What Sir George Young will not say to the Constitution Unit on Wednesday

“This talk is entitled ‘Parliamentary Reform: Year One Report.’  I hope you will find what I have to say a little less dry than that may imply.

I am pleased to announce that the Government has been persuaded by those within and beyond Parliament that there is an urgent need for a fundamental reshaping of the relationship between Parliament and the Executive.  There can be no more appropriate proponent of this than my own Deputy, David Heath, who, until the last election led him into Government, consistently argued for such reform.

Just last year, in evidence to, and debates on, the Wright Committee, David described how ‘Executive control over the procedure of the House holds up the proper scrutiny and proper initiation of business’; that ‘Reform ought to be a tide coming in. …Reform of the House is necessary and urgent’ and ‘An Everest of reform is necessary if we are to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose.’

More particularly, he argued that ‘It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business’, and ’Standing Order 14 is the obstacle to this House behaving like a responsible, sensible, modern House of Commons… It has got to go. Until it goes, we will not be able to make the progress that I think the House wants.’

I, and the Government, now agree with this analysis, and we will do all we properly can to remedy this situation. Those steps which are in the Government’s own hands will be taken promptly, and for those which are properly matters for the House itself to decide, we will do all necessary to facilitate them (as where legislation or motions are required), and pledge not to use our inbuilt numerical or procedural control to impede or frustrate such discussion and decisions the House as a whole wishes to make.  My focus is the House of Commons, but I assume that change will impact directly or otherwise on the Upper House, and our new approach will apply to its different internal circumstances, and to relations between the two Houses.

1.         The House’s agenda and sittings will no longer be determined almost exclusively by the Government.  As the Wright Committee rightly said, the current system ‘infantilises Members and demonises Government.’  S.O. No. 14, and all other procedural rules and practices which entrench Executive control of the Commons calendar and agenda, need to be replaced at once. Some form of comprehensive Business Committee is required, and we now accept that there is no reason for this change not to be implemented, albeit on an interim basis, for the return of the House in January 2012 after the Christmas recess.

2.         The archaic and presumptuous title of ‘Leader of the House’ will be replaced by the more appropriate ‘Minister for Parliamentary Business’, where I and my Deputy will focus on the job of supporting the Government’s proper role within the House.

3.         The House of Commons Commission, which runs the institutional side of the House, should be reformed (a) to remove the front benches from membership, to ensure that it properly and effectively represents the whole House collectively, and not particular political parties or Governments or Oppositions, and (b) to enable it to manage the House, supported by a ‘fit-for-purpose’ staff organisation.  In a modern accountable democracy, we believe that that the public should have a direct role in the running of its own representative assembly, whether by direct membership or otherwise.

4.         We will support reforms to particular structures and procedures of the House that the House collectively wishes, including the extension of those which has evolved in specific areas over recent years, such as parity of membership between Government and Opposition in all committees; extension of the power beyond Ministers to initiate and pilot legislation; development of more effective methods of scrutiny of government and its policies, activities and conduct; inclusion of lay membership on appropriate internal House management and oversight bodies, and much wider public engagement in Parliament generally.

We are not laying down any details of particular reforms to structures, organisation, procedures or practice.  That is for the House to decide, and we hope that the Speaker, the Commission and relevant committees and staff will urgently discuss how to establish promptly that process.  We hope that this will be a fully open, transparent and evidence-based public process, with appropriate direct public engagement.  Its activities should not preclude immediate changes, such as those I have announced here, even those of an interim nature.  The Government, as a major participant in the operation and business of the House, will present its own proposals as appropriate, to be considered alongside those that emanate from all other sources within and beyond the House.

Parliament is the ultimate constitutional watchdog, because it scrutinises the Government of the country on behalf of the people.  It is wholly illogical, inefficient and constitutionally improper for the very body being scrutinised to have the dominant say in how its watchdog is structured and operates.  A more appropriate relationship between Parliament and Government – which also recognises the appropriate roles of Members individually and collectively, within political parties, House committees and otherwise – and, just as important, a more dynamic and meaningful relationship between these two institutions and the public they represent and serve, will be to the benefit of all.  Not least, it will provide the environment for a more mature, accountable and responsible Parliament, which can earn the trust and confidence of the public.

I commend this approach to Parliament and the public, and hope the Constitution Unit will play its full part in the process.  Thank you.”

More information:

Judges and the Media

The Judicial Independence Project recently held its second seminar for professionals (judges, politicians, civil servants and journalists, amongst others) on the topic of ‘Judicial Independence, Judicial Accountability and the Media’.

Perhaps the most noteworthy part of the discussion was a general acceptance by seminar participants that judges are influenced by the media in their judicial behaviour. The effect is particularly evident in sentencing: sentences have increased significantly in the last 20 years. Opinions differed as to whether this influence is a good thing. Some pointed to the success of media campaigns in overturning injustice, for example in challenging flawed expert evidence in the case of Angela Cannings and Sally Clarke. For others, the media was described as ’emotional, irrational and obsessed with the short term’ and their influence was – or could be – damaging. One example cited was of the change in the law of damages to reflect a ‘compensation culture’ that Government research has shown does not exist.

Participants also expressed concern about the recent use of parliamentary privilege to break court orders and about a more general trend of ambivalence about judicial independence in Parliament. The continuing importance of the sub judice rule was emphasised.

The seminar was run under Chatham House Rule, but we have prepared a short anonymised note of the discussion.

FOI LIVE 2011

FOI Live 2011 had a great set of contributors and prompted some very interesting discussion about FOI, Open Data and transparency. A big thank you to everyone who came along and took part. We will upload the two keynote presentations as soon as possible.

It began with a keynote from Tim Kelsey, founder of Dr Foster and now advisor on transparency to the Cabinet Office. He outlined some of the aims and objectives of the new transparency reforms and highlighted some of the innovations elsewhere, such as the Miami 311 site or online banking. What initially seems new and unfamiliar very quickly becomes logical and second nature. He also recommended the blogger David Eaves to keep track of developments.

In the second keynote Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith outlined some of the important developments in FOI, pointing in particular to developments over personal information. He highlighted shifts in public attitudes, as well as technological change, and felt that FOI was bedding in. He agreed that FOI was becoming second nature, within a wider network of transparency changes.

The panel of requesters highlighted some of the difficulties of using FOI. This included inconsistency of response, denial that information is correct and delay. They also felt that better communication (specifically that FOI officers speak with them to help clarify what they want) may ease some of the problems on both sides.  What would they change if they could change one part of the law? The wish list included making authorities consider pro-active release on a subject after each request, ensuring the increasing number of (often arms length) bodies are covered, compulsory disclosure logs or making changes to the cultures in which some organisations worked.

The final discussion centred on the future of Open Data and FOI. The issues ranged from who was using the site data.gov.uk to the more personal use of data such as the public toilet locater. The main point that emerged was how data can and is used in a whole variety of ways. It is very early days, for government and the public, and issues remain over who uses it and the influence of the ‘digital divide’. It may be in the area of third party developments, such as openly local or timetric, where we will see the most interesting and useful, developments. There are a few Unit posts relating to Open Data with some interesting links here and here.

Videos

 

What Does the Future Hold for FOI and Open Data?

FOI Live 2011: Thursday 23rd June

University College London

www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/events/foilive-2011

There has been lots of discussion in the past few days about transparency and Open Data as government publishes full lists of who does what. This comes on top of debate and discussion about FOI and Open Data as local authorities and central government release all sorts of information from spending data to Zombie attacks. But what will it all mean? This year FOI Live 2011 at University College London will try and find out.

The speakers are now

  • Tim Kelsey, the UK government’s adviser on Transparency and Open Data, who will be speaking about the new transparency agenda.
  • Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith

The programme also includes

  • Chris Taggart of Open Data site Openly Local, Oliver Lendrum from the Ministry of Justice and Nicola Westmore from the Cabinet Office answering your questions on Open Data and the future of FOI
  • An interactive question and answer session with journalists and campaigners who use FOI including Paul Francis from the Kent Messenger, Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC, Matthew Sinclair from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information

Judicial Diversity and the Irony of Appointments Reform

The Constitution Unit Project on The Politics of Judicial Independence recently held a closed seminar for senior professionals in this area (judges, politicians and civil servants, amongst others) on the topic of ‘Judicial Independence, Judicial Accountability and the Separation of Powers’.

One of the most interesting points that arose in the discussion was that there was a general feeling amongst most attendees that the system for appointing judges required reform. In particular, it was felt that the new system for judicial appointments brought in under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 had had the ironic and unwelcome side-effect of reducing the diversity of appointments to the senior judiciary. Participants attributed this to the fact that the new appointment panels cannot encourage able candidates to apply for fear of being accused of bias. The pre-2005 system, by contrast, permitted good candidates to be sounded out about their interest informally prior to a formal decision being made. As one participant put it, the old system permitted ‘leftfield’ unexpected appointments that often turned out to be very successful. The new system does not allow enough room for manoeuvre in this regard. Some participants also expressed enthusiasm for parliamentary involvement in senior judicial appointments, although others expressed doubt that such a process could be meaningful.

The event was run according to the Chatham House Rule, but we have prepared a short anonymised note on the discussion that took place and this note is available here: