Quote of the day

[I]f someone murdered one of my children then emotionally, obviously I would want to kill them. How could you not? But there have been too many cases of things going wrong, of the wrong people being executed, of evidence coming to light after the execution, and sometimes there is just too much of an element of doubt. And I just don’t honestly think that in a civilised society like ours that you can have the death penalty any more.Rt. Hon. David Cameron, Prime Minister

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HM Government e-petitions

(Note to readers: This site is not in any way affiliated with the UK Government or its e-petitions website. If the e-petitions website is experiencing technical problems, please do not email this blog as there is nothing the blog administrator can do about that. If you wish to complain to someone about problems with the e-petitions website, please contact Directgov.)

(Note for Canadian readers: only two legislatures in Canada – the Quebec National Assembly and the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories – currently accept e-petitions. For all of the others, if you want to petition the federal or a provincial government, you have to do it the old-fashioned way and collect signatures on paper. Please see my post on How to petition Canadian legislatures for more information.)

On 29 July 2011, House of Commons leader Sir George Young announced the launch of Parliament’s new e-petitions website.

This replaces the Number 10 e-petitions site set up by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. When the Coalition Government was formed last May, the Number 10 e-petitions site was mothballed, pending a review. In late December of last year, Young announced that a new e-petitions site was pending in the new year.

What is different about the new e-petitions is that if petition garners more than 100,000 signatures, notice will be sent to the Backbench Business Committee informing them of this fact, and allowing them to consider scheduling a debate on the subject matter raised by the petition. It will be up to the Committee to decide if the subject matter of the petition merits being brought forward for debate in the House. It is important to note, however, that debate is not guaranteed to occur, and even if it does, it may be in Westminster Hall rather than the main chamber of the House of Commons. As well, a debate on an issue raised in a petition does not mean that there will be a vote after the debate that will change the law affected. Most importantly of all, while much will be made of the 100,000 signature mark, there is no restriction on the number of signatures required for the Backbench Business Committee to consider scheduling a debate based on petition. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate.

An obvious criticism of this plan is that this will open the door to all sorts of frivolous petitions. Many Canadians may recall the “Stockwell Day petition” incident. For non-Canadians and Canadians too young to remember this, the former Canadian Alliance Party had a manifesto policy wherein any petition signed by 3% of eligible voters (roughly 350,000 people) would automatically trigger a referendum on that issue. A Canadian satirist, Rick Mercer, immediately launched a petition to get then Canadian Alliance Party leader Stockwell Day to change his name to “Doris Day” after the Hollywood legend. The petition easily surpassed the required number of signatures that very night.

The new e-petitions initiative hopes to avoid potential abuse by setting forth clear Terms and Conditions, including a section on “offensive, joke or nonsense” e-petitions which will be rejected if they include:

  • Language that may cause offence, is provocative or extreme in its views
  • Wording that is impossible to understand
  • Statements that amount to advertisements
  • Joke or nonsense content

Even then, obtaining over 100,000 signatures does not guarantee that a petition will be debated in the House. Such petitions will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee which will determine if the petition is worth being debated in the House.

I have previously written about petitions, mostly from a Canadian perspective, and noted that for the most part, petitions rarely lead to any concrete government action. In the UK, the procedure for dealing with the traditional paper petitions presented in Parliament is as follows. After the petition is presented:

a copy of the petition is sent to the appropriate government department, for example, a petition against smoking would be sent to the Department of Health. Government departments are expected to offer observations on all substantive petitions, these are also printed in Hansard.

Please note that the Government departments “are expected” to offer observations on all substantive petitions – they aren’t obligated to do so. In the UK, as in Canada, the majority of the time, the only response received by petitioners was a statement from a department official. If this new e-petitions does actually lead to the occasional petition-driven debate in the House of Commons, that in itself will be somewhat of an improvement.

I must note that one thing I have found rather curious when reading through the Terms and Conditions for the e-petitions is the disclaimer at the very bottom:

The e-petitions system is not intended to replace the current paper based system of public petitions in the House of Commons.

For more information about the paper based Parliamentary Petitions, you can visit the UK Parliament website.

Yet, if one follows that link (which takes you to the petitions page I’ve linked to above), there is no indication that a paper-based petition which receives over 100,000 signatures will be referred to the the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate in the House. Indeed, I have found no mention anywhere if this new policy will be extended to paper petitions as well. It strikes me as a bit strange if only e-petitions were deserving of such consideration. It will be much easier for an e-petition to get the required 100,000+ signatures, so if a paper petition manages that feat, surely that too would merit possible debate in the House of Commons? Perhaps the overall goal here is to gradually do away with paper petitions completely.

There are already concerted efforts afoot by certain groups to get the required number of signatures on some rather controversial topics, such as capital punishment. Another topic that is bound to be part of another such campaign will be a call for referendum on the UK’s continued membership in the EU. It should also be noted that the 100,000+ signatures requirement might be amended in the future:

However, Sir George said: “Of course, parliamentary time is not unlimited and we want the best e-petitions to be given airtime – so we will monitor the site closely over the coming months to assess whether the 100,000 figure is an appropriate target.”

This could be interpreted as meaning that if the Government feels too many petitions on issues it does not like come forward, it might increase the required number of signatures in order to make it more difficult for certain issues to receive the needed endorsement.

Still, it is an interesting initiative and one that I will be monitoring closely.

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PMQs – The Game

For political geeks, summer is tedious. The Canadian House of Commons adjourned for the summer recess back in June, and they won’t be back until 19 September. Luckily, we still had the UK House of Commons sitting into July, but alas, they too adjourned on 20 July. UK MPs will be taking a shorter break than their Canadian counterparts – they’ll be returning to work on 5 September.

However, this still leaves us with six weeks of political void. No debates. No bills to ponder. No Oral Questions to entertain us. It’s enough to make one consider watching archived committee hearings of the Communities and Local Government Committee as they conducted an inquiry into the audit and inspection of local authorities.

Fear not, my political geek friends – someone has come to our rescue. It is with great delight that I share with you Prime Minister’s Questions – The Game.

This was brought to my attention curtesy of the kind souls at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. John Walker provided this entertaining review of the game, and at the end, there is the link to download the zip file. The game is free, simple to install and play, and quite endearing. It features real sound clips of UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow calling everyone to order. You play as Prime Minister David Cameron, deciding how best to reply to the questions put to you by Opposition Leader Ed Miliband. Occasionally, you might also get a question from a backbencher. As Walker notes in his review:

It’s rather clearly a satire on the complete pantomime of PMQ, and its inherent pointlessness since the purpose of the event is for no one to actually answer anyone’s questions at any point. So it is for each question from Ed Milliband, you as David Cameron are required to pick the answer from a list that best sort-of-fits the question asked. None of which actually answer it, of course. Should you not have a question to match you can always try a special move, such as blaming it all on the previous Labour government.

A matching answer is one that in some way loosely references the question without answering it, while ideally insulting the opposition or boasting of your own party’s superiority.

The game’s developer, Mark Richards states in the comments section that:

There is one unique question-answer routine you can do in the game that causes a little upset and Mr. Bercow has to tell them all: “The public don’t like it. And neither do I.”

Anyone who follows UK politics regularly knows that this has become Speaker Bercow’s catchphrase.

I have played through the game a few times now, but haven’t managed to cause said upset. So for all of you out there suffering from PMQ/Oral Questions/Parliamentary Politics withdrawal during the ho-hum days of summer, you now have something to help you survive the next few weeks.

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Quote of the day

The irony of the situation at the moment, with markets opening tomorrow morning, is that the biggest threat to the world financial system comes from a few right-wing nutters in the American Congress rather than the eurozone.Vince Cable, Business Secretary, 24 July 2011

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Perceptions of parliamentary procedure: is the grass really greener?

Last week’s appearance by Rupert and James Murdoch before the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport (which you can view here if you missed it) as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement in the House of Commons the following day (viewable here) received global media attention. Many Canadian journalists who normally report on proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons seemed enthralled by the often small, yet significant differences in how the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons function – the very same differences which I have been writing about here for over a year now.

CBC reporter Kady O’Malley, who regularly liveblogs proceedings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, has since written two posts outlining some of the differences which she observed and, for the most part, would like to see adopted in Canada (first post on committee procedure, second post on procedure in the House of Commons). One highly respected political commentator, Andrew Coyne, national editor of Macleans Magazine, tweeted on July 20 “Everyone should be watching the UK phone-hacking debate, if only to see what a real parliament looks like”.

O’Malley’s post on committee procedure ignores one very important difference between Canadian and UK House of Commons committees: the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental committees and the Environmental Audit, Political and Constitutional Reform, Procedure, Public Administration and Public Accounts committees. Canadian committee chairs are elected by that committee’s members. Similarly, committee members in the UK are elected by their respective caucuses, while members of Canadian committees are appointed by their party whips. I have discussed this in detail in this post, and so I won’t repeat myself here, but it should be fairly obvious to most why having elected chairs and committee members would make for a more responsive and less partisan committee.

There are also a couple of other inaccuracies in O’Malley’s post on committee procedure. UK select committees do allow witnesses to make opening statements or general comments. Some witnesses decline to do so, but others take advantage of the offer. To her credit, Kady notes:

The following observations were inspired by what I saw when I was liveblogging the Home Affairs and Culture Select committees on Tuesday; as we are so often reminded, committees are, of course, masters of their own respective destinies, which means it is distinctly possible that other select committees operate on slightly – or even substantially – different rules.

O’Malley also writes that there aren’t time limits for questions and answers, nor on the length of time witnesses are expected to stick around to answer. Again, this isn’t entirely true. Each committee hearing has a set duration, for example, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30. The committee may well decide to go on longer, or to cut proceedings short. Some witnesses do have to leave at a certain time because of other commitments, and so the committee knows it has only a half hour, or an hour, etc., with that specific witness. It is true, however, that unlike the Canadian House of Commons committees I have watched, the UK committees don’t have time limits for questions and answers.

While Kady O’Malley highlighted some key differences (based on having observed one committee hearing), a recent piece on the BBC website questions if MPs are really up to the task of questioning witnesses, stating that “[T]here had been criticism of earlier hearings for not asking sharp enough questions, or following up lines of enquiry.” One MP defended MP inquiries this way:

“We are asking questions as non-experts, as representatives of the public.

“You can’t prepare those questions in advance because you can’t always anticipate the way that the discussion will go.”

The comment by UK MP Nicola Blackwood that MPs are asking questions “as non-experts” also reminds me of former Prime Minister John Major’s recent calls for reforms to increase the number of MPs with expertise in specific areas, which I discussed in this post.

This is a legitimate criticism of parliamentary committees. For example, there has been much criticism of one MP on the Culture, Media and Sports committee, Louise Mensch, for making some comments during the July 20 hearing accusing former News of the World Editor Piers Morgan of phone hacking because he had supposedly admitted to this in his autobiography. This led to a fierce row between Morgan and Mensch, who refused to repeat the allegations outside of Parliament, where she would no longer be protected by parliamentary privilege. Here in Canada, other committee investigative hearings have been less than stellar. In 2007, the Canadian House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics conducted an investigation into the Mulroney Airbus settlement. The questioning of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by MPs appeared often amateurish and boorish, and Mulroney’s legal counsel, Guy Pratte, described committee hearings as “damaging”:

“At a parliamentary committee there are absolutely no rules. Zero rules. At least at inquiry commissions some rules of fairness apply. Parliamentary immunity means things are said that never would be said if MPs were subject to defamatory libel.”

He remembers New Democrat MP Pat Martin saying to Mulroney: “I won’t call you a liar, but I don’t want anyone here to think that I believe you.” Pratte says, “That sort of thing would never be tolerated in a court of law. Never, never, never!” Mulroney fumed at the insult and his son Ben, the television host, had to be restrained in the audience. “Parliamentary committees play with peoples’ reputations sometimes in a very dangerous and damaging way,” says Pratte. “I understand they have work to do, and it is a political forum. I suppose there is a political advantage to be gained from getting a big headline the next morning.

“I’ve said it many times in the Mulroney affair. It should resemble an ordinary court.” Pratte says. “We should at least try to respect the basic principles of fairness. I wanted to present myself in politics several times, but my experience as much with Mr. Pelletier as Mr. Mulroney left me discouraged by the performance of certain, but not all, MPs and the lack of concern with which they threw out any sort of accusation.”

Kady O’Malley’s second post looked at differences between the UK and Canadian House of Commons in general. On Twitter on July 21, many Canadian journalists were enthralled by the ministerial statement delivered by David Cameron on the phone hacking scandal and the questions and debate which followed. I have also explored the vast differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements, O’Malley, for some reason, did not comment on that at all. While UK ministerial statements are always far more productive affairs than their Canadian counterparts, this one was quite noteworthy: Cameron took 136 questions from MPs during his statement.

It was interesting to see the many comments from Canadians on Twitter, some of whom lamenting that Canada doesn’t have a Prime Minister’s Questions (not that there was a PMQs on 20 July). It reminded me that only days earlier, the Independent had run an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of PMQs. The sub-headline of that article reads: “No other parliament has anything like Prime Minister’s Questions.” Quite a few readers took exception to that and rattled off a series of countries that they said had PMQs: Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, to name a few. It was clear to me that people were confusing a general oral question period where all ministers, including the PM, take questions, which is what both Canada and Australia have, with a questions session where only the PM and no other ministers takes questions. It made me wonder if the Canadian journalists on Twitter, who were expressing such enthusiasm for PMQs, were aware of the UK House of Commons’ other daily questions – the department-specific oral questions, which I’ve written about in detail here. I don’t know if they’d be as impressed by those since they are such staid affairs when compared to PMQs. They should be, however, since again, they are far more productive than the Canadian version of Question Period for both getting information from the government and holding it to account.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally believe that the UK House of Commons functions far better than its Canadian counterpart, but as we all well know, the grass usually does look greener on the other side of the fence – or in this case, ocean. At least one very prominent figure in the UK believes there is still room for further reforms at Westminster.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow spoke to the Guardian and stated that while “MPs and peers have “rediscovered their collective balls” over the phone-hacking affair”, more could be done to strengthen Parliament. First on his list is finding a way to allow Parliament to compel witnesses to appear before committees.

Parliamentary committees (both in the UK and Canada and other jurisdictions) have the power to request witnesses to give evidence to them via an informal invitation issued by the committee clerk or the committee chair. They can also draw on their formal powers to summon witnesses via a Speaker’s warrant. That power is unqualified, “except to the extent that if conflicts with the privileges of the Crown and of Members of the House of Lords, or with the rights of Members of the House of Commons.” (Erskine May, 24th edition, p. 820). Should a witness fail to comply with such a warrant, however, they will be found in contempt of Parliament. In theory, the House of Commons has the power to send for persons whose conduct has been brought before the House on a matter of privilege by an order for their attendance. In practice, however, as Bercow notes, this isn’t really an enforceable power:

“If the Murdochs had refused the warrant to attend, we would have been in an extremely awkward situation. I don’t think there is much we could have done. There has been a complete ambiguity, a lack of clarity, an uncertainty about what our powers are.”

Bercow says select committees should have enforceable powers to compel witnesses in British jurisdiction to attend, and not, as at present, “depend on a toxic blend of bad publicity and the entirely implausible threat of imprisonment.

“I don’t think frankly it should be the Speaker on behalf of the house imprisoning a witness. We have got a creche in the parliamentary estate, but not so far as I know a cell.”

I sort of agree with Bercow that there probably needs to be a better way to compel witnesses to attend when summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee. Currently, the most likely outcome of a witness’s refusal to appear before a committee will be for that person to be found in contempt of Parliament. They may be called before the Bar of the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker or asked to apologize, but again, there is no way to compel them to do so:

The problem is that the sanctions – involving fine or imprisonment – to enforce any punishment are constitutionally somewhat rusty. Vernon Bogdanor, the former professor of government at Oxford University, has suggested they may have fallen into “desuetude” [disuse]. The House of Commons is not believed to have fined anybody since 1666 and has not “committed anyone to custody”, apart from temporarily detaining them, since the 19th century.

The last time the Commons attempted to reprimand anyone at the bar of the house was in 1957 when the Sunday Express editor John Junor was criticised after offending MPs by publishing an editorial accusing them of abusing their petrol allowances. “Such a sanction would now appear high-handed,” the recent standard and privileges committee report acknowledged.

Another MP, Adrian Bailey, who chairs the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has called for new laws to be introduced to force witnesses to appear before select committees. In the US, a federal act makes contempt of Congress a misdemeanor “punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100 and imprisonment.., for not less than one month nor more than twelve months.” Perhaps something along these lines would be what Bailey and Bercow have in mind.

Bercow also would like to see witnesses before committees examined under oath “as a matter of course”. Committees do have the power to administer oaths to witnesses, however, more often than not, they aren’t. This too has ramifications. If a witness was not sworn in before testifying, and then found to have provided false evidence or misled the committee, the worse that will happen is that they may be found in contempt. However, again according to Erskine May (p. 824), “[B]y the Perjury Act 1911, s 1, where evidence is given upon oath, the giving of false evidence is punishable as perjury. The power of either House to punish for false evidence is not, however, superseded by this Act.” Meaning that it would still be up to the house to administer any punishment – the range of which are similar to those available for anyone deemed to be guilty of contempt. And again from Erskine May:

it should be borne in mind that in 1978, the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible, and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so. Thus many acts which might be considered to be contempts are either overlooked by the House or resolved  informally.  (p. 251)

And while Canadian journalists and political watchers were so enthralled by PMQs, that item of business remains a source of great frustration and embarrassment for Bercow:

“I cannot think of any business that would put its worst product in the shop window and in some respects it’s our worst product. I think the level of heckling, the extent of catcalling, the sheer decibel level, are not conducive to reasoned debate.”

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Quote of the day

You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy, or our commitment to a better world. No one will bomb us to silence. No one will shoot us to silence. No one will ever scare us away from being Norway. - Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway, 22 July 2011

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Quote of the day

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger said: “Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church.”

As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloyne Report, as Taoiseach, I am making it absolutely clear, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic. - Enda Kenny, Statement by the Taoiseach on the Dáil Motion on the report of the Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne, in Dáil Éireann, 20 July 2011

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Quote of the day

That everyone knew journalists and the police were engaged in petty barter does not make it acceptable, let alone legal. Nor is it edifying to know how far politicians and editors are in and out of each other’s houses. But it is not the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Nuremberg trials. The downtrodden are not marching against their great satan, Rupert Murdoch, “the most evil man in the world” as reported by the BBC Today programme. They are more likely mad at losing their favourite paper. There is a limit to how much significance any event can carry without imploding into daft hysteria. – Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 19 July 2011.

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Democratic legitimacy vs parliamentary efficiency

Former Prime Minister John Major’s recent speech to the Ditchley Foundation attracted media attention because of his proposals for Scotland, which I’ve written about here.

However, Major also put forward some very interesting proposals for reforming how Parliament works. This got brief mention in the press – primarily his idea of appointing to the House of Commons some MPs who were experts in certain fields. While an interesting and rather controversial proposal, without having the actual text of Major’s speech before me, I was hesitant to comment on what he had said.

Major’s speech is now available on the Ditchley Foundation’s website, and it turns out Major had more in mind than simply appointing some MPs. Major is concerned with Parliament’s efficiency and effectiveness, which he believes can’t be improved via normal democratic means – or may even be undermined by increasing democracy by electing Lords. Part of the problem, Major believes, is that there aren’t enough MPs who are experts in key areas such as science, financial regulations, etc., and because of this, Parliament can’t legislate as effectively as it should. Major proposes widening the pool of talent prepared to enter politics by removing certain disincentives such as paying MPs a fixed and generous salary, but doing away with living allowances. But that is simply the tip of the iceberg:

We need, also, to attract to the Commons men and women at the top of their profession.  It is one of the oddities of democracy that fundamental policy choices are made by men and women who, apart from the legitimacy of election and a native intellect, have no qualifications to make them.

How many MPs can bring direct knowledge to how banks should be regulated?  Or how hedge funds work?  Or are familiar with e-money?  Or nuclear energy?  Or the social and medical implications of embryology?

We would benefit from our legislators having more practical knowledge.

Of course we can hire specialist advisers, but that can never be as effective as influential, knowledgeable voices speaking with expertise in the Chamber, in the Committees, in the tea rooms, in Party meetings.

There is no solution to this dilemma that doesn’t cut across our traditions, and so I would do just that.  Why not elect fewer Members of Parliament and appoint, on a basis pro rata to votes cast in the General Election, a similar number of Members without constituencies?

I know the familiar arguments against this – a few years ago I would have used them myself forcibly – but, on reflection, I now believe enhancement of the talent pool is so vital it justifies the changes.

If the Commons baulks at a further reduction in its Members then, as Douglas Hurd and I have argued before, let us appoint unelected Ministers, answerable to Parliament, but without being Members of it.  Or, of course, let us do both.  Douglas and I have argued also for fewer Ministers and fewer PPSs:  we have far too many of each:  they could be severely cut back.

One of the issues Major has identified is the difficulty of attracting people from a wide range of professional backgrounds into politics. I haven’t found data for the 2010 general election, but of the 650 MPs elected in the 2005 general election, 39% listed their occupation as “Professions”, which includes barristers, solicitors, doctors, civil servants/local government, and teachers (both professors and school). Nineteen percent listed their background as “Business” and 35% fell under the “Miscellaneous” category, which includes white collar jobs, politicians/political organisers, publishers and journalists. Only 6% were manual workers. While Major raises an important point, is appointing, rather than electing, MPs the solution?

Major’s proposal to “elect fewer Members of Parliament and appoint, on a basis pro rata to votes cast in the General Election, a similar number of Members without constituencies” might well appall on first consideration, but this isn’t really any different from MPs appointed from lists under some forms of PR. The difference here is that those appointed wouldn’t just be party hacks, but chosen for their professional expertise in specific fields. While I personally don’t like the idea of party lists, I might be more amenable to the idea of MPs appointed because of expertise rather than party partisanship.

Major’s alternative to the above proposal is to do away with the current form of cabinet government, wherein ministers are MPs chosen by the Prime Minister to serve in cabinet. Instead, Major is proposing something similar to the US cabinet, which is composed of unelected persons chosen by the President for their expertise in key areas. While perhaps less objectionable to some than the thought of appointed MPs, this would perhaps be a less ideal solution since cabinet ministers don’t normally serve on committees, and since they wouldn’t be elected MPs, they wouldn’t be in the House participating in debates. This option, to me, isn’t any different than that of appointing specialist advisors, which Major dismisses because that could “never be as effective as influential, knowledgeable voices speaking with expertise in the Chamber, in the Committees, in the tea rooms, in Party meetings.”

Major has a few thoughts on reform of the House of Lords as well. He does agree that it needs reforming; he completely disagrees that electing Lords is the way to go:

The case for election is democratic legitimacy.  However, if we want an efficient legislature, the case against is far more compelling.

An elected Upper House would cease to be a revising Chamber and would demand more powers that could only come from the Commons.  There would be confusion and conflict.  We should be reducing the number of politicians and adding to their quality.  An elected Lords would add more politicians and reduce their quality.  That is a bad bargain.

Does anyone imagine that Chiefs of the General Staff, Cabinet or Permanent Secretaries, Captains of Industry, Chancellors of Universities, Professors of Medicine would stand for election?

Of course they wouldn’t, and elected replacements could never bring such a depth of knowledge to the scrutiny of legislation.  If the answer is more elected politicians, we are asking the wrong question.

Again we see that Major is drawing a line between democratic legitimacy and parliamentary efficiency. He posits that the argument for an elected Lords is that this would increase their democratic legitimacy, but that this would be at the expense of parliamentary efficiency, which is his main argument against an elected upper Chamber. An elected Lords would demand more powers for itself, moving beyond its current role of revising Chamber; there would be confusion and conflict between it and the Commons; and more importantly, by electing Lords, we’d be reducing their quality.

This relates back to the problem of attracting persons from more diverse backgrounds and occupations to stand for election. Very few are interested in giving up solid careers for the ups and downs of politics. This doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be interested in serving in some capacity, however, such as being appointed to the House of Lords. Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I do not think that electing Lords (or Canadian Senators) is necessary or even desirable, and so on this point, I agree with Major.

There have been calls by some to replace juries with panels of experts during complex court cases. The argument is that a “jury of one’s peers” simply cannot grasp the increasingly complex scientific and technical evidence presented during trials, both in high-profile criminal cases and in complex civil litigation in antitrust, securities, intellectual property, and product liability cases. It strikes me that Major is arguing the same thing with regards to Parliament, that elected MPs simply don’t have the knowledge, education and professional background to effectively make and pass laws dealing with increasingly complex scientific and technical issues. Because of this, he thinks it is important that there be some way to compensate for this gap, and that would be by appointing persons with the right expertise to play some role in the parliamentary process. The most obvious one would be to not elect peers, since this is already current practice and would be perhaps less objectionable than to trying to introduce the concept of appointed MPs or an unelected cabinet.

It is a pity that the media focused primarily on Major’s ideas about Scotland, because his proposals discussed here warranted more media attention than they received.

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Quote of the day

The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it. - Marshall McLuhan

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