HM Government E-Petitions go live – sort of

(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.)

The UK Government’s new e-petitions have gone live, and the initial interest in this initiative seems to be causing some problems.

My first attempts to access the list of petitions repeatedly resulted in the following message:

Sorry if you’re experiencing problems accessing e-petitions. There is currently a much higher level of demand than we expected.

However, I have been able to get various parts of the petition site to work, at least sporadically, which has allowed me to make a few early observations. Please note that as I write this, the site is still experiencing problems due to heavy traffic load, and so if you click on any of the links herein, you may only get an error message.

Quickly perusing the list of accepted petitions, I noticed that there seem to be a lot of petitions addressing the same issue. This is not supposed to be allowed. On the How e-petitions work page, the first step is to “Search existing petitions before creating a new one”. If you click on the little information icon, you are informed that:

Before you create a new e-petition, search the site to make sure there isn’t one that covers your issue. If a new e-petition is the same as one that’s already on the site, it will be rejected.

Yet, perusing the list of submitted petitions submitted to the Department of Justice (at least the first page – trying to get subsequent pages to load results in the aforementioned “Sorry…” message), there are certainly more than one petition calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment/the death penalty. Quite a few more, in fact.

If these various petitions on essentially the same topic are allowed to stand, it could well undermine efforts by pro-capital punishment supporters to garner the required 100,000 signatures. Or, the government could end up with several petitions calling for essentially the same thing, which all end up with the required number of signatures.

It is quite likely, however, these identical petitions are appearing because the site is having trouble coping with demand. Every time I have attempted to use the search function, it has resulted in an error message. Therefore, I am assuming that people are unable to search for existing petitions and so are simply going ahead with creating new ones. I won’t be at all surprised if in coming days, once the novelty has worn off and the site stops breaking down, many of these repeat petitions will disappear.

Calls for a return of the death penalty aside, I have noticed a few amusing petitions listed (when the site cooperates, that is). There are at least three e-petitions about e-petitions. One calls on the government to do away with e-petitions while another asks that the Government remove “the requirement for citizens to find out which department deals with the subject of their e-petition” – I guess because a lot of people simply don’t have any idea which Government department does what. The third petition asks that the Government revise the 100,000 signature requirement, since this may be difficult to achieve for some petitions that are nonetheless very good petitions.

I have to say that I am surprised that the Government didn’t properly anticipate that traffic to the e-petitions site might be quite heavy. They’ve had issues previously. When the Your Freedom site, which asked people to tell the government which laws and regulations it should get rid of, was launched in July last year, high demand in the first 24 hours caused the site to crash repeatedly. One would hope governments would learn from experience.

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Some interesting links

1. Time to salute the post-2010 election Parliament

BBC parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy has a good column providing an interesting overview of the current UK Parliament and an assessment of some of the many reforms introduced in the dying days of the previous Parliament and at the outset of this one: “So I’m afraid, as I head off for my holidays, I’m going to indulge in a little optimism. A stronger Parliament is doing a better job. And that is a good thing for the country.”

2. The Death Penalty: A Matter of Emotion, Not Reason

With efforts underway by pro-capital punishment forces to force the House to debate the issue by gathering 100,000 signatures on an e-petition, the Spectator’s Alex Massie provides a thoughtful piece on the subject: “I have a little more faith in the British justice system than I do in its American counterparts but not so much that I’m happy to grant the state this kind of sanction. If I won’t trust the state to issue an ID card why should I trust it with the death penalty?”

3. Can David Cameron and George Osborne defy history and remain friends?

The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt looks at the long history of Prime Ministers falling out with their Chancellors of the Exchequer, and ponders if Cameron and Osborne can avoid a similar outcome.

4. MPs find their voice at last

Complementing Mark D’Arcy’s article about how reforms have made the UK Parliament stronger, Steve Richards writes in The Independent about how these reforms have shifted power to MPs and away from the executive: “Until recently the committees were something of a backwater for MPs, largely ignored by the media and viewed with indifference by ministers. They produced their reports. Some of them were extremely insightful and provided an important alternative commentary on various governments. Rarely did they get much publicity. No member acquired such an aura that he or she became associated with sex appeal. This has changed. Suddenly committees are sexy.”

5. An interview with the creator of PMQs – The Game

Helen Lewis-Hasteley interviews Mark Richards, creator of the PMQs computer game I’ve previously blogged about: “I had really enjoyed doing retro video game-style caricatures of political figures and, one day, it just occurred to me that Prime Minister’s Questions is a real-life turned based battle, like those bits from the old Pokemon games.”

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Quote of the day

Question time in its contemporary manifestation symbolises everything that’s wrong with political discussion in Australia — an exchange of manufactured sound bites and confected television “moments” signifying nothing at all. It is at once uncomfortably aggressive, spiteful and gladiatorial, and completely soporific. - Katharine Murphy, There’s no question, Britain’s Parliament showed how it’s done, The Age, 25 July 2011

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Is the grass really greener, Part 2

In an earlier post, I discussed Question Time, the Australian House of Representatives oral question period, which a British blogger had described as “unbelievable behaviour” and attributed much of the problems to the Speaker himself. After listening to a few archived Question Times on the House of Representatives website, I ended up agreeing with that assessment.

Today, I’ve come across an article by Katharine Murphy, the national affairs correspondent at Australia’s The Age, in which she sharply criticizes Question Time. Some of her observations:

Question time in its contemporary manifestation symbolises everything that’s wrong with political discussion in Australia — an exchange of manufactured sound bites and confected television “moments” signifying nothing at all. It is at once uncomfortably aggressive, spiteful and gladiatorial, and completely soporific.


As a mechanism for genuine accountability, it’s a joke. As a spectacle, it’s pathetic — community theatre, not even Off Broadway. As a focal point for the political day it confirms the most crushing of truths: politics is progressively breaking all of our hearts.


Its sheer awfulness has a strange lulling effect — like the victim of an abduction, you slowly develop Stockholm syndrome, becoming too worn down to hope for something better.

Murphy then goes on to heap praise on proceedings in the UK House of Commons. Like many Canadian political correspondents, Murphy became enthralled with David Cameron’s performance in the House in the wake of the phone hacking scandal:

In two gripping hours, British Prime Minister David Cameron answered 138 questions pertaining to what he knew, his decision-making and his relationships with executives from News International.

The exchanges, moderated by an adroit Speaker with well honed reflexes for containing frippery and grandstanding, was fast, free flowing and informative. Oddly, given the high political stakes involved for Cameron, the tone of the debate was respectful; striking a functional balance between persistent interrogation, critique and basic civility.

Watching that broadcast was more effective than a dose of smelling salts. Water-cooler discussion in Canberra the next day was alive with it. Did you see the Commons debate? Did you see politics actually working?

Murphy also comments on the independence of backbenchers in the UK to ask actual questions “seemingly beyond the control of their puppet masters on the frontbench.”

As impressed as she is with the spectacle she witnessed, Murphy cautions that it is unfair to compare “a special sitting of the British Parliament in some extraordinary circumstances with a routine question time in Australia” and that the “British outing last week was a special debate, with conditions allowing spontaneous questions and free-flowing exchange”. Perhaps I am misreading her, but this isn’t entirely true. Yes, it was a special sitting since Parliament had been scheduled to adjourn for summer recess the day before, and was quickly recalled to sit one extra day to address the phone hacking issue, but ministerial statements are not what I would classify as a special debate, but rather routine occurrences in the UK House of Commons. The format they follow, as I have previously discussed, is quite different from the ministerial statements we have in the Canadian House of Commons. It would seem that Ministerial statements in the Australian House of Representatives more closely resemble their Canadian counterparts:

By leave of the House Ministers may make statements concerning government policy or other matters for which they have ministerial responsibility. Ministerial statements are often made after the presentation of documents, however they may also be made at other times. An opposition spokesperson is usually granted leave to make a statement on the same matter or a motion may be moved ‘That the House take note of the document’, on which debate may take place either at that time, at a later hour or at a later sitting. On occasions leave has not been sought by the Government or has been refused by the Opposition and standing orders have been suspended to enable a statement to be made. Ministerial statements are not an everyday occurrence and their frequency has decreased in recent years. (House of Representatives Practice, 5th ed., p. 254)

Ministerial statements in the UK House of Commons are not daily occurrence either, but as I have stated, at least during this current Parliament, they are fairly regular occurrences. It is not unheard of to even have two or three ministers delivering ministerial statements one after the other, and at the end of each one, MPs are free to question the minister on its contents.

I also disagree with Murphy that this was an exceptional example of a ministerial statement, and because of this, the House of Commons rose to the occasion. I have watched many such statements delivered in the House over the course of the past year, and while the subjects were perhaps less high-profile (and that is somewhat debatable), the conduct of the MPs was as commendable. Backbenchers still freely asked whatever questions they wanted, debate was respectful, the ministers did their best to answer the questions asked. Nor was this the first time that the Prime Minister has delivered a ministerial statement to the House. The only real difference about proceedings on 20 July was that the phone-hacking had become an international story, consequently, the world was watching, to an extent anyway. Ministerial statements on reforms to the NHS, or the UK’s military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya played out to much smaller audiences.

I’ve noted with some dismay that many of the readers who have commented on Murphy’s story are confusing the ministerial statement with Question Time, and in some cases, even PMQs. This confusion is perhaps due to Murphy’s contrasting Question Time to the ministerial statement, which is understandable since Question Time may well be the only real opportunity Members get to question ministers, including the PM. I got the sense here in Canada that many of our journalists also failed to understand that Cameron was not participating in an extended round of PMQs, but delivering a ministerial statement. This is one area were proceedings in the UK House of Commons are clearly superior to proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons (and by the sounds of, the Australian House of Representatives). MPs have far more opportunity to question and hold the government to account. Everyone seems to forget about the daily Questions, focusing only on PMQs, but as we have seen here, there are also ministerial statements and urgent questions.

Urgent questions are dependent on the Speaker being willing to grant them, and current Speaker John Bercow certainly has been willing to do just that. He has granted 60 urgent questions debates since May 2010, compared to only two granted by the previous Speaker over the course of the nine years he presided over the House.

As I’ve written many times on this blog, when you combine the UK House of Commons’ focused, ministry-specific form of oral questions with the regular use of Urgent Questions and ministerial statements, there exists far more opportunities for the Opposition to hold the Government to account in the UK House of Commons than there are in the Canadian House of Commons or, by the sound of it, the Australian House of Representatives. Sometimes, the grass really is greener.


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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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