Reflections on the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission report

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Cristina Leston-Bandeira looks back at a year spent considering the options for the use of digital in UK government. She highlights key lessons that emerged from the process and introduces the report published on 26 January 2015.

Last month’s launch of the report of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission (DDC) marks the end of an extraordinarily interesting year for us Commissioners. The DDC was established by the Speaker of the House of Commons to explore the potential of digital technology to support a modern and inclusive parliamentary democracy. Throughout the year we have collated evidence, listened to people and organised workshops across the whole of the country from all walks of life, as well as internationally. The report reflects this. It shows the diversity of views we have received on many issues from the making of legislation to the language of parliament.

As an academic used to interacting mainly with students, other academics and parliaments (I know, a very secluded world…), it has been a truly fascinating year. To hear what people think (or more likely do not think) of parliament in so many contexts has been a true privilege. From this the main thing I retain is that for most of us parliament is indistinguishable from government; most people assume parliament is government. Although theoretically I already knew this, this past year has made this all the more patent and visible to me.

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Enough is enough: Time to regulate prime ministerial appointments to the Lords

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This week the Constitution Unit publishes a new report arguing that the time has come to regulate prime ministerial appointments to the House of Lords – to prevent the chamber’s size escalating further, and prevent government manipulating its membership. The report argues that, despite large-scale Lords reform being awaited, this step is urgent ahead of the general election in May 2015. Here Meg Russell, the report’s lead author, sets out the key points.

Click here to access a printer-friendly PDF of this post.

Recent years have seen endless stories about the growing size of the House of Lords (e.g. here and here). Since 1999, when the Lords was reformed to remove most hereditary peers, its membership has grown by one third – from 666 members to nearly 850 (see graph). This has caused not only media embarrassment, but concerns among the chamber’s members about its ability to function effectively. In 2013 the Lord Speaker suggested that ‘if we don’t reform and shrink our numbers, the Lords will collapse under its own weight'; last year she pointed out that debates are ‘coming under increasing time pressure as more members wish to speak, all to the detriment of our ability to hold the government to account’ (pay wall). In a full day debate on the size of the chamber last month, a former Conservative Chief Whip noted that ‘we all agree that the House cannot go on growing as it has been doing’. Yet just last weekend the Sunday Times (pay wall) claimed that a new list of up to 60 peers was likely to be announced following the general election in May 2015.

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What would a minority government be like?

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As the election approaches, Peter Riddell explores the very real prospect of a minority government and considers the challenges which would be likely to arise from such a scenario.

Paul Goodman was right to argue on Conservative Home in November that a minority government may be more likely than a full-blown coalition if there is a hung parliament next May. The bruises from the current coalition and changes in party strengths since 2010 have shifted expectations against a further coalition. And a lot of thought is now under way as to how a minority government would function, and how long it might last.

First, if you thought the ‘five days in May’ of 2010 tested the political and media worlds’ patience, we could be in for an even longer wait in five months’ time. At least in 2010, the first and third parties in terms of numbers of MPs added up to a clear Commons majority.  But some recent polls suggest that the first and third parties may not pass the winning post for an overall majority, even discounting the handful of Sinn Fein MPs who will not take their seats.

That calculation makes much harder not only the formation of a coalition, but also reaching an informal arrangement. A multi-party deal is possible, but in theory only since the fourth, fifth and sixth parties, whether the SNP, DUP or UKIP have nothing to gain by allying with the larger parties.  Of course, the SNP could be ahead of the Lib Dems on some projections, which makes a deal even less likely. And that could takes us back a century to when the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power.

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Understanding the resurgence of English national identity

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On 14 December Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, spoke at a Unit seminar on English nationhood and the current debate around the English Question in British politics. Sally Symington reports on the event.

Michael Kenny’s talk ‘Understanding the Resurgence of English National Identity’ placed the current policy debate about the English Question in a wider context and brought to bear some of the values associated with English national sentiment upon some of the proposed solutions. Kenny drew on the results of his research project (sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust) which are detailed in his recent book ‘The Politics of English Nationhood’. The analysis triangulated quantitative polling data and qualitative research regarding the kinds of meaning people attach to their English identity in order to give a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issues. Kenny also discussed the territorial political dynamics which have contributed to the situation whereby the Conservative party makes the idea of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) a salient part of its political and electoral appeal.

Kenny argued that it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, a politicised English nationalism (apparent in attitudes of about 25% of the population) and a much broader and more significant pattern involving shifting forms of national self-awareness. In his opinion, the rise in English national consciousness pre-dates devolution; indeed it can be traced back to the early-mid 1990s and arguably even to the 1930s. The European issue, the bumpy shift to post-industrial economy and debates about the viability of the UK all contributed to growing English consciousness and since 2006-07 have been supplemented by a populist, grievance fuelled notion of a ‘golden-age’ for England. However, Kenny saw the broad consensus of ‘English’ identity break down in London where the prevalence of ethnic minorities results in a much higher rate of self-identification as ‘British’; this is one of the antinomies of England to which Kenny referred in respect of English nationalism.

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“A good place to work?” What Commons staff think of House governance

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Barry K Winetrobe examines one aspect of the current committee inquiry into House of Commons governance following the Clerk appointment fiasco. Evidence submitted by House staff reveals much which may be unsettling for House managers and MPs, but is ultimately good for the House itself.

‘We seek to ensure that the House of Commons is a good place to work’ (House of Commons Staff Handbook, para 3.2, Core Values of the House of Commons Service)

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for this Blog on the botched efforts of the House of Commons in appointing a new Clerk/Chief Executive, and the harmful impact this would have on the House and its public reputation. On 1 September the Speaker announced ‘a modest pause in the recruitment process’, and, following a Backbench debate on 10 September, a Select Committee on House Governance chaired by Jack Straw was appointed. Its terms of reference are ‘to consider the governance of the House of Commons, including the future allocation of the responsibilities for House services currently exercised by the Clerk of the House and Chief Executive.’

The Committee is due to report to the House by 12 January. Given this tight deadline, it has been active since its full membership was agreed on 16 October. It has received and published on its website a large amount written and oral evidence, and on 20 November it helpfully produced an update on its work to date.

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“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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Lords appointments urgently need reforming: but how?

Meg-Russell 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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