“The precious centre of our Parliamentary democracy”: Commons governance after the Clerk appointment affair

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Barry K Winetrobe examines the current controversy over the appointment of a new Clerk of the House of Commons, and the lessons it has for the better management and governance of the House.

It is exactly a year since I posted a piece on this blog on how the Commons could use the Government defeat on the 29 August 2013 Syria vote as a catalyst for greater Commons institutional autonomy and procedural reform, driven by itself rather than by the Executive.  This was to be led by the Speaker.  Given the current controversy over the appointment of a new Clerk of the House, the Speaker may not now be seen by everyone in such a role.  However, this sorry episode does raise important questions about the governance of what the outgoing Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, rightly described in his farewell letter as the ‘central institution in our democracy’ and ‘the precious centre of our Parliamentary democracy’.

By the time this piece is posted, the immediate crisis may be in the early stages of resolution, with time-honoured Westminster ad hoc compromises, promises of root and branch governance reviews etc..  However, that the process of appointing the most senior House official has been, for whatever reasons, so controversial is seriously damaging to the House’s reputation. We know from the House Service’s own Strategy for 2013-17 that its vision is that the House be seen as ‘a model of good practice and innovation’ and that ‘the House Service will have the respect of Members of Parliament and of the public for our independence, integrity and professionalism… We will be seen as efficient, responsive, diverse and inclusive.

Of course, this affair is as much a proxy war about the performance of the present Speaker as it is about getting the best Clerk/Chief Executive or deciding what the proper role and functions of the Head of the House Service should be.  In this long recess period, where the usual dearth of official in-House response and rebuttal is even more acute, the anti-Bercow forces have been able to make the running in attacking the Speaker for his handling of the recruitment process and for his apparent favoured candidate.  Their views are set out in their memorandum, which was leaked on the Guido Fawkes blog a few days ago. This document, which is riddled with factual errors and patronising and one-sided arguments, can be basically summed up as:

the top job in the House Service of Clerk/Chief Executive can only be filled, as now, by a ‘real’ Clerk, because the proceduralist side of the role is more extensive and more important than the relatively mundane ‘chief executive’ side, which the Clerk can also do as he/she has been trained to do it on the job.

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Reinterpreting Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan

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Kensuke Ueda outlines the context for the recent reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which until now outlawed war as a means of settling disputes. He suggests the manner in which the changes were pushed through is worrying for Japanese constitutionalism.

On 1 July this year the Japanese Government passed the cabinet decision on the ‘development of seamless security legislation to ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people’. This new direction in national security legislation has attracted a great deal of attention because it contains a change in the interpretation of Article 9 of Japan’s 1946 constitution, which states that ‘the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes’.

‘Change of interpretation’

The conventional interpretation of Article 9 states that it prohibits military intervention. However in light of ‘the right to live in peace’, recognised in the preamble of the constitution, and Article 13, which guarantees the ‘rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ as worth supreme consideration in governmental affairs, Article 9 cannot be interpreted as prohibiting Japan from taking measures to maintain its peace and security and to ensure its survival. The ‘use of force’ abroad has thus been judged not permitted, but Japan has long maintained a Self Defence Force (SDF), which is not seen as unconstitutional as long as it is used purely for the purpose of self-defence.

Following this logic, the government has until now understood that the use of force is permitted only in the event of armed attack against Japan. However, the security environment surrounding Japan has been fundamentally transformed by shifts in the global power balance and the rapid progress of technological innovation since Article 9 was adopted. Many now feel that in the future even an attack occurring against a foreign country could actually threaten Japan’s survival, depending on its purpose, scale and manner.

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Scotland’s constitutional future – from both sides in the debate

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Charlie Jeffery discusses how both sides in the debate see Scotland’s constitutional future in different ways.

It is striking how insular Scotland’s constitutional debate is. Both sides in the debate see Scotland’s constitutional future in different ways as bound up firmly in relationships with the rest of the UK.

The Yes side envisages a form of independence which involves continuing partnership with the rest of the UK, sharing institutions from the Queen and the pound through to the DVLA. The No side is now developing a more or less shared vision of the division of powers between the UK and the Scottish Parliament if Scotland votes no which would give new powers to the Scottish Parliament in the fields of tax and welfare.

Neither side has given much thought as to how the rest of the UK might view its proposed recalibration of the Scottish-UK relationship. Each has pretty much assumed the rest of the UK will be happy with what they propose. We have seen the problem that might arise in such blithe assumptions in the dismissal by UK Government and Opposition of the post-Yes currency union envisaged by the Scottish Government and the question marks the UK Government has raised about other areas of proposed post-independence partnership like the BBC, energy markets or university research funding.

We have also seen it in the contortions the Labour Party went through in producing its proposals for more devolution, which had to back-track sharply from a more radical form of income tax devolution once the UK-level party (and especially the shadow Treasury team) woke up to what was being discussed in Scotland. [It may be the Conservative Party is yet to have the same controversy if and when English MPs realise how much tax devolution the Conservatives’ Strathclyde Commission has recommended and/or set in prospect]. There have been rumblings too from devolved Wales that additional privileges for Scotland will not be welcomed if Wales does not get progress on its own concerns, notably around devolution funding.

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The ‘Revolving Door’ of Special Advisers?

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A recent article in the Telegraph was critical of a ‘revolving door’ of special advisers (spads) from the last Labour government into charities or think tanks.

As outlined in the forthcoming book on spads by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, this blog post wishes to point out that the Telegraph article tells only an incomplete story;[1] first, a ‘revolving door’ implies not merely that spads go to work in a given sector after leaving office but that they also did so before. Second, the article does not examine where Conservative spads head after their time in Whitehall.

On the idea of a revolving door, our project coded the careers of special advisers before and after their time in Whitehall. The data suggest that the idea of a ‘revolving door’ with respect to the non-profit sector is overblown. Rather, of those who worked in the non-profit sector at some point in their career (32% of Labour and 15% of Conservative spads), the vast majority (74%) only joined that sector after leaving Whitehall.

When looking at think tanks, the claims in the Telegraph article are on stronger ground. Labour advisers were again more likely to work in a think tank after leaving Whitehall (15% vs 8% for the Conservatives). Moreover, of those who worked for a think tank at any point in their career, around 30% of Labour did so both before and after their time as a special adviser (the definition of a ‘revolving door’) whilst only 6% of Conservative ones did so.

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Will the Scottish referendum produce ‘a decisive and respected outcome’?

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With exactly one month to go until the referendum in Scotland, Barry K Winetrobe challenges the assumption that the outcome will resolve the independence debate. He explores scenarios where even a Yes vote might not (or perhaps even should not) produce an independent state.

As the Scottish independence referendum campaign reaches its final days, it may be worth highlighting a little-discussed aspect which may become very relevant immediately after 18 September – the assumption that the referendum will resolve the matter, either by a Yes vote inevitably leading to independence, or a No vote leading to the continuation of the present UK, probably with more devolution.

Is this assumption valid, especially if there is a Yes vote? Will any Yes outcome inevitably and irrevocably lead, in some to-be-determined process over the coming months, to the creation of an independent Scotland outside the UK?

This assumption seems to derive from the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments, certainly in the view of the Lords Constitution Committee in its recent inquiry on the constitutional implications of the referendum. Its May 2014 report stated that

the UK Government…in the ‘Edinburgh agreement’ of October 2012, agreed to accept as binding the result of a referendum held before the end of 2014 (para 3) and the Edinburgh agreement was for a ‘decisive’ referendum whose outcome will be respected on both sides (para 67).

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Lords appointments urgently need reforming: but how?

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The appointment of new peers last week has pushed the size of the Lords to its greatest since it was last reformed in 1999. Meg Russell highlights the issues behind having such a large and ‘unruly’ Upper House and argues the situation has now reached crisis point. Reform to both allow existing peers to depart and control new appointments is urgently required.

Recent weeks have seen renewed controversy about David Cameron’s appointments to the House of Lords, with announcement of 22 new peers. Various factors have contributed to frustration about these appointments, particularly among those in the Lords itself. First, they came on the back of the controversy about the Lords Leader being downgraded from Cabinet membership in the reshuffle – a matter that remains unresolved. Second, an August announcement during parliamentary recess necessarily arouses suspicion that Number 10 wanted to avoid this matter being debated (in fact 2014 is the second year in a row to follow this pattern – and while announcements in the so-called political ‘silly season’ may dodge parliamentary scrutiny, they probably exacerbate press attention). Third, the fact that several appointees have been major party donors has reignited concerns about ‘cash for peerages’. But the biggest problems are first, the effect that yet more new appointments will have on the size, and therefore the effective functioning, of the House of Lords, and second, the Prime Minister’s ability to manipulate the party balance in the chamber to favour his own side. Until the system is reformed, each new round of appointments is also destined to attract negative news stories that damage the reputation of parliament and that of the Prime Minister.

It is important to begin with some objective facts. The latest set of appointments pushes the size of the Lords to by far its greatest since it was last reformed in 1999, as shown in the graph below:

Source: Figures published by House of Lords information Office (for January each year), updated to August 2014

Source: Figures published by House of Lords information Office (for January each year), updated to August 2014

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British Values? It’s time for schools to give students a future not a catch-phrase

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Andy Thornton argues that the current emphasis ‘British Values’ can only have meaning if it is supported by better citizenship education in schools.

The term ‘British Values’ has emerged as a catch-phrase to denote Britain’s take on liberal democracy. Beyond face-value, its political appeal is clear. It reaches into the UKIP electoral battleground, hinting that today’s Conservatives remain happy to bundle our history and customs into a formula that conjures up ‘the golden age’.

But its arrival in a fracas over school management has to be something of a surprise. It wouldn’t have been too long ago that British schools and British-ness would have been synonymous. Within living memory schools have been under Local Authority control, so how could they not be exponents of British Values?

You may not know it, but a similar discussion arose in 2007 when Gordon Brown asked for a review of the content of the National Curriculum for Citizenship.

Gordon Brown’s concerns were formulated around ‘British Identity’, not values. But similarly he wanted to ensure that the understanding behind the formation of the UK’s democratic structures was being utilised to create a tolerant and inclusive democracy: enabling established residents and newcomers to work together in peaceful coexistence towards the common good. This was of sound purpose as growing diversity in many regions was provoking conflict, and he could see that state schools (93% of all schools) are a critical cauldron in which values are established and competences for democratic life are developed and tested.

The result was that the citizenship curriculum was expanded to contain a section which essentially instructed all schools to tackle issues of identity, diversity and inclusion within the curriculum.

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