Govern us decided in backroom deals.

    In the Bill of Rights it was written that the three constituent parts were representative of the Nation and had the right to make law for Royal assent. Nowhere does it state a few whips and lawyers may proscribe exactly how Parliament may Govern.

    This Bill is possibly THE most important one in my lifetime and on it rests how my descendants will be Governed. I can do little now but plead, not for a vote one way or the other but for a fair trial of this bill as was meant under the Bill of Rights.

    • Twm O'r Nant
      26/03/2010 at 9:34 am

      “Constitution ~ A set of rules for Government”.

      If that is what it were, then it would be important!

  4. Troika21
    25/03/2010 at 11:24 pm

    “I am worried about wash-ups becoming stitch-ups”.

    This is why I like the Lords, its clealy armed to shoot down nonsense.

    I’ll have a proper watch of this.

    Thanks to Senex for the links.

  5. Tory boy
    25/03/2010 at 11:26 pm

    I think it says a lot about this weak pathetic government and its useless leader our Prime Minister; Gordon Brown, he has banged on and on and on about cleaning up parliament and politics.

    Low and behold he is given a golden plate in the form of this bill to clean up parliament and politics, and all he does is put it on the back burner and thereby not clean up our political system. This Prime Minister is all talk and no action! LABOUR ISNT NOT WORKING.

  6. Gareth Howell
    26/03/2010 at 9:32 am

    If it went through and the Tories get back in, they will rescind what they don’t like; if it didn’t become act, then it is incompetence, according to those who oppose it.

    I can not say that I read the section on the abolition of the remaining hereditary peers which is certainly a hot potato, although the “Lords reforms” are certainly complete now, in every other way, as far as the Labour govt is concerned.

    For the Lib Dems there would be/is more to come.

  7. Bedd Gelert
    26/03/2010 at 10:26 am

    On a lighter note, Mr Hoggart has paid one of his periodic visits to the noble Lords.

    Glad to see you are providing entertainment value…

    • Gareth Howell
      26/03/2010 at 7:33 pm

      Simon is great fun to be with BG, and so very deliberately eccentric! It can’t come naturally, although the baggy trousers do.

  8. Croft
    26/03/2010 at 12:26 pm

    What chance Lord Norton that the level of irritation in the house might translate into an appropriate committee investigating the procedures around the washup? (or Washout as one noble Lord said!)

    As to the elephant in the room – surely the real one is what exactly the position of the main parties is and what their whips intend to save/kill in the washup. I expect that various noble Lords have a good idea what the whips intend though it might be covered by an omerta on this blog!

    PS – As to the Lotb survey some of us took part in. Is there likely to be any official response as to what changes/ideas might be taken forward?

    • lordnorton
      27/03/2010 at 12:15 pm

      Croft: I am not sure if there will be a formal inquiry, though in the new Parliament the Constitution Committee will be considering what subjects will merit inquiries. Even if not examined formally, I think the reaction to this Bill have made members think more deeply about the wash-up and I suspect it will have a lasting impact. Why should Bills that have not had full parliamentary scrutiny basically be nodded through? Also, this time round what is agreed between the parties may not necessarily find favour with the House.

      On the survey, I presume there will be a response. You are certainly likely to see changes.

  9. Chris K
    26/03/2010 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you Senex for the links.

    The Bishop of Durham’s speech (immediately after Lady D’Souza’s) is very well worth reading/listen as well.

  10. 26/03/2010 at 4:33 pm

    The (free) education I have received by reading this site has enabled me to rather enjoy BBC Parliament since I can now understand most of what goes in in such debates. Thank you.

    The idea that I might be able to give just a tiny bit back crossed my mind fleetingly as I listened to the Bishop of Durham (excellent contribution) discuss AV:

    “However, there is an oddity about holding a referendum on such a topic. Why will there be only two options? Will it be a first past the post referendum? If so, will those who do not like first past the post be acting against their conscience if they vote in the referendum? There is something curiously twisted and peculiar about that.”

    As you suggested, Lord Norton, the gvt should prove which bits the public have demonstrably agreed are required. Please let them have the views of the real public who have made comments on this site: ditch it, and let the incoming gvt sort it out.

    • Gareth Howell
      27/03/2010 at 9:08 am

      People may be attracted by referend-ums as much as they are by AV, regardless of the format.

      Referend-ums are a futile pandering to a small proportion of the population, the voting one.

      Both kinds of voting are surely a way of involving more people, in political thought and decision, in these tiny, but heavily populated islands, than would otherwise be the case.

      Lady Tizzy’s remark is not a trivial one.
      It would be infinitely better to have a multiple choice referendum and referend-ums, but how would we know that multiple choice is acceptable to the referendum voter? Cabinet decision?

  11. Senex
    27/03/2010 at 6:52 pm

    Tiz: Agree entirely on the free education, thank you LotB.

    After the official prospectus for an elected HoL is revealed by the government, I suspect they are waiting for work by University College London to be completed; I intend to have an amateur attempt at House of Commons reform (I know. Good Luck!). One of the issues already identified is awareness of internal Parliamentary practices prior to coming to office.

    It is extraordinary that Parliament issues laws and regulations surrounding working practice and that require accredited competences whilst Parliamentarians themselves come to Westminster with only the briefest of knowledge and yet we expect them to do a good job for us. The way it is done at the moment amounts to a cross party regime of restrictive practices.

    Parliament through the education system would provide a knowledge pathway for existing or prospective Parliamentarians starting at NVQ or City & Guilds, all the way up to University doctorate level. The core curriculum would centre on ‘Principles and Practice of Good Parliamentary Governance’ and would deal with the many internal working practices within Parliament itself.

    The present regime is entirely reliant on the 6P principle: ‘Piss Poor Practice’ prevents ‘Piss Poor Performance’. Whichever way you look at this, it still amounts to a PPP candidate coming into Parliament.

    Another issue identified is voter complacency in returning the same member year on year. Being an MP should not be a job for life. If the Commons by design was going to see an increased turnover of MPs, the present way of learning on the job simply would not serve us well, therefore an academic competency must be gained in order to become an MP or Minister. Hit the ground running, sort of.

    The other important subject to be taught would be the importance of civil liberties within our constitutional framework. The constitution, in part, is based upon established de facto practices that are not written. These practices are infinite in size and the importance of adhering to established customs within an historic framework would be taught as a backdrop to good governance.

    The reforms would be carried out by an elected HoL.

    • 29/03/2010 at 1:46 am

      Developing your idea of a job aptitude test for MPs, along with the Tories implementation of the interview phase by staging primaries, the next step could be to license parliamentarians; revoking a licence would be a neat and inexpensive way of recalling errant MPs.

  12. Carl.H
    28/03/2010 at 12:33 am

    Talking of education, or not, it showed in Lord Bach`s summing up. He aquaints a general agreement to actual legislation.

    I think WE ALL know the actual wording of legislation is paramount which is why scrutiny is necessary. Lord Bach seems to think that a general nod is all that is needed and means full backing of the legislation as it stands.

    Without line by line scrutiny, aka Committee stage in the normal sense, there can be no agreement. To ask the HoL to sign a contract on behalf of the Nation without being able to study it at length, to contest parts where necessary, is undemocratic.

    The Lords are not doing the job for themselves, they`re doing it for me. I would not accept a lawyer signing a contract he hadn`t had time to scrutinise on my behalf. Why should I accept the Lords doing it, I don`t, it is unacceptable.

    I require Parliament to do a proper and thorough job.

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