A horse designed by a committee…

There is a maxim, thought to have originated either with Sir Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Mini, or in the July 1958 issue of Vogue, which holds that ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’.

The meaning of that maxim should be clear to anyone who has ever worked in any kind of bureaucratic or corporate environment. ‘Design by committee’ is a byword for any project, product or business process in which there is to found needless complexity, logical and practical flaws, internal inconsistancies and a lack of vision and purpose, all of which stem from a lack of leadership from the outset and general incompentence throughout. If you’ve ever read a Dilbert cartoon and thought to yourself; ‘that’s just like my office/workplace/company’, then you’ll know exactly what ‘design by committee’ means and why it invariably ends in disaster.

And if all this sounds entirely familiar, then you’ll also know that when such projects fail, as they unceasingly do, then at that point the principle of ‘collective responsibility’ comes in play; but more importantly you will also know that collective responsbility does not mean that anyone is actually held responsible for the failure in question, rther it means that any responsibility for such a failure is spread so diffusely that it become impossible to hold anyone to account.

All of which bring me to the Sunday Times and its publication of a leaked discussion paper on reform of the House of Lords, which for ease of access I’ve also uploaded to MoT and which, far from being a thoroughbred in the making, is already looking suspiciously like a parliamentary camel as befits a design process that seeks consensus amongst members of a cross-party working group.

Discussion Paper for Cross-Party Working Group (pdf)

From the very outset there is a fundamental problem with this entire reform process, one that this discussion paper not only fails to address but whose existance it does not even acknowledge.

Why, put simply, is a major package of reforms to the constitution of the United Kingdom being discussed, debated and, ultimately, determined in near total secrecy without any seeming intent on the part of the government (and indeed parliament itself)  to engage in public debate and consultation on this matter?

Do we as citizens have no interest at all in the nature and composition of our own parliament, but for that of dutifully sticking a cross in box on a ballot paper every four or five years?

Seemingly not, if the report in the Sunday Times is to be believed…

After years of deadlock on Lords reform, a consensus is said to be so imminent that the proposals are expected to be put to a free vote in the Commons after Christmas, with the first elections and appointments to the new upper house taking place at the next general election.

A concensus amongst whom? The British people? No, of course not.

We’re talking about a concensus amongst the thee main political parties and amongst fewer than 1400 members of both Houses who will be given a vote on this matter, which is being reserved entirely to the electorate of the rotten borough of Westminster Village.

What is being proposed here is nothing more nor less than government of the people by the political elite, for the political elite, not to mention a continuation of Prmie Ministerial patronage, as Tony Benn correctly noted in his comments on the BBC’s ‘The Politics Show’:

In a democracy you vote for the people who make the laws you are expected to obey.

No prime minister wants democracy because he depends on patronage to control the MPs and everyone else.

What is clear from the outset here is that there is to be no substantive public debate on what is a highly significant series of consitutional reforms – there simply isn’t time for such a debate given that Straw intends to publish a white paper AND put a bill to a free vote before the end of December.

Before getting into this in more detail it is important to understand that reform of the composition of the House of Lords is only half the story. Alongside the cross-party working group, which has been considering the general make-up of a future second chamber there is also a Joint Commons/Lords Select Committee on ‘Conventions’, which has been meeting since May 2006 to consider the ‘codification’ of parliamentary conventions that help to define the working relationship between the two chambers not least of which is the Salisbury/Addison convention, which holds that the Lords should not vote down ot table ‘wrecking amendments’ to government bills that enact manifesto commitments in the wake of a General Election.

I will come to the question of conventions in a while, but to begin with its worth picking over the contents of Straw’s ‘aide memoir’ in a little more detail.

As has been widely reported, Straw proposes that a revised second chamber should have fewer members (450 as opposed to the current figure of 741) of whom half would be elected, with the other half appointed by an independent commission. The very first thing to note, therefore, is that on the last occasion that Lords Reform was put to the vote, during the late Robin Cook’s tenure as Leader of the House, the option of a 50-50 split between elected and appointed members was one that the Commons rejected outright without even putting the proposal to a vote: on that occasion, the Commons voted down four different options – 100% appointed, 100% elected and two hybrids (80% elected, 20% appointed and 60% elected, 40% appointed) of which the 80-20 split came closest to being accepted (3 votes).

The other notable thing about this last attempt at Lords Reform was the conduct of Tony Blair, who effectively wrecked any prospect of reform on that occasion by making his voting intentions (all appointed or nothing) known to the House (and to Labour members in particular) during PMQ’s less than a week before the vote on Cook’s reform bill in response to an obviously planted question from Labour MP for Tyne Bridge.

David Clelland (Tyne Bridge, Lab)

Does the Prime Minister recall telling Sir David Frost in January 2002 that a reformed House of Lords must be different from the House of Commons? Does he believe that an elected Chamber would be sufficiently different? Does he agree with those of us who believe that a properly constituted, non-elected Chamber, free from the hereditary system, is the only way to guarantee the kind of deliberative, advisory and balanced second Chamber that would add value to our system of government in the United Kingdom?

Tony Blair (Prime Minister, HM Treasury)

My briefing very helpfully starts by saying, “I understand that there are a range of views on this issue.” However, everyone agrees that the status quo should not remain. Everyone agrees that the remaining hereditary peers should go and, what is more, that the prime ministerial patronage should also go. However, the issue then is whether we want an elected—

[Interruption.]

I am asked for my views; I am giving them. Do we want an elected House, or do we want an appointed House? I personally think that a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work.

I also think that the key question on election is whether we want a revising Chamber or a rival Chamber. My view is that we want a revising Chamber, and I also believe that we should never allow the argument to gain sway that, somehow, the House of Commons is not a democratically elected body. I believe that it is democratic.

[Hon. Members: “A free vote?”]

It is a free vote; people can vote in whatever way they want, but I think that all Members, before they vote, should recognise that we are trying to reach a constitutional settlement—not for one Parliament, but for the long term. In my view, we should be cognisant not just of our views as Members of Parliament, but of the need to make sure that we do not have gridlock and that our constitution works effectively.

Blair, it should be recalled, turns up for only 5-10% of all Commons divisions, and yet he did vote on Cook’s reform proposals, but only in favour of a fully appointed second chamber…

…as did Jack Straw.

There is only one justifable argument in favour of retaining an appointed cohort within a revised second chamber and that is to ensure that the second chamber continues to have a significant contingent of independent ‘Crossbenchers’ amongst its members. As a matter of principle, a fully elected chamber would be preferable above all other options. But when one considers the composition of the House in terms of practicalities one has to concede that as a revising chamber, the House of Lord benefits considerable from the presence of a sizable number of members (currently 191 in total) who are not aligned to any one of the main three political parties, and one has also to concede that no current or proposed electoral system for a second chamber is capable of delivering such a quanity of independent members by any means short of introducing an unnecessarily complex voting procedure for elections to the House.

In proposing that 50% of the members of a revised second chamber should be appointed, the one thing that Straw is not suggesting, however, is that all appointees should be Crossbench members…

15. As to the proportion of independent members to form part of the reformed House, the ‘Wakeham Report’ January 2000 suggests this should be at least 20%. This would be a large enough proportion to ensure that no single party could achieve a working majority, whilst at the same time encourage the political parties in presenting their case to ensure they attract the support of the Crossbench.

Under Straw’s proposals, 30% of the new chamber – some 135 members in total – would continue to be political appointees, for all that the recent ‘loans for peerages’ scandal has called the entire process by which political appointments to the second chamber are made into serious question, if not wholesale disrepute.

And the justification for this..?

Straw puts forward only two sunstantive argument, both of which are entirely specious.

The first, laughably, is that of ‘diversity’…

Disadvantages [of a fully elected House]

36. A fully elected House would prove difficult to ensure representation of non-political Crossbench members, as the political parties are more likely to dominate any election process. This could result in a valuable loss of experience to the Second Chamber. It would be difficult to ensure that the principles of representation of the racial and gender mix of the UK and the representation of religious opinion were met, unless strict rules were in place when individuals stand for election. Equally it would be difficult to see how representation of the Bishops would continue or how the Prime Minister of the day could continue to make the limited number of appointments as under the current arrangements.

And…

28.The new Commission would be independent of the Executive and receive its funding and be accountable to Parliament rather than Ministers. It would regulate its own procedure and delegate its functions to staff. The Commission would determine the number and timing of appointments, select independent members and oversee party nominations. It would be charged with a general duty to appoint people to the House of Lords, to ensure that membership reflects the principles set out earlier. In particular appointments should reflect
party, regional, racial, gender and the religious balance of the UK and encourage appointments and nominations from under-represented groups.

29. The Commission would ensure propriety of political appointments. The parties would be tasked with providing a list of names to the Commission, in preferential order There would be criteria for appointment which would reflect the principles on gender, regional balance, and ethnic balance discussed in this paper. The Commission would be responsible for appointing the appropriate number of members necessary to maintain the size of the House and taking account of the balance of the parties at the most recent genera! election, If a member were to leave the House, the Commission would return to the list and appoint the next eligible member from an updated list of the party to whom the departing member belonged.

Oh, come on now, Jack, you are kidding, aren’t you..?

While a legislature that adequately reflects the diversity of British society is a laudable enough objective, such an objective is not of itself grounds for the retention of political appointees in a revised second chamber.

One of the clearest purposes of further Lords reform is that of removing, once and for all, the notion that one can obtain a seat in the legislature by virtue of heredity rather than ability – by an ‘accident of birth’; and if one disagrees fundamentally with the hereditary principle then where is the sense in removing that principle only to then reintroduce it, albeit in a diffuse and diluted form, by means of quotas based for gender and ethnicity that are, themselves, mere ‘accidents of birth’, although ones shared by a much larger proportion of the population than the ‘accident’ of aristocracy.

Moreover, why should the system be rigged to offset the short-comings of political parties in the area of equality and diversity?

Why should it be the responsibility of the state to ensure that one of the Houses of its legislature adequately reflects the diversity of wider society and not the responsibility of political parties whose representatives would make up 80% of the members on that House?

Why should such a principle apply to one chamber of the House (the Lords) and not the other (the Commons)?

Why should this proposed diversity requirement take into account only gender, ethnicity and religion? Why not sexuality or disability or indeed any other statistically significant segment of the population such a trade unions, small businesses, carers, smokers or even Amnesty International?

Why are you even trying to justify the retention of political patronage on the basis of flagrant tokenism?

You’ll notice that one of the privileged groups in all this is, inevitably, so-called faith communities of which the largest, in terms of membership of the second chamber – and the only one guaranteed representation – is the Anglican church, about which Jack has this to say…

Religious representation

16. It is important that faith communities are formally represented in the House of Lords. The Church of England, as the established Church, enjoys a special status in the social and political life In England and more widely around the United Kingdom and has long been recognised even by people who are not themselves Anglicans. Bishops have sat in the Lords since its inception; they are the only category of member whose term is limited to the holding of their office. There have in the past been arguments about the disestablishment of the Church of England. There is little steam behind such arguments today, and, in any event, any profound change in the status of the Anglican Church must be in the first instance for the Church itself. It is therefore right for there to be special representation of the Church of England in the reformed Lords.

17. Whilst recognising the quality of work they bring to the House, a more flexible approach which would allow a Bishop to take up a seat in the House of Lords where they have expressed a keen interest, rather than based on seniority should be considered. Furthermore, assuming the overall size of the House reduces, it would be difficult to justify retaining the current number of 26 Bishops. A practical solution would be to reduce the number of reserved places say from 26 to 16. This was proposed as long ago as 1968 and was at that time acceptable to the Church of England.

Yes, the Anglican Church does enjoy a special status in the social and political life In England and one would also have to be an idiot not to recognise that. However, nowhere does this statement address the question of whether its special status and the various priveleges that go with it are at all justified in a modern society.

Strip out all the people who ticked the box for Christianity in the last census for no better reason than that’s what their parents put on their birth certificate or to maintain an ‘in’ with the Church in the event of their needing its services for a wedding or funeral and the fact remains that currently a little over 800,000 people in the UK attend an Anglican Church on a regular basis, for which the church would, under these proposals, retain an automatic membership of the legislature amounting to 3.5% of the membership of the second chamber.

Moreover, under Jack’s proposals while the number of Bishops sitting in the second chamber would stay the same as it is now as a proportion of the total membership of the House, if only 20% of members of a revised chamber are to be Crossbenchers, as the paper suggests, the number of Bishops as a proportion of the Houses Crossbench (i.e independent) membership will actually increase by 30% from a little over 13% to a little under 18%.

Equally interesting is Jack’s assertion that not only is there no ‘steam’ for disestablishment of the Church of England – and no evidence to support that assertion, but that any profound change in the status of the Anglican Church must be in the first instance for the Church itself, which seems to suggest that the question of whether Bishops sit in the legislature of the United Kindgom is a matter first and foremost for the Bishops themselves to decide and not one for the British people.

There is no essential reason why the position of the Anglican Church as the offical state religion of England should confer on it the automatic right to appoint members to a House of the British legislature, not least as no such right is accorded to the Church in Wales, which was disestablished in 1920 or to the Presbytarian church in Scotland nor, indeed, would the removal of Anglican Bishops from the House of Lords affect the ceremonial position of the reigning monarch as either Head of State or Head of the Church.

For all that Straw goes to great pains to commend the contribution of Bishops to the House, the simple fact is that one average an Anglican Bishop votes in the House of Lords on fewer than three occasions a year, which rather flies in the face of Straw’s arguments for viewing membership of the second chamber as a full-time job,,,

51. The House of Lords currently has a membership consisting of 741 members. This is larger than the House of Commons which has 646 Members, and is one of the largest parliamentary chambers in the world, it is highly unusual for the second chamber to be larger than the first. However not all members attend on a regular basis. For instance, taking the 2004-2005 session, although 656 members attended the House at least once, the average attendance was only 388., which better reflects the ‘working’ size of the
House of Lords.

52. It would be practical and desirable for the size of a reformed House to be reduced from its current membership, and should be smaller than the House of Commons to better reflect its revising function. This would require full-time membership to be the normal expectation and that some form of remuneration would be needed to support this (as set out elsewhere in this paper).

There may well be an argument in favour of faith communities being represented to some degree in a second chamber but beyond that Straw offers no substantive arguments as to why this should extend to Anglican Bishops sitting in the House of Lords as a matter of unchallenged and undemocratic right or why a Church that attracts a little over 800,000 people a week should be handed 16 seats in the legislature amounting to 18% of the legisatures non-party political membership for what seem to be little purpose other than to argue in favour of their own interests.

If Straw’s arguments for retaining political appointees in the second chamber are unconvincing his other justification for such a practice marks his entrance into the realms of the absurd…

Prime Minister’s appointments

59. If the Prime Minister were to be able to appoint a small number of Members to the House of Lords per Parliament directly as Ministers, it would help improve understanding between the House of Lords and the government as a whole. On ceasing to serve as Ministers, these individuals could be entitled to retain their seats for a period. It would plainly be profoundly unfair for a Minister who had had to leave office following a reshuffle of who had resigned on a point of principle, not to be able to offer the House his or her opinion thereafter. The exact terms that an outgoing Minister might be able to serve is a matter for consultation; and the legislation would have to take account of Lords’ members leaving and then rejoining a Government. But it might be sensible for such outgoing Ministers to serve for the remainder of a full three terms (calculated from when they first became Lords members) or a further full term whichever is the greater.

60. With regards to former public service appointments to a reformed House of Lords, there is also a case for retaining the current arrangements, allowing the Prime Minister to make up to 10 appointments per Parliament.

You what, Jack?

It would help improve understanding between the House of Lords and the government as a whole by permitting the Prime Minister to bypass any semblance of democratic process and insert his personal cronies directly into the legislature, not simply as members but as Ministers, as he sees fit?

You really have got to be kidding this time, haven’t you?

We’re not just talking about allowing a Prime Minister to side-step the entire democratic process of Parliament but, in the context of a Labour Prime Minister, also granting them the privilege of disregarded his own party’s internal democratic processes and for what? So we can be lorded over by – in the context of Tony Blair –  the likes of his ex-room mate, Charlie Falconer, his former tutor, Derry Irvine, and his pet policy wonk (and former member of the SDP and Liberal Democrat Councillor) Andrew Adonis.

Check your membership card, Jack, I’m pretty sure mine still says that we are a ‘democratic socialist party’, or do Minister and Members of Parliament get a different membership card; one that omits that particular little detail.

And as for there being a case for retaining the current arrangements, allowing the Prime Minister to make up to 10 appointments per Parliament, if there is such a case, what is it exactly?

You don’t appear to say at all, other to state that there is a case, which knowing how such things work in practice, rather suggests not that there isn’t a case but that actually putting the case forward would let the public in on one or two fairly common, if unofficial, parliamentary practices that they might not see as playing entirely straight with the electorate – not least of which the little matter of using peerages as an inducement for older MPs to vacate their nice safe seat just before a general election (and too late in the day for their CLP to conduct a full and democratic selection process) thereby enabling the party hierarchy to parachute one of the Party Leader’s favoured supporters into a more or less guaranteed seat in the next Parliament.

The most difficult  aspect of considering Jack proposals for the near unabridged continuation of Prime Minsterial patronage is trying to find words to adequately express the contempt these proposals deserve without resorting to a stream of invective rearely heard outside of a half-time team talk given by Peter Reid.

If this were all the government was trying to push through without any pretence of conducting and open oand genuine public debate it would be bad enough, but as I noted at the beginning of this article, there is also the little matter of the Joint Select Committee on Conventions to bring into play and its planned reforms to some of the practicalities of the working relationship between the Commons and the Lords to factor into the overall reform equation.

One can get a decent general feel for work of this committee simply by noting that but for evidence taken from three academics, one of whom is also a member of the House of Lords, the committee has otherwise taken evidence only from individuals drawn from within the confines of the Westminster Villiage; specifically the Leaders of the House of Commons and House of Lords and the government’s Chief Whip in the Lords, their Shadow (i.e. Tory) counterparts, the Lib Dem’s Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords and the two most senior Parliamentary Clerks.

Again, there has been no public debate on matters of considerable consitutional significance.

One can get an even better feel from the evidence transcripts and, in particular, the obsequious and self congratulatory tone of the opening exchange between the Chair of the Committee – Lord (formerly Jack) Cunningham of Felling – and the government’s chief ‘witness’, Jack Straw…

Q1 Chairman: Gentlemen, good morning. Thank you for responding so promptly to the request of the Committee to come before us and thank you also for getting the memorandum you submitted to us in good time for the Committee to have the opportunity to study it thoroughly. We have given you an indication of how we as a Committee would like to deal with this session and we hope that we can conclude the business by noon. I know you, Mr Straw, have an important engagement that you have to leave for shortly after that. We may subsequently ask you to come back and answer further questions or give further evidence depending how the Committee’s proceedings fall out – I do not mean fall out in the argumentative sense. Jack, I understand you would like to make an opening statement – it is very difficult for me to call you Mr Leader of the House of Commons.

Mr Straw: It is even more difficult for me to call you Lord Chairman, however since I learnt everything I know from you I will do my best, Chairman. On behalf of Lord Falconer, Lord Grocott and myself can I say we are very grateful to you and your Committee for this early invitation to give evidence.

It would appear, from that, inadvisable for either party to bend over in the presence of the other without first checking their rectal capacity…

The purpose of this committee was/is (it hasn’t reported as yet) to consider whether it may be necessary to codify four specific unwritten parlaimentay conventions as follows…

SALISBURY-ADDISON CONVENTION

The Salisbury-Addison convention is described in the report of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords (Cm 4534, 2000) as "an understanding that a ‘manifesto’ Bill, foreshadowed in the governing party’s most recent election manifesto and passed by the House of Commons, should not be opposed by the second chamber on Second or Third Reading." (paragraph 4.21) The convention is also suggested to include the principle that the Lords will not pass wrecking amendments to such a Bill.

1. Is this an accurate description of the convention? Is it sufficiently comprehensive?

2. Can "manifesto bills" be properly identified? Is a manifesto an appropriate basis for codification?

3. Have there been any breaches of convention in this area?

4. How can the convention be codified? If it is codified, how can it be enforced?

SECONDARY LEGISLATION

House of Lords conventions in relation to the Commons on secondary legislation are currently codified thus in the Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords (2005):

"The House of Lords has only occasionally rejected delegated legislation. The House has resolved ‘That this House affirms its unfettered freedom to vote on any subordinate legislation submitted for its consideration’." (paragraph 8.02)

5. Is this an accurate codification? Is it adequate?

6. Have there been breaches of convention in this area?

7. Is there a convention that the House of Lords does not reject delegated legislation, with perhaps definable exceptions? Does it depend on prior warning, perhaps when the enabling legislation was considered? Does it depend on whether the Commons have already approved the instrument in question? Does it depend on the views of the scrutiny committees?

8. If there is such a convention, how could it be codified? In its codified form, how could it be enforced?

9. Would codification have indirect consequences in practice? For instance, might it make the House of Lords less willing to create new delegated powers?

10. Do different considerations apply to certain categories of order, eg those subject to "super-affirmative" procedure?

The issue of rendering delegated legislation amendable by Parliament is outside the remit of this committee.

REASONABLE TIME

The convention that Government business in the Lords should be considered in reasonable time is not currently codified, save that it appears in the report of the Royal Commission and the first report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform (HL Paper 17, HC 171, Session 2002-03).

11. Is there such a convention?

12. Has it been breached?

13. Could it be codified? In its codified form, how could it be enforced?

The Labour manifesto for the last General Election contained a commitment to "legislate to place reasonable limits on the time bills spend in the second chamber – no longer than 60 sitting days for most bills".

14. Would codification of the convention in the form of a statutory time limit be practical? How could it be enforced? What would be its practical consequences, including indirect consequences?

15. Would 60 sitting days be a practical limit? If not, what time would?

16. Would there need to be provision for exceptions, or for extending the time limit? How could this work?

EXCHANGE OF AMENDMENTS ("PING-PONG")

Ping-pong is a shorthand way of describing the procedures used by both Houses for dealing with amendments proposed to legislation by the other House.

17. What would be the consequences of codifying ping-pong?

18. What would codification cover?

19. Is codification necessary?

20. What effect has packaging of Lords amendments had on the operation of ping-pong?

21. How far can the Lords push ping-pong before the practice is considered to have been pushed too far?

Alternative procedures, eg reconciliation committees, are outside the scope of this inquiry.

All of which looks rather technical and arcane – as does the evidence from all parties, if one has the patience, temperament and artificial stimulants necessary to read it – but then as is often the case in Parliament, it is within the most arcane matters that governments attempt to conceal the most important issues.

Take the first issue, that of Salisbury-Addison Convention which holds that the opposition parties in the House of Lords should not vote down or apply wrecking amendments to manifesto bills and has become an issue largely due to the concerted opposition of the House of Lords to the passage of the Identity Cards Act 2006, particularly in terms of insistance on interpreting the use of term ‘voluntary’ in Labour Manifesto statement on this matter in a far more literal manner that that the government wished to apply…

Across the world there is a drive to increase the security of identity documents and we cannot be left behind. From next year we are introducing biometric ‘ePassports’. It makes sense to provide citizens with an equally secure identity card to protect them at home from identity theft and clamp down on illegal working and fraudulent use of public services.We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports.

As clearly noted here by both Jack Straw and Charlie Falconer…

Mr Straw:

… what Salisbury-Addison was about was respecting the democratic authority of the House of Commons and acknowledging that governments have broad manifestoes and it was for the Lords, yes, to scrutinise and revise legislation but not to operate in such a way that the democratic authority of the Commons was sabotaged. That required a respect of the spirit in which a manifesto was put forward as well as of its detailed letter. That is shown very clearly by the brevity of manifestoes – and the same is true of the Conservative and Liberal Parties in 1945 – from which they were working….

… If their Lordships were to get to a point where they were saying, "Hang on, on page 51 it says this and this Bill says that, although the Bill is about the same thing, we disagree you have a mandate", I think that undermines the spirit of the Salisbury-Addison Convention. Of course that is what happened in respect of the Identity Cards Bill we would suggest.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton:

The Salisbury-Addison Convention would not be convincing if it depended on a very fine reading of each individual manifesto. I am quite sure Jack is right when he says manifestoes are not getting longer because of concerns about the Salisbury-Addison Convention, but the essence of the Convention is having gone to the people and being elected to form a government through your majority in the Commons, it will be completely wrong that precisely what the powers of the Lords are depends on a very, very fine reading of the manifesto. It also means to some extent the Chairman’s point, you do not want to start putting into manifestoes pages and pages to cover the Lords’ points. That is why I think what Jack is saying is so accurate, it needs to be a general sensible reading both of what is in the manifesto and broadly what the government stands for in determining what is covered by it.

What is most noticable about the lengthy and often arcane debate that follows is that nowhere is the fundamental question of the relationship of the electorate to party manifestos ever questioned.

There is, running through the entire discussion,  a presumption that a vote for particular political party amounts to full and unequivocal support for the entire contents of its manifesto irrespective of whether a particular proposal occupies two pages of text or two lines, even though at one point it is clearly acknowledged that the majority of voters simply don’t read manifestos at all.

The central bone of contention here is whether a government can claim a mandate for policies included in its election manifesto sufficient to quosh all notion of anything but token opposition in in the House of Lords, not just any policy but all policies whether or not there is any evidence of actual public support for the specifics of that policy or whether the manifesto lays out that policy is sufficient detail to enable voters to make an informed decision as to whether it deserve their support or not.

Choice, so it seems, is a good thing so long as it does does not apply to political manifestos, where one is required simply to take it or leave it.

It is manifestly absurd to suggest that political parties obtain votes in elections on the basis that each voter is in full and unequivocal agreement with every single line of its manifesto. Party’s cannot guarantee that of their own membership let alone of the electorate as a whole, and yet in the context of the Salisbury-Addison convention that is precisely the position that both Straw and Falconer profess to not only true but sufficiently true to merit its codification as a written principle of the British constitution.

The manifesto provisions for the introduction of Identity Cards are in no way sufficient to encompass the full scope of the Act and its impact of the relationship between the citizen and the state, which is why it was so hotly constested throughout its passage through Parliament, and yet in view of Jack Straw and Charlie Falconer, that brief manifesto statement is justification for the government to have its way in both Houses without any real measure of opposition and without providing any further evidence of public support for that particular measure – not that the latter would have made any real difference as the entire passage of the Act was accompanied by little else but obfuscatation, misinformation and economies of truth.

This general air of political hubris is to be found in each of the questions that the committee was tasked in reporting on. On secondary legislation, which receives far less Parliamentary scrutiny (and far less attention)  than full Parliamentary bills, the committee is asked…

Is there a convention that the House of Lords does not reject delegated legislation, with perhaps definable exceptions? Does it depend on prior warning, perhaps when the enabling legislation was considered? Does it depend on whether the Commons have already approved the instrument in question? Does it depend on the views of the scrutiny committees?

Before one asks that question, should one not first be asking whether the government’s use of enabling bills and delegated powers to regulate by secondary legislation is being undertaken appropriately and only when necessary/relevant – the Identity Cards Act, alone, confers 61 seperate new regulatory powers on the Home Secretary, while the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill, if passed unamended, would grant ministers near unlimited powers to amend legislation without the necessity of a full Parliamentary Bill up and including almost every single piece of constitutional and civil liberties legislation on the statute book.

Do we either want or need legislation that could be used to suspend fundamental rights, such as Habeas Corpus and Trial by Jury by means of secondary legislation?

On the subject of both the Lords considering government bills in ‘reasonable time’ and the practice of parliamentary ‘ping-pong’, should we not first be looking at the processes of the House of Commons and the general quality of legislation that is being referred to the Lords for scrutiny before we consider seeking to limit the time they are allowed to perform that function.

Overall, it is widely felt that the general standard of legislation – in terms of how well it is written – has fallen considerably over the as a direct result both of government’s pursuing packed legislative programmes and the extensive use of the parliamentary gulliotine to curtail debate in the House of Commons. There is too much legislation and too little time for it be given proper consideration in the Commons and, as inevitably happens in such situations, standards suffer as a result.

Knowing that, where is the sense in seeking to limit the time alloted to a revising chamber for the scrutiny of legislation? Does it not follow logically that such a course of action will only make matters worse?

Not, it seems, according to the current government?

If one looks at the track record of this present government and at the extent to it has actively pursued measures that have both centralised more and more authority on the exectutive and weakened even the ability of Parliament to scrutinse its activities – to give but one example take a good look at the Inquiries Act 2005, which amongst other things alters the entire basis upon which public inquries are conducted to place them solely and exclusively under the control of Ministers even to the extent that such inquiries no longer report directly to the House of Commons – then one has to seriously question whether the underlying purpose of these reforms is not to improve the legislative process but to merely remove even more barriers and limitations on the power of executive to exercise political authority without adequate restraint or scrutiny.

Or rather one would pose such a question were Parliament to permit such matters to be the subject of proper public debate.

A far more experienced man than I, namely Brian Barder, has his own choice words for Straw’s proposals, which are, as ever, well worth the investment of time required to read them…

Jack Straw’s proposals for ‘reforming’ the House of Lords, contained in a long document leaked at the weekend to the Sunday Times and available on its website, are a tepid, boneless, pathetic bit of fudge (to mix several metaphors).

One thought on “A horse designed by a committee…

  1. I appreciate the quotation, link and trackback, and I’m adding an up-date to my own blog post on this subject to express warm support for virtually all the damning criticisms here.

    I’m frustrated by having the text of Jack Straw’s appalling (sometimes unintentionally hilarious) discussion paper only in the form of a facsimile or photocopy of the original typescript, i.e. the pdf file on the Sunday Times website, which I can’t convert into editable text for selective quotation. Unfortunately the link in the post here (above) mysteriously doesn’t seem to work, either. I hope the link in this comment will do so. But if anyone has a program that will convert the pdf text into a Word (or even a text) file, or an rtf file, and would post it on the Web somewhere in that form, it would be extremely useful!

    Brian
    http://www.barder.com/ephems/

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