Monday, February 8, 2010

Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform Bill

Of course this Bill, as Lord Norton of Louth pointed out during the Second Reading, is not going to go through all the stages as there is not enough time before Parliament has to be prorogued. Indeed, his lordship was more than a little displeased with the notion that a Constitutional Bill should be brought in so late in the session. To be fair, he said very similar things about the half-baked constitutional reforms that the Government appears to be playing around with just a few weeks before the session must come to an end.
The Bill may be accused of comprising a set of constitutional reforms which have been put together in haste, have not been subject to widespread consultation, and derive from no clear, coherent approach to constitutional change. The Minister, in replying to the debate, may have in mind making these very points. He would be most unwise to do so because the description I have just supplied applies just as well to the Government's proposals for constitutional change. The Prime Minister has announced a set of reform proposals that appear detached from any process of extended deliberation within government and which relate to no discernible coherent approach to constitutional change. This Bill, like the Prime Minister's proposals, comes at the end of a Parliament when there is no time for either House to consider it in detail.
This martial statement is a little unfair. While the Prime Minister’s proposals do have an air of something that was put together in haste and will be repented at leisure (something that we can say about all the constitutional reforms of the last 13 years), Lord Willoughby de Broke’s Bill has been presented to Parliament before but Private Members’ Bills tend to get fitted in when the Business of the House allows it.

Furthermore, Lord Willoughby in his speech outlined the main theme of his suggested reforms and it seems to be a coherent one:
The thrust of my Bill is the rebalancing of powers away from the Executive and a whipped Parliament to the people. Sir Francis Bacon wrote:

"A country is less free if it is all in the hands of the state".

This Bill will go some way to loosening the state's grasp, and I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.
As it happens, Lord Norton prefers a long and stately process in constitutional reform: lots of consultations, committees, White Papers, Green Papers and so on. He may well be right in essence but it is not seemly for a parliamentarian to dismiss another parliamentarian’s efforts to aid the matter of reform along. It is what parliamentarians are for. But then Lord Norton suffers from a slight problem: he is supposed to be one of our greatest living experts on constitutional law and has been asked by the Conservatives to produce ideas for strengthening Parliament, yet he does not seem to appreciate the importance of our EU membership. At least, not in public.

As Lord McNally, speaking for the Lib-Dims reminded him with less than complete historical accuracy:
I entirely support the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, of a holistic, deliberative and coherent approach to this Bill. The only thing I note as a student of these issues is that the great constitutional advances have been made not by committees sitting endlessly around tables-we have been doing that for the past decade and made very little progress-but by people who believed in certain changes and fought for them. We fought a civil war, a king lost his head, another king lost his throne, we frightened the establishment by revolution to get an 1832 Act, and women chained themselves to railings-one woman spectacularly died-to get votes for women. The idea of constitutional reform being a matter for gradualism and rational debate is true up to a point, but constitutional reform is also made by people who believe in it.
Actually, Lord McNally’s speech was not at all bad, as soon as he stopped putting on his tiresome “man of the people” act. The truth is that he has been a political apparatchik all his life not a man of the people.

As the speech progressed, however, it became obvious that he (or his researcher) unlike the Noble Minister or Lord Henley for the Conservatives, had read the Bill and thought carefully about each article, supporting some, opposing others and remaining cautiously neutral on one or two. The one problem he did not manage to resolve is the Lib-Dim position on the in or out referendum.

He was asked by Lord Pearson of Rannoch:
Will the noble Lord clarify the position of his own party on a referendum on whether this country should be in or out of the European Union? Did not his leader, Mr Clegg, flounce out of the House of Commons because he was not going to get an "in or out" referendum on our membership? When I moved a suitable amendment here, the noble Lord's party failed to support it, so it would be very helpful to your Lordships to know whether the Liberal Democrats now support an "in or out" referendum on the European Union. If they do, they would be with us, of course.
To which Lord McNally returned a rather confused response:
First of all, Mr Clegg has never flounced anywhere in his life. We have said time and again that the Lisbon treaty, as the Conservative Party knows well, was a series of adjustments to EU arrangements to take account of the increasing membership of the EU. It was not the new constitution on which we had pledged a referendum. We have said consistently that if the EU comes forward with major constitutional changes, we will support an "in or out" referendum. It would be dishonest to keep suggesting referenda on changes, which, if they were carried, would cripple the EU, without having the courage to argue the "in or out" case.
It is, of course, easy to be confused about the Lib-Dim policy on practically anything.

Curiously and disappointingly, Lord Henley’s speech on behalf of the Conservative Party was little more than a petulant exercise in foot-stamping.
I accept that every private Member has a right to bring forward a Bill in this House or in another place. I would not want to restrict that in any way. But occasionally, possibly, there is a small element of abuse in bringing forward a Bill, right at the end of a Parliament, which has no prospect whatever of coming into law. It will waste our time on a number of Fridays or whenever when we have to deal with its Committee stage. Its sole purpose seems to be UKIP's general election manifesto.
Responding on HMG’s behalf, Lord Tunnicliffe said very little of any interest. Either he was not given his speech in time or he decided not to look at it before he stood up to deliver it in the House but one did not get the feeling that he actually knew what he was reading from his papers.

His rejection of Article I, withdrawal from the European Union, was not particularly thoughtful:
First, and perhaps least surprisingly given the noble Lord's membership of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Clause 1 would withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Government believe that our membership of the European Union has brought real benefits to the United Kingdom through jobs, peace and security. Through our membership, we belong to the world's biggest trading bloc. Over half of the United Kingdom's trade is within the EU, with an estimated 3.5 million British jobs linked to it. Our membership allows us to live, work and travel across Europe.
In fact, the words “clichés” and “hackneyed” spring to mind. He was challenged on one of the most obviously nonsensical parts of that statement by Lord Pearson:
I wonder if the noble Lord could explain how leaving the political construct of the European Union and continuing in free trade with our friends in Europe would have any effect on jobs whatsoever.
What, I wondered sitting up in the gallery, would the Noble Minister say to that. Well, actually, nothing. Literally. He refused to answer the question and said so. Obviously, this is a painful topic that needs to be referred to again and again, as even the talented researchers in the Minister’s office seem unable to deal with the problem. UKIP PPCs please note.

I hope readers of this blog will take the time to read through Lord Willoughby de Broke’s Bill (linked to above) but I shall summarize the main points:

1. Withdrawal from the European Union as no meaningful constitutional reform can be carried out while we are still in that noxious organization (those words are not in the Bill as that is most definitely unparliamentary language).

2. Repeal of the Human Rights Act as it undermines HMG’s ability to deal with crimes, terrorism and other related matters, as the Conservatives once put it when they played around with the idea.

3. Parliamentary approval for all international treaties and military involvement (though that might have to be honed as some treaties are quite routine and barely need any debate and there many small military involvements around for Britain to participate in).

4. Fewer parliamentary seats – the Bill suggests 250 but others think it might have to be as many as 400. This can be discussed at Committee stage.

5. Fixed parliamentary terms of 5 years but this can be overruled by a vote of no confidence in the government or by a referendum that is properly requested as outlined in later articles.

6. Reduce sitting days to prevent endless legislation either through primary or secondary channels.

7. MPs to have a salary of £30,000 plus expenses of £175,000, properly explained. MPs to be encouraged to take jobs outside their political activity though clearly they cannot be compelled.

8. A referendum on the House of Lords within seven years of the Act being passed, in which there are four options, one being total abolition, the other status quo and two more.

9. The central point of the Bill is the inclusion of referendums in the British constitutional structure, the Swiss model being an obvious one. Referendums will have to be called if 1 out of 60 persons on the electoral register sign a petition to that effect. Clearly, the numbers are a detail to be discussed in Committee. Petitions cannot be run on line as that makes fraud easier. Among other matters that can be subject to a referendum is the question of whether an election should be called between the statutory dates. After all, as Lord Willoughby de Broke pointed out, the Prime Minister intends to have a referendum on whether to change the centuries old first past the post system (though, of course, not on whether the entire constitutional structure of this country should be submitted to the Constitutional Lisbon Treaty).

10. Apart from a few, carefully defined national issues, matters should be handed over to various forms of local government, who should be legislating on them (if they really think they should) as well as raising taxes. Local referendums on various issues should be part of the arrangement.

11. A Royal Commission should be appointed to examine the existing public bodies, quangos, regional assemblies and other such leach-like institutions (unparliamentary language again) to decide, which are essential to the country, which should be kept on national level and which should be handed over to local authorities to do with them as they wish.

All, in all, a rebalancing of powers without the benefit of many committees and consultations. The Bill has now been committed to the Committee of the Whole House.


  1. I find little here to disagree with. I'm not sure if I agree with second jobs for MP's. I fear conflicts of interest and jack of all trades, master of none. I would also like a better separation of powers between the executive and legislature. I would like to see more accountability, the best place for any politician is between a rock and a hard place.

  2. Will the Bill include an affirmation of the Declaration of Right, Magna Carta and Common Law as being vital parts of our Constitution that will remain unaffected?

  3. I have linked to the Bill and you can read it for yourself. I think you will find that my summary is pretty accurate. As it happens the BILLof Rights, Magna Carta and even Common Law have been seriously affected by what has gone on in the last century or so. Common Law is the easiest to rescue. There may be an argument (personally I think there is) for a new Bill of Rights.