My Lords, that the House was able to continue doing its work almost from the start of the pandemic is nothing short of miraculous and is a real tribute to the commitment of a lot of people, including Members, who found themselves having to get comfortable — or at least able — to operate in a way that they would never have dreamt.As a member of the sponsor body for restoration and renewal, I am well aware of the parlous state of the building and the possibility of some sort of catastrophic failure. If there is a silver lining from the last year, it is that at least we can feel that the Houses could keep going should the worst happen. As the Constitution Committee reported, there is potentially a link between restoration and renewal and new ways of working. The sponsor body is well aware of that, but I assure noble Lords that it believes that these are matters for both Houses, and it is certainly not for the sponsor body to tell the Houses how they should carry out their business.But we have been genuinely innovative, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, set that out very well. We need to think carefully before we go straight back to the old ways of working because, first, the pandemic is not over, as the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, set out. The Indian variant shows that we are not out of the woods, so we need to take the time to make sure that we and our staff are kept safe.It strikes me that many of the downsides which noble Lords have reported today and previously are down to the pandemic and not hybrid working per se. It is about the distancing and all the paraphernalia that comes with that. We need mentally to try to sort some of that out, because it is very difficult from this perspective to judge what hybrid working might look like if we were in a House that was operating more normally.I hope that, for both those reasons, the House will decide soon to remain hybrid until well into the autumn. That would give time for the whole population to be vaccinated and for us to be assured that there was not to be a further wave. Crucially, it could offer a period where Members could make a genuine choice about whether to come in or to work from home. I think many people will come in; a lot of us miss the place. It would give us a chance to feel what hybrid working would look like in a more normal environment, so we could use it as a transitional period. We could choose certain functions, such as legislation, which would be done in the Chamber only, while others, such as committees, could be done virtually or hybrid.For people like me, who have always believed in an elected House, the argument for the Lords as it is currently configured is that it is a House of experts: people are drawn from all walks of life and bring their expertise and professional backgrounds. Yet, once Members are appointed, everything about the way we do our business draws us into becoming full-time parliamentarians. For people outside London and the Home Counties, this is a particular issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, set out. Someone coming from Cornwall or Cumbria for a vote on a Monday and who perhaps has a Question or a committee on a Wednesday will end up spending the whole week in London for a relatively short period of active contribution.In a system that awards peerages for life, we do need to think very hard about how the expertise that brings the Members to the House can be kept up to date, because it is difficult, if you are in Westminster all the time. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made that point really well, that like many noble Lords, he is assiduous in building up these relationships outside. That is what keeps him current, but it is very difficult to do if you are tied up in the Lords. This is not just a matter of hybrid or virtual working; it is about a whole raft of procedures and practices we have established for ourselves that somehow mean you can only be a proper parliamentarian if you are based in Westminster.The last year has given us a chance to think afresh about that — to have a look at whether or not this is the right way to do things. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was entirely right: every large organisation is now looking at what it does and how it does it to see whether things should be changed. We will get much more respect for taking a step back and looking at that than we will for going straight back to the old ways we have always done things.
Friday, May 21, 2021
Thursday, May 20, 2021
Friday, May 14, 2021
The Bills contained in this programme will no doubt receive the thorough and robust scrutiny of this House, but as we pass them we will no doubt be delegating dozens of new powers to government and government Ministers, because the volume of secondary legislation has grown enormously in recent decades. The process of EU exit and Covid-related emergency law has added to that.Many reports and debates in recent times have drawn attention to the shortcomings of both Houses when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation, and that includes the excellent report published today by our Constitution Committee. Too often, the very good work carried out by the staff and the members of the Secondary Legislation Committee and the Joint Committee for Statutory Instruments passes by the House because of procedures that we have ourselves established and agreed. This House has a duty to carry out effective scrutiny, as well a responsibility to ensure that the legitimate business of government can be carried out.But I am not alone in feeling that, increasingly, the Government are not carrying out their side of the bargain. We have to give this some thought. The Government are increasingly using secondary legislation for significant policy changes that ought to be in primary legislation, and would have been in past years. In its 52nd report, the Secondary Legislation Committee cited changes to the Town and Country Planning Act that were fundamental to our planning system and ought to have been brought forward in a Bill.In recent years, we have also seen a growth in statutory guidance, which receives virtually no parliamentary scrutiny at all. Again, the SLSC cited the recent grass and heather burning regulations, which were noted because the instrument was passed even though all the detail was in statutory guidance which had not even been published at that point. So the Government are getting three bites of the cherry: the Act itself, the secondary legislation and then the statutory guidance. In effect, this allows for constant post hoc changes to the law, with no parliamentary scrutiny.These trends have accelerated rapidly during the pandemic. We have taken a pragmatic view that the public health emergency justifies some sacrifice of parliamentary scrutiny, but I think the Government have now taken this too far. The Constitution Committee report highlights that 424 Covid-related SIs have been laid. These include fines of up to £10,000, lockdowns, business closures and quarantines. Whatever position you take on those issues, surely they deserve timely and effective scrutiny — yet 397 of those SIs were either made affirmative or made negative. In other words, they take effect before any scrutiny has taken place, and Parliament can only act retrospectively. The SLSC reported that two came into force before they had even been laid. The Government argue that time pressures in the pandemic make this necessary but, in the case of face coverings, the policy had been trailed for weeks, so it is very hard to see why the regulations in draft could not have been published.The scheduling of SI debates in both Houses means that they are quite often completely superseded by the time we ever get to debate them. The pressure of work in departments is leading to errors and non-compliance with agreed processes. Preliminary figures from the JCSI show that it reported 194 instruments on 248 separate grounds, including defective drafting and doubtful vires.We see increasingly important policy announcements being made at press conferences; they get reported in the media and become firmly planted in the public consciousness. When the regulations appear, they are often far less draconian than the announcement but, as a result, there is widespread confusion about what the Government see as desirable and what they see as mandatory. It is not just the public but public authorities themselves - the enforcement authorities - that are struggling with this, as reported by the Human Rights Committee. The Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services said that the difficulty for police officers was made much worse by widespread confusion about the status of government announcements and the law. A Crown Prosecution Service review found that 27% of cases had been incorrectly charged, and no doubt many people have paid penalties rather than go to court. This is grossly unjust. It is a drain on our criminal justice system and very unhelpful to maintaining trust in the police force.There are times when the state has to control what individuals do, but surely it must be through properly enacted legislation that is thoroughly scrutinised and fairly enforced.
Thursday, May 13, 2021
And so, this evening saw my first FIRC meeting since my restoration, and interesting it was too. So, what happened, and what did I do?
Joining a committee part way through its term can often be challenging - every committee has a dynamic all its own, and if you’ve been involved in a previous iteration, there is a danger that you respond as though nothing has changed and create something of a culture clash. Frustrating for you, and for the committee you must hope to influence. So, in truth, I tended to stay out of things whilst I get a sense of how I might fit in and what I might contribute.
There have been some changes whilst I’ve been away, with sub-committees set up to look at the European Union and Brexit, as well as China, which seem to be a positive step, and a fundraising group, which I’m going to avoid, given my professional role.
The Committee is pretty high-powered too, with a clutch of Peers (of which I approve) and former MEPs amongst its number. I may be slightly out of my league here, but we’ll see how that goes.
It was a rather longer meeting than I am used to, and quite tiring as a result, but with a new Chair, Phil Bennion, and two significant deaths (Jonathan Fryer, the Chair of the Committee until last month, and Hans van Baalen, the President of the ALDE Party) to dwell upon, it should have been predicted. I must note at this point that Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett said some very thoughtful things about Jonathan in his tribute, and I was touched by his warmth and emotion.
In response to the discussion on China, there was some thought given to whether what is being done to the Uyghurs. There is a degree of unease about describing it as genocide, but I noted that the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention pointed to Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs meeting the definition. It may be naïve to suggest that it would be easy to use this as a stick to “beat” the Chinese with, and one must be aware of the “realpolitik” of the situation, but I do think that if you give anyone a free pass on such behaviour, you shouldn’t be surprised if others see it as a green light to treat their minorities in a similar fashion. It will be interesting to see what policy stances emerge from the sub-committee though.
I’m pleased to see that Isabelle, the Party’s International Officer, has survived in post, given HQ’s low prioritisation of the post in the past. She’s not been in the office for a while, but she brings a sense of Nordic calm to her work, and it’s nice to be able to work with her again.
My successor but one as the Committee’s Secretariat (the role isn’t necessarily that of just a Secretary) announced her resignation in advance of our meeting, and a replacement was sought. No, it won’t be me, although I did think about it. I’ve done the job once, and whilst I could probably do it again, I don’t want to. The danger in doing the job is twofold - that you don’t really get to contribute to the international work of the Party except by freeing up others to do it, and that, if you do it the way I think it should be done, you end up frustrated and irritable - there is very little interest in process, rules or constitutions, regardless of their importance. Life is too short for that. That said, the Committee really needs someone, and if you think that you might be that someone, do get in touch.
I will say this though, I thought that Denali Ranasinghe did an excellent job in the role, and she will be missed. She is polite, helpful and committed, and other organisations will benefit from her evident skills over many years to come.
There followed a series of reports from various groups, all of which were quite promising in terms of things that are being done to improve Party knowledge on international affairs, and indicate that the internationalist wing of the Party is a vibrant place.
The meeting concluded with discussions on the crisis in Israel and Palestine, and on India. I warned the Committee that the BJP are intent on establishing control over things such as aid from overseas for political advantage. We do need to be careful about how we relate to the current Indian Government - India would make a valuable partner in our relations with China and, as a democracy, it offers potential leadership across South Asia and beyond.
So, all in all, an interesting and stimulating meeting. I’ll try to contribute where I can going forward, although I’m not planning to join any of the sub-committees yet - I’d rather analyse their work from the outside for the time being, especially as I don’t consider myself an expert in those fields.
We meet again on 19 July, although there’s an event in between...
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Seventeen months ago, in a set of internal party elections whose outcome was not entirely unexpected, I lost my place on the Federal International Relations Committee (FIRC) and failed to be elected back onto the ALDE Party Council delegation, the latter despite a second bite of the cherry granted to me by the party's (relative) success in the December 2019 General Election.
I wasn't that far from success in either contest but, if you haven't won, you've lost. And, in fairness, looking at who had won, and indeed at some of those who had lost, I couldn't in all fairness have much complaint. I don't offer the electorate promises on policy that aren't actually salient - ALDE Party Council seldom discusses policy and is more like a rather large Finance and Administration Committee - and my reputation is as a bureaucrat rather than an internationalist (that'll teach me to care about structure and process, won't it?). And, the candidates who beat me could claim experience and knowledge that, in truth, I can't match.
Accordingly, I had reconciled myself to the outcome and was hardly pining for a return - life is too short, and there's a whole world out there for someone with a sense of intellectual curiosity and a desire to understand as far as possible.
A vacancy had arisen, following the resignation of one of the directly elected FIRC members, both from the committee and the Party, but I wasn't the runner-up, and you seldom see that many resignations, even in a three-year term. And so, Jonathan Fryer's untimely, and extremely unfortunate, demise created an unexpected vacancy on both FIRC and the ALDE Party Council delegation.
Having been consulted on how the vacancies should be filled, for reasons I don't entirely comprehend, I pointed the Committee to Jack Coulson, the Party's very capable Company Secretary, who handles such things in accordance with the Party's constitution, and left matters to take their course.
Internal by-elections are often quite hard to call, especially when you're effectively eliminating someone with a considerable number of first preferences. The way they split isn't easily predictable, especially if, in the original count, their preferences weren't transferred as part of the process. Looking at the original result, there were a number of candidates potentially in the frame, so I didn't get my hopes up. And, as already noted, I wasn't desperate to return.
The result was a bit of a surprise, in that I was now successful in both elections. There was, however, something unexpected, in that the Constitution says that, in the event of a recount, no previously elected candidate should lose their place, and, in the ALDE Party Council recount, exactly that had happened. And so, I appealed, knowing that, if my appeal was successful, I would lose my newly gained place.
I should be somewhat embarrassed by the fact that my appeal was unsuccessful - * long time bureaucrat in interpretation fail * - but sometimes you don't have all of the facts and it turned out that the interpretation of the constitutional validity of the initial declaration of the result of the 2019 election had not been widely known.
And so, I am back, at least until 31 December next year. I'm not planning to get comfortable, and I don't know if I'll even run for re-election - we'll see how it goes. But you can expect some coverage here about what I'm doing on the Committee and elsewhere, for there's little point in my representing those people who kindly voted for me, and indeed, those who didn't - I didn't take it personally, I promise - otherwise.
So, bureaucrat, parish councillor and international activist. It's an eclectic collection of roles, but each offers me the opportunity to contribute to making things better, even if only slightly. And, at the end of the day, if you're making things better, you are making a contribution towards the wider community, and isn't that something we should all aspire to?...
Tuesday, May 11, 2021
So, time to take a wider view of events in Suffolk...
Beyond the boundaries of Mid Suffolk, we entered the elections holding County Divisions in Woodbridge, St Margaret's and Westgate (Ipswich) and Peninsula (think the triangle of land between the Stour and Orwell estuaries).
We'd lost Peninsula before we started, as the sitting Liberal Democrat and former Group Leader, David Wood, had retired, and the seat wasn't even defended - it went to the Greens.
Woodbridge stayed resolutely Liberal Democrat, with Caroline Page scoring 63.5% in a two-horse race against the Conservatives, leaving St Margaret's and Westgate as a potential gain - we held both seats for the first eight years of its existence (2005-2013) and Inga Lockington has managed to fend off both Labour and Conservative opposition to hold one of them ever since - the second seat went Labour in 2013 and Conservative in 2017. Sadly, whilst Inga's personal vote held up nicely, the new Conservative candidate retained her seat and Oliver Holmes came fourth, behind one of the Labour candidates.
Elsewhere, there were respectable second places in Belstead Brook, Blything, Kessingland and Southwold and Stour Valley, but otherwise there wasn't an awful lot to get excited about. The Liberal Democrats are now the fourth party of Suffolk politics at County level, with Suffolk County Council now constituted as follows;
- Conservatives - 55 seats (plus 5)
- Greens - 9 seats (plus 6)
- Labour - 5 seats (minus 6)
- Liberal Democrats - 4 seats (minus 1)
- West Suffolk Independents - 1 seat (no change)
- Independent - 1 seat (minus 4)
- Conservatives - 124,969 votes (48.0%)
- Labour - 56,223 votes (21.6%)
- Greens - 39,283 votes (15.1%)
- Liberal Democrats - 25,885 votes (9.9%)
- Independents - 11,723 votes (4.5%)
- West Suffolk Independents - 1,959 votes (0.8%)
- Communist Party of Britain - 293 votes (0.1%)
- Burning Pink Party - 168 votes (0.1%)
Monday, May 10, 2021
Yesterday, the first part of this review was a tale of Liberal Democrat disaster and Green triumph. Today, at least from a Liberal Democrat perspective, I offer you something a little more edifying...
If ever there was a message that persistence pays off, Stowmarket South provided a tale of triumph for Keith Scarff at the fifth attempt. His first attempt saw him come third in 2005, 540 votes adrift in a respectable third place. By 2009, he'd got within 73 votes in second, and got even closer in 2009, losing by 40 but coming third in a knife edge contest. 2017 saw a small step backwards, losing by 132 but, this time...
- Keith Scarff (Liberal Democrat) - 1,030 votes (40.3%)
- Nick Gowrley (Conservative) - 854 votes (33.4%)
- Emma Bonner-Morgan (Labour) - 380 votes (14.9%)
- David Card (Independent) - 292 votes (11.4%)
- Andy Mellen (Green) - 1,472 votes (40.9%)
- Harry Richardson (Conservative) - 1,226 votes (34.0%)
- Jane Storey (Independent) - 702 votes (19.6%)
- Ursula Ajimal (Labour) - 199 votes (5.5%)
- Penny Otton (Liberal Democrat) - 1,435 votes (46.0%)
- John Augustine (Conservative) - 1,321 votes (42.3%)
- Philip Cockell (Labour) - 364 votes (11.7%)
- Matthew Hicks (Conservative) - 2,084 votes (63.2%)
- Helen Bridgeman (Green) - 602 votes (18.3%)
- Kathleen Hardy (Labour) - 417 votes (12.7%)
- Mark Pearson (Liberal Democrat) - 192 votes (5.8%)
- Andrew Stringer (Green) - 2,250 votes (63.3%)
- Kieren Lathangue-Clayton (Conservative) - 1,075 votes (30.2%)
- Julie Reynolds (Labour) - 231 votes (6.5%)
- Conservatives - 5 seats (down 2)
- Greens - 3 seats (up 2)
- Liberal Democrats - 2 seats (no change)