The past week has been a busy one for the House in considering constitutional issues. On Monday, there was a question for short debate (QSD) on the role of the House in the event of reform. Such debates are time-limited – in this case to ninety minutes – and there were so many speakers that each backbench contributor had only two minutes. One speaker thought this was unprecedented. It wasn’t: there was one QSD (on an academic boycott of Israeli universities) in which backbench speakers had one-minute each. On both occasions, somewhat remarkably, the short speeches actually worked well. A lot of points were made without notable repetition.
On Tuesday, the House debated the report of the Constitution Committee on referendums. The report was critical of referendums, but took the common sense approach that as they are now a part of our constitutional landscape there needed to be some clear framework for their use, not least in terms of identifying constitutional change that should be subject to them. The Government’s response was not particularly weighty. The debate itself attracted a good array of speakers and some valuable contributions. I was especially impressed by the speech (col. 430) of the cross-bench peer Lord Pannick.
On Wednesday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, gave evidence to the Constitution Committee on the Goverment’s programme of constitutional change. (You can view the session here.) The intention is that a such a meeting will be an annual event. We were keen to cover the two constitutional Bills presently before the Commons (the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill) and the Goverment’s proposals on the House of Lords. Both of the Bills have been subject to critical reports from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons, primarily because of the speed with which they are being pushed through.
I pursued the link between the Government’s underlying approach to constitutional change and the specific measures. It is not clear how they will restore trust in politics and connect Parliament more with the people. I was also keen to know the evidence base for the proposals. The Deputy PM conceded they were based more on judgment than hard evidence. He also sought to justify the five-year term of Parliament – rather than a four-year term – on grounds of effective governance. It wasn’t clear, though, why there was such haste to get the Bill through. If the intention is to restore faith in politics, there may have been a case for not rushing the Bill, but rather allowing pre-legislative scrutiny and hence the opportunity for people outside Parliament to have some input.