The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘House of Commons’

Lib Dems Must Remember: We Want To Cut Ministers Too

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 7, 2010 @ 10:37

Too many ministers...

Still dining out on watching a veritable feast of BBC Parliament + a debate on parliamentary reform (the perfect combo) on Monday evening, where Nick Clegg was the star of the show (*pinch*, *pinch*… no, this is not a dream), it has to be worth another blogpost… surely?

An issue that came up a few times during the debate, a very reasonable one, was that if you cut the number of MPs by some 7%, then you simply must cut the executive by a similar amount. Or, better still, more.

One of the problems of Parliament, and the overlap between the executive and the legislature, is that there are over 100MPs who are either on the government payroll, or are a bag-carrier for a payroll MP. In fact, in October 2008, there were 141. It means that no matter what the issue, no matter when, the government of the day has a banker number of votes on its side.

The logical conclusion of this process is that if you reduce the number of MPs without reducing the size of the payroll vote, you are actually strengthening the proportional power of the executive in some votes.

But what I found most irritating about this argument on Monday was the only bit where Nick Clegg let himself down.

The argument was made only by Labour MPs, and though Chris Bryant, who first raised it, did so in a partisan fashion, it was later put in more measured terms by Chris Leslie

If there is a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament but not in the number of Ministers as set out in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975, there will be an increase in the ratio between the number of Ministers and the number of Back Benchers. Does he understand that point, and will he now address it?

Clegg’s response was wholly unsatisfying

I simply do not accept that there is an imbalance between the number of Ministers and the manner in which they are held to account by a House which will be about 7.7% smaller. I believe that a House with 600 Members will be as well equipped to hold this and, indeed, any other Government to account as the present House is with 650.

Simply put, it does not answer the question. In fact, it is unashamed, wilful ignorance of the issue in order to play the petty-political game whereby everything we say is right, and everything you say is wrong.

After all, the Lib Dems once supported cutting the number of ministers to 73. And I can guarantee that if the Lib Dems were in opposition too, they would be joining it. Attempting to improve the strength of non-frontbenchers, on any side of the House, is a standard liberal argument. We come out of the womb ready to take on the overweening executive.

The tendency of governments to ignore good ideas if they come from the opposite side was something I thought we might get away from in this coalition.

Whenever I watch BBC Parliament, I realise just how naive I am sometimes…


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Cleggy Takes On The House

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 6, 2010 @ 09:30

It still seems weird...

If there’s one thing that makes me reasonably happy about the coaltion, it’s days like Monday when Nick Clegg takes to the floor of the House as Deputy Prime Minister and delivers yet another good performance on the issue of political reform.

Yesterday the topic was a rather convenient bundling of the issues of the Alternative Vote referendum with the concept of equal-sized constituencies. Being the rather sad individual that I am, I watched the whole thing from start to finish. Long live BBC iPlayer!

It was an excellent debate, and Clegg was confident and competent in handling difficult questions from all sides. I am fully in support of both plans, and I look forward to the referendum. Though I have argued in the past that AV is potentially a disaster, I am, nonetheless, going to support it, in the hope that it might encourage a little reforming zeal in the British public, and that it at least brings us to the threshold of good quality proportional representation with STV.

But enough about that…

What makes Nick Clegg so effective in the Commons, at least at the moment, is that he is blessed with the legacy he has been granted. As something of an “outsider” commanding a portfolio that is encouraging “outsider” thinking, he is in his element. He is able to position himself as the man taking over at a time when the political reform agenda had stagnated, contrasting his radicalism with the conservatism that set in in the dying days of the Labour administration.

Furthermore, Labour are playing right into his hands. Their sudden newfound love of opposition, and opposition for the sake of it, is granting Nick Clegg the opportunity to attack Labour relentlessly for their remarkable shift from progressive radicals to conservative pragmatists. Yes, Labour MPs are right to scrutinise the government, but a mere two months ago they were all elected on a pledge to back such a referendum on AV.

Now they look decidedly shifty, and are already preparing the groundwork for their very own u-turn. But, in doing so, they reinforce the very point Nick Clegg enjoys making, that the 13 years in power have transformed Labour from their early days of constitutional remoulding to true friends of the establishment. That’s not a good place to be when the country is feeling so… bold… about what it would like to do to its political system.

The worry I have about Clegg and Parliament is simple. In time, he too will become an establishment figure. In time he will no longer be able to blame the Labour legacy. Indeed, if he gets his way, and likes what he sees, he will become the most conservative person of all, defending the new status quo.

That won’t be good for his reputation, or the reputation of the Liberal Democrats.

But at least it’s a dilemma of power and influence that we’re actually able to have…

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Bercow Pushes For Reform

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 10, 2010 @ 10:02

And sometimes it's even quieter than this...

It seems like Speaker John Bercow has caught the reformist zeal and is getting into the spirit of things

Bercow said it was his ambition to persuade as many as 100 MPs to be in the chamber on most occasions by reordering debate, increasing topicality and trying to throw out time-consuming subjects.

Now, I know Mr Bercow is his own man, and he did promise to push a reform agenda, but I refuse to believe that he could be allowed to go so public with a contribution such as this if he didn’t have some sort of tacit agreement with the government. Speakers never get into a public spat about their opinions of how the House is managed, and so it would be amazing if he went to pick a fight on this issue.

The plans themselves are moderately interesting. While it’s impossible to make MPs attend they chamber, he is right to suggest they are more likely to attend if the issue is topical, for the simple reason that every MP knows if they can get their contribution into Hansard, they can immediately press release it to their local rag showing them “fighting hard for you”.

He is also right that there are “too many general debates which are indeed extremely general and rather lengthy”. House of Commons time is frequently wasted with an entire day’s “debate” on either hugely broad issues like defence, Europe, Wales, or extremely specialised ones like International Women’s Day. The subject matter is too broad to have a real debate, since every contributor comes armed with a speech they’d like to give on the subject, regardless of what everyone else says.

Opposition Days, where the Opposition picks the subject, are sometimes more topical, but it is at the mercy of the Opposition to pick a sensible issue. An Opposition Day motion was what defeated the Labour government on the Gurkhas issue; and government defeats on these are real keepers, since until that one the last one was in 1978. Opposition Days create more of a partisan rancour than usual, and as such rebellions are rare.

The alternative, proposed by the Speaker, is to have the public suggesting subjects for debate based on public petitions. It would be trivial to add such a function to the Parliament website. Whether this would make them more topical is open to question, but I’d be inclined to think even if it didn’t, it would generate topics that are less about embarassing the government, and more designed to elicit a genuine response.

What makes me think that? Well, questions from the public on Question Time, etc. are never as openly hostile and filled with elephant traps like the ones posed by journalists. In a sense, this makes them easier, but if the question is from a less partisan atmosphere, MPs may be more willing to be more honest with their opinions.


Either way, it’s good that change is being discussed openly. Over to the Secretary of State for Political Reform…

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The New Deputy Speakers

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 9, 2010 @ 09:28

All hail the new Chairman of Ways and Means

Yesterday’s Deputy Speaker Election produced a rather interesting result. But then again, it was always likely to, as all of the candidates had never been a Deputy before – a rather unusual occurrence.

The election has brought Tory Nigel Evans, and Labour’s Dawn Primarolo and Lindsay Hoyle into the lofty Speaker’s chair. Lindsay Hoyle, in particular, becomes the Chairman of Ways and Means, in other words, the most senior Deputy, who will preside over the emergency Budget on June 22.

Nigel Evans is an entertaining enough character, and I am happy to see him there. He is a very sharp witted man, and will do a fine job of keeping the natives in check when the moment comes. He is as full of himself as Speaker John Bercow, but that is an asset for this job, not a liability. I’ve no doubt he will relish the job and enjoy sticking it to everyone as his new impartiality requires.

Lindsay Hoyle is also a fine choice. It’s good to see that his broad Lancashire accent has never held him back. Always been a bit of a character, especially when he hit the news for trying to deposit a small fortune in loose change. He also has his wits about him, and will play a very fine second fiddle to John Bercow.

Dawn Primarolo is a bit of  mystery, though. She has had a long career as a government minister. That doesn’t fit the usual career path of Speakership. Most Speakers and their deputies have been senior backbenchers, and have trodden a well-worn path of making friends and being seen as very fair to all sides. That cannot be said for her. But it would be unfair to say that she got the job because she is a woman, since she passed the threshold without any need for quota-filling. Nevertheless, there was only one other woman on the ballot…

I don’t know all that much about her, though. The jury is out on her style and charisma in keeping the House in order.

What makes the result so good is that it is truly a representation of the House, courtesy of a democratic ballot, conducted by STV, no less. In the past, we’ve been used to stitch ups between the whips, ensuring very little changes from election to election. Indeed, until yesterday, Parliament had had the same deputy Speakers for the last 10 years, and two of them since 1997.

Now, along with Speaker Bercow’s election last year, we have had yet another quiet revolution in British politics. It just remains to be seen whether any of it makes any difference.

But, at the very least, we are beginning to see a little more democracy in that so-called cradle of our democracy.

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September Sittings

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 2, 2010 @ 10:18

Dry, dusty, deathly dull. Academia: The new fragrance from Calvin Klein.

Being such a bore, I have just finished skimming through a few copies of Hansard relating to all the parliamentary fun of the past week or so. The most interesting part comes here, spoken by the Leader of the House, Sir George Young…

Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise at the end of business on Thursday 29 July and, subject to the will of the House, return on Monday 6 September for two weeks.

That means Parliament’s failed attempt to introduce September sittings many years ago is going to be reattempted this year.

There are many arguments for and against September sittings. The most obvious one against it is that there seems little point coming together for two weeks, only to then bugger off again for the party conference season, before returning once more in October. In normal years, MPs would be returning for the fag-end of a session before the Queen’s Speech. This year, because it’s a long-session, there won’t be.

All a bit silly, but so much of politics is in this country, because we’ve never designed our system from the ground up. Everything is tacked on, modified, adapted, and scrapped in a piecemeal fashion.

In principle I’m not all that in favour of our parliament sitting more, not if it’s merely to pass more legislation. Our parliaments have done quite enough of that in the past 13 years. But if the extra sitting time is used for some more debates, some more private member’s business, genuinely topical stuff, and perhaps a debate initiated by a public petition, it might actually be worth it.


Unfortunately, the last time September sittings were tried most MPs just didn’t bother. Most resented losing their usual constituency time, and the whips only half-heartedly scheduled business. There was nothing interesting going on, and so no one bothered. The idea was quickly scrapped.

I have a feeling we’ll be going this way again. It looks like a new government trying to show how much they want change, and going out of their way to make a token gesture that will affect no one, and might even be made up for by adding bonus recesses elsewhere.

My only hope is this: Leader of the House Sir George Young and his deputy David Heath are both strong parliamentarians. They both want to strengthen scrutiny, both want to make the House more relevant, and make the government more accountable.

It remains to be seen whether they can convince their colleagues that it’s going to need more than just a tinkering with September sittings…

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Probably The Most Important Political News In A While

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 24, 2009 @ 09:16

A remarkable photo of our new Hero of Parliamentary Reform. When he had more hair.

Forget the Iraq War inquiry today. It begins taking evidence. So what? The damn thing is going to take years, and will probably still not tell us what most of us already know: it was criminally negligent, illegal and strategically the dumbest thing we could have ever done. Oh, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Nice one, George.

The problem though is that this little event is going to outdo the most important bit of political news there has been for some time.

Today, a parliamentary committee, chaired by one of the Commons’ most ardent reformists, Tony Wright, will deliver its damning verdict on what’s wrong with the Commons and what can be done about it.

Those of us who’ve been following politics since we were in short trousers, and even younger, know most of these arguments inside out. Debates are poorly attended. MPs parliamentary duties could be fit neatly into two days at most. Whips have too much control. The government shouldn’t have complete control of the Commons’ agenda. Backbenchers need more powers of scrutiny and alternative career paths. And so on, and on and on…

And so the Wright committee have come up with a range of solutions, all of which sound pretty good to me. Stronger, more independent select committees. More time for petitions. A business committee with no government control. More topical relevance.

We’ve heard them all before, and most of them were even in new Speaker John Bercow’s manifesto. So we know he’ll be fighting for them. That’s a good start, but there is one critical part of this equation…

“Never allow a crisis to go to waste”
Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff

The big question is time.

The response from the government has hardly been very welcoming. Harriet Harman has said they will “consider” it, before going on to praise the wonderful reforms they’ve already done, in typical Labour-drone fashion.

Unsurprisingly, the response from the Tories has been to say, “it’s marvellous and must be done immediately”. Paraphrased, of course. And no doubt the Lib Dems will love it, but say it should go much further.

But so what, you might say. The Tories are going to win, and they will implement reforms even if Labour don’t.

Not so fast. The list of governments being elected with huge promises of parliamentary reform is long and boring. The list of governments that have actually carried out these plans can be scribbled on the back of a postage stamp.

Yes. Power corrupts. New governments soon realise that it really would be rather inconvenient for them to be subject to the kind of scrutiny powers they once desired in opposition.

And so they get kicked into the long grass.

We can but hope that this time is different. That enough MPs realise that these long overdue reforms must be implemented quickly before the appetite for reform from the public drops off the agenda.

This time, I would like to be pleasantly surprised by our politicians.

But I suspect most of them will be more concerned about preparing for a nice, long, happy retirement.

God bless Labour MPs!

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The Price of Democracy

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 19, 2009 @ 06:27

The "Mother of All Parliaments" Also Comes With The Mother of All Price Tags

The "Mother of All Parliaments" Also Comes With The Mother of All Price Tags

There’s a piece of news this morning that will no doubt have my former politics tutor purring with contentment.

It is the discovery that the House of Lords costs £100m a year to run – in itself a lot of money – but this is down from £150m last year.

Meanwhile, those cads in the House of Commons have been draining the public purse to the tune of nearly £400m, which is up £12m from the previous financial year.

Taken together that’s nearly half a billion pounds.

I’ve said it before (at least I think I have) and I’ll say it again: democracy isn’t cheap.

As yet there are very few comments on this story in the media. Perhaps it ought to stay that way. Big figures like that are bound to generate headlines in the short term, but let’s just consider for a moment that this figure no doubt includes the salaries of tens of thousands of staff, not just the MPs. It includes all the maintenance and other new building costs that are constantly taking place in the Houses of Parliament and further afield in the numerous outbuildings of the Parliamentary estate.

Yes, maybe there could be fewer MPs. But they’d still work in the same building. It might shave £10m from the budget, but we’d probably still hear some moaning.

And MPs need their resources. There are one or two noted exceptions like Philip Hollobone who employ no staff. But for most sane people, it is simply a good division of labour to have your staff open the mail and send out the usual template replies. That should, in theory, allow the MP to do the things only an MP can do: like attend the Commons or its committees. Or use their position to advance the causes they’re interested in.

Once you have staff, they need somewhere to work. And exist. Then they need to be able to do their job effectively. Computers, phones, research libraries (and more researchers to staff them), places to hold meetings with constituents… it goes on and on.

That’s how democracy is meant to work in the modern era. We expect a professional level of service from politicians these days. That’s why we get so upset about them moonlighting in second jobs. That era has gone. Our politicians have the honour and privilege to be serving us and being part of running the country, if only a small part. That job alone should create a 70 to 80 hour week for the conscientious MP.

Of course, it doesn’t mean it does work like that. There are MPs who are lazy and potentially corrupt. We might even have a good idea who they are. But there are bad apples in every occupation. We can’t all be saints. In fact, very few of us are. So why should we have expected our politicians to all be saints despite the fact that we’ve never really known what they get up to until the Freedom of Information Act came on the scene?

That just means we need to work harder to kick the liars, cheats and outright fraudsters away from our democracy.

But we shouldn’t shirk from paying for it if it means we get what we need out of politics.

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Buggins’ Turn

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 20, 2009 @ 16:14

Isn’t it remarkable how so many people come out with a level of prejudiced, ignorant rubbish regarding the Speakership? How many times have you heard this:

“Labour have had the last two Speakers. There’s a convention that suggests the Speaker should alternate between parties. This time, it’s our turn!”

It’s repeated so often that even Labour politicians think it’s true. Margaret Beckett, at the Hansard Society Speakership hustings said:

“there is a tradition that the Speakership alternates between the main parties… and should therefore go to a Conservative. That is a view that I have both held and advocated in the past”

For a person who has been around Parliament for such a long time that is a daft thing to say.

There is no such tradition. There is no such convention. Just because it appeared to alternate between 1965 and 1992, it doesn’t make it true. A cursory glance at the list of Speakers shows that there were also long periods in which the Speaker consistently came from the same party.

Do you think during the time four Tories were elected Speaker on the bounce from 1928 to 1965 the Tory party was saying, “The convention is that the Speaker always comes from the Conservative Party”? Cos, by Ms Beckett’s standards, that one could indeed be called a tradition!

No. Just as my sciencey-type friends say, “correlation does not imply causation”.

What if there was a third variable underneath it all?

Ladies and gentlemen, the answer is obvious. There is much more evidence to suggest that the convention actually is:

“The Speaker comes from the governing party”

From Until Speaker Party Party in Power
1921 1928 John Henry Whitley Coalition Liberal Coalition Liberal
1928 1943 Edward Algernon FitzRoy Conservative Conservative
1943 1951 Douglas Clifton Brown Conservative Coalition (Conservative PM)
1951 1959 William Shepherd Morrison Conservative Conservative
1959 1965 Sir Harry Braustyn Hylton-Foster Conservative Conservative
1965 1971 Dr Horace Maybray King Labour Labour
1971 1976 John Selwyn Brooke Lloyd Conservative Conservative
1976 1983 Thomas George Thomas Labour Labour
1983 1992 Bruce Bernard Weatherill Conservative Conservative
1992 2000 Betty Boothroyd Labour Conservative
2000 2009 Michael John Martin Labour Labour

In fact, with our shiny new variable, there is just one deviation since 1921 in 11 Speakership elections, when Betty Boothroyd was elected Speaker in 1992. It might have gone further back, but things start getting a little messy in terms of who belonged to which party. But even if it doesn’t, I think it would be much more fair to say that my convention is almost 90 years old.

No. The reason why the Conservatives suddenly want to convince everyone that there is a convention is that they’re desperate for the Speaker to be one of their own this time. And that is demonstrated by fact: there are seven Conservatives and just two Labour MPs gunning for the job.

Tory MPs are relying on the good faith of the Labour majority to show them some mercy this time.

Do you think Labour MPs will be feeling charitable after what happened to “their” Speaker?

Do bears shit in the woods?

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Might As Well Go To Richer Sounds

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 20, 2009 @ 10:58

There is much wailing and lamenting in the British blogosphere about how the current Speaker has presided over a terrible system which has left MPs forced to claim hundreds of thousands of pounds against their will because the rules required them to.

Seems like we need a new one of these

Seems like we need a new one of these

So much weeping. So much newsprint.

So little point.

The consequence: on Monday, the House of Commons will choose its new Speaker. Michael Martin, the incumbent for one more day, will jet off into the sunset and land somewhere in the House of Lords shortly after to claim his per diem attendance allowance. Don’t you worry – that trougher ain’t going nowhere.

Because, yes – Michael Martin does have to carry the can to a limited extent, and certainly his own expenses claims are rather dubious. But really, what could he have done about it? “Convention” didn’t allow him to speak out publicly. The hands of the Speaker are tied by centuries of traditions and dusty references to Erskine May and Standing Orders.

But Mr Speaker did not write any of those.

And the new Mr/Madam Speaker is going to be bound by all the same rubbish.

Changing the Speaker is not going to reform Parliament. Reform of Parliament can only come about if enough MPs vote to change the procedures.

In other words, it will take a concerted effort to bring about the necessary reforms that all the candidates are arguing for.

Is that likely to happen? To a limited extent, I expect we will be thrown some token gestures by our political class. Maybe they’ll allow petitions to be debated by a petition committee, instead of now when an MP can present them on the floor of the House for a few seconds, and then they disappear into the ether, until the government responds in writing that actually all is fine and dandy, thank you very much.

In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Because the fundamental principle is that in the UK, the role of Parliament is to deliver the government’s majority to get its business through. Everything else is just window-dressing. As we saw, when MPs discovered they don’t even have the right to put a motion for debate to the House. Why would the government want to do anything to jeopardise it? And more to the point, why would the Opposition want to make their job after the next election more difficult?

Basically – will there be enough independent-minded backbenchers, who aren’t interested in satisfying their party leadership, to do anything about it?

No. Instead, they seem to think that electing a new Speaker will do the job for them. Hey, look we might put Anne Widdecombe in the Chair! Ain’t that a pretty sight! Talk about change for the better! That oughta keep you suckers placated for a while, eh.

They’re in for a shock. Cos we expect more from them than a gesture of a new Speaker. Because it really doesn’t matter who wins on Monday. They are just a small cog in the huge machinery of government.

Enough MPs have to have the bottle to completely rebuild the way Parliament works from the ground up.

Can’t see it myself.

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