Time for MPs to take back control of Parliament

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John Bercow, the Speaker Image credit: bbc

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There has been much debate about populist slogans from Brexiteers about Britain needing to take back control of the country from so called Brussels bureaucrats when we leave the European Union in 2019.

The very same MPs are remarkably silent about a decision taken seven years ago by the UK Parliament to set up an independent committee to  take  back control of how the government can present its legislation to Parliament.

Put it very simply we are supposed to live in a Parliamentary democracy but in fact MPs allow the government to monopolise and control Parliament  through the Whips system without so much as a whisper of discontent.

The fact that nothing has been done was highlighted ( though you won’t have read in mainstream media) by John Bercow, the Speaker, in an address given in Parliament to the Hansard Society this week. You can read the full speech here.

In 2010 a committee chaired by Tony Wright, a Labour Mp who did a very good job scrutinising Whitehall on the public administration committee, proposed a series of reforms to  allow MPs to take back control of the running of Parliament from the government. One reform giving backbenchers a greater role in debates got through. Another reform giving Mps much more control over government business was also approved – but guess what the government did nothing about it.

As John Bercow said in this extract from his speech:

” It is missing in action, confined to something akin to parliamentary purgatory. Nailed to its perch.”

He goes on in this longer extract:

” As a matter of basic democratic principle this will not do. The House decided to back the concept of a House Business Committee along the lines of the Wright Committee recommendations. One of three courses of action should follow. The House should have its decision implemented. Alternatively, it should be consulted on some other design for a House Business Committee. Or the House should determine in a vote that it has changed its mind on the issue. It should not be side lined in this fashion. It is quite wrong for there to be a vacuum. This is as inappropriate as, for example, legislating to hold a referendum on a major question of the day and then simply ignoring the outcome. The longer that this state of affairs persists the more profoundly unsatisfactory I believe it to be.

“The Wright formula, to remind enthusiasts in the room for such detail, was very balanced. It did not seek to defenestrate the Whips Offices. It recognised that the Government of the day had a right to have its business tabled. Elections would be rendered impotent affairs if this were not the case. Ministers are, therefore, in my view entitled to a majority but not a monopoly on a House Business Committee. The legitimate issue for the House as a whole is the balance of allocation of time across the various measures that constitute a legislative programme. The Wright Committee also underlined the importance of the Official Opposition – and other opposition parties – being given more say on scheduling their business, and envisaged, I am reliably informed, the House Business Committee as the forum for such discussions. I dare venture that some of the recent tensions over scheduling Opposition Days or more accurately not scheduling Opposition days, might have been avoided if there had been a House Business Committee to hand.

“Any such Committee should be chaired by an independent figure. Wright suggested the Senior Deputy Speaker. It should have a backbench component as well as representation from the smaller parties. It would also be desirable to link the chamber to the select committees perhaps via the presence of the Chair of the Liaison Committee. Finally, if not instantly but over time, it should include the direct election of the backbench members in the spirit of the various other reforms which Wright offered to the House more than eight years ago and which the House chose to adopt.”

Now you might say -particularly after this long extract –  why should I be bothered about this arcane Parliamentary stuff? You should for two reasons.

First though she won the most votes Theresa May did not win enough Parliamentary seats to have a majority in Parliament but is ruling – because of the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party – as though she does using every statutory wheeze to try and stay in power for five years.

This measure will put Parliament as a whole in control as it will give greater bargaining power to Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, the Scots Nats and the solitary Green MP – to influence how the government timetables its legislation and how Opposition Mps and backbenchers can get issues debated.

Second whatever your views on Brexit the government is planning to try and by-pass Parliament by using the Brexit bill to take power to change all sorts of laws and regulations by   ministerial diktat – the ” so called Henry VIII clauses ” – named  after the monarch who dissolved Britain’s monasteries – with little chance of debate.

These could be used to  change rights for the disabled, curb worker’s rights to holidays , drop environment protections , cut benefit entitlement and amend health and safety protection, – like for example reducing safeguards on working with asbestos ( this has actually been suggested by one Tory).

This will affect you in your daily life and Parliament needs to defend itself by making sure that ministers can’t  avoid being challenged by manipulating the Parliamentary timetable.

So what we need are some bolshie backbenchers of all parties to put up a motion to set up this committee. From what was said  week they would get a fair wind from the Speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

The arrogance of judge Dame Lowell Goddard

lowell goddard

Justice Lowell Goddard giving evidence to House of Commons home affairs committee a year ago. Pic credit: BBC

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Before we were flooded by news of the sensational  Presidential election victory of Donald Trump, Dame Lowell Goddard. the third chair of the troubled inquiry into child sexual abuse inquiry delivered a stunning blow to Parliament.

She refused point blank to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in Parliament and also announced that she would refuse to give any further interviews to the media on why she resigned.

It is no wonder that the new chair of the inquiry, Labour MP  Yvette Cooper issued such a strong statement objecting to her refusal.

Dame Lowell had written :

“As a High Court judge in New Zealand for many years before I resigned to take up the chair, I have a duty to maintain judicial independence,” she wrote.

“That is why I have volunteered detailed written reports (in preference to oral communication) so that no dispute on powers or damage to IICSA’s independence could arise.

“I am not aware of any matter which remains unanswered. Meanwhile I have been the subject of malicious defamatory attacks in some UK media.

“I am disappointed that there has been no government defence of me in England, despite the fact that information refuting some of the more serious allegations has been held by the Home Office and your committee since the time of my initial recruitment.”

She got a stiff reply

” Dame Lowell Goddard’s refusal to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about her resignation from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is disgraceful,” Ms Cooper said.

“Dame Goddard has been paid significant amounts of public money to do an extremely important job which she suddenly resigned from, leaving a series of questions about what has been happening over the last 18 months and why the Inquiry got into difficulties.

“This is an astonishing response from a paid public servant who should know how important transparency is in an inquiry as sensitive and crucial as this one.

“Child abuse survivors have been let down by the extremely rocky start to this inquiry and we do need answers as to why it went wrong in order to be confident it is back on track now.”

I quite agree. She was given a very generous package running into hundreds of thousands of pounds to chair this inquiry . Her annual salary was £360,000. Her accommodation costs amounted to £119,000. Relocation costs were just short of £30,000 as well  some £67,000 spent on travel, including trips for her whole family to and from New Zealand.

Yet she doesn’t have the slightest compunction to refuse to explain what went so horribly wrong. She was offered to give evidence by video link from new Zealand but declined because she said Parliamentary privilege would not cover the video link.

Frankly her refusal is an affront to the survivors, the general public, the taxpayer who met her bills and to Parliamentary sovereignty.

If she had been a British judge living in the UK she could have been ordered to attend. As it is she better not apply for a tourist visa to come here or she might find herself having to attend Parliament. I find her attitude arrogant particularly as she never properly explained her reasons for going.

 

 

The Brexit court case: Much ado about nothing

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The absurd and despicable take by the Daily Mail on the court judgement

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The reaction to the High Court decision saying that Parliament should be able to debate and trigger Britain’s application to leave the EU has been both depressing and ludicrous.

Newspapers like the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have treated the judges as ” enemies of the people ” just for having the temerity to lay down what is a perfectly valid constitutional decision.

They have NOT ruled that Britain should never leave the European Union but only that our leaving should follow proper constitutional procedures.

The papers have whipped up popularism on a totally false premise and played to the ignorance of people about what is actually happening.

The people who voted to leave the European Union should be delighted not furious about what has happened.

Their main case for leaving the EU was that they didn’t want to be ruled by Brussels and wanted to take back our sovereignty to rule ourselves.

Well what has happened. A British court composed of British judges has ruled that a British Parliament should have the last word and decide how we leave the EU. Brussels or any other foreign power has not said a word.

That seems perfectly reasonable to me. We are a Parliamentary democracy who elect MPs to pass laws and take up issues on our behalf. What we had earlier this year was a referendum not a general election in which the people decided to leave the EU. Therefore it  is Parliament not the government that should be guardian of that referendum.

The last general election was won by a party that promised a referendum on whether we should leave the EU, not on a mandate that we will leave the EU – you had to vote UKIP for that.

The other criticism of media coverage of this ruling is the  despicable attack on both the person who brought the case and on the judges themselves. Anybody has a right to bring a case and the idea they should be pilloried for doing so is anathema to democracy.

And the attack on the judges – particularly the homophobic criticism of one of them – was absolutely beyond the pale. What right has the Daily Mail to highlight that one of the judges was gay. Do we have ruling that no gay judge can pass judgement in this country? That is utterly despicable – worthy more of Donald Trump than Paul Dacre.

There is another profound reason why Parliament should make the final decision. Yes we voted to leave the EU but nobody was given a clear picture of how we were going to leave the EU during the referendum. The No camp did not have a plan.

So given there  about 57 Heinz varieties of doing so – it is right that our MPs and for that matter peers under the present system  should  debate  how we are going to do it and question the government on their plans.

The government is arguing that to do so would give away their hand. This is ridiculous and untenable. If the government think they can negotiate in secret  they misunderstand the role of the press in this country and Europe. their plans will inevitably be leaked and when it comes to the negotiations to leave in Europe- journalists will have the resources to tap officials from 28 countries to find out what is going on. Theresa May is living in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks she can keep a lid on it.

So what is all this sound and fury about this decision by the judges – in my view it is much ado about nothing. People should grow up and accept in a mature democracy the issue should be debated and decided in the best forum to safeguard our sovereignty- Parliament.

 

 

 

The Keith Vaz Westminster fan club: Why do they protect this man

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Keith Vaz MP: Now on the Justice committee

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An extraordinary event took place in Parliament last night only hours after Amber Rudd, the home secretary, made the really bad decision to turn down an inquiry or independent panel into the  ” battle of Orgreave ” in the 1984 Miners’ Strike.

Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for Leicestershire North West, moved a rare motion objecting to the appointment of :Labour MP, Keith Vaz, to the Commons Justice select committee.

Keith Vaz, the MP for Leicester, East stood down  as chair of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee after an exposure in the Sunday Mirror, that he was involved in sex with two male prostitutes while posing as a ” washing machine salesman” in a flat he owned in North London. Police are at present assessing whether Mr Vaz committed any offences as a result of the scandal.

Mr Bridgen’s main point was that he should not stand for the post – because he himself had ruled out standing a home affairs committee chairman.

During his speech, Mr Bridgen told the Speaker Mr Bercow: “You have often spoken that this place must reflect the society with which we make the laws and I agree with you.

“I respectfully point out to the House that in any other sphere of activity a candidate with so much hanging unresolved over him would be very unlikely to be considered for such an important office.

“I believe and if (Mr Vaz) was in his place today I’d ask him to stand down from his nomination, but he’s not.”So I’d ask this House to reject his appointment otherwise I think we cannot blame the Great British public for having a low opinion of its politician and its politics – we can only blame ourselves.”

Earlier he had been warned by Mr Bercow to ” desist” after he also referred -under Parliamentary privilege- to a current historical child sex investigation said to be being conducted by Leicestershire Police where four people had come forward alleging child sexual abuse crimes.

However the view of Vaz’s supportive  MPs was that it was perfectly proper for him to be a member of the justice committee -despite the recent scandal. And it was 159 Tory MPs and ministers that came forward in droves to support the Labour MP. Labour MPs were remarkable in their absence – though a number of MPs who have raised child sexual abuse cases did vote for him – notably Simon Danczuk and Tom Watson.

But it was the Tory Cabinet that stood out in support of him. They included Amber Rudd, the home secretary, who decided that there has been no ” miscarriage of justice in Orgreave” and was obviously happy to think that Mr Vaz had committed no offence.

Other key supporters included Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, Liam Fox, the International Secretary; James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary and  former home office minister: David Gauke, chief secretary to the Treasury;Andrea Leadsom, the environment secretary,and Karen Bradley, the culture secretary, who is advised by Craig Woodhouse, a former Sun journalist and David Lidington, leader of the House.

Only nine MPs supported Mr Bridgen’s motion. They were Nicholas Soames; Jake Berry, Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen; James Duddridge, Conservative MP for Rochford and Southend East; Philip Hollobone, Conservative MP for Kettering; Scott Mann, Conservative MP for North Cornwall;Matthew Offord, Conservative MP for Hendon; and Mr Bridgen himself. Two other MPs acted as tellers, Karl McCartney, Conservative MP for Lincoln, and Nigel Mills, Conservative MP for Amber Valley.

On these occasions Parliament seems to resemble more a members’ club than a body representing the nation. And it does itself no good. I have a feeling that the loyalty of MPs to Mr Vaz’s rehabilitation plan will be misplaced and a large swathe of the Cabinet might regret their hasty decision to follow their whips advice. Parliament should not be used to play games or it will fall even more into disrespect.

 

 

 

 

” Darth Vader” mandarin’s unstellar performance on crime mustn’t pay

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Mark Sedwill as Darth Vader centre right next to Theresa May

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Earlier this month I railed about the extraordinary findings of a report by the National Audit Office which showed Whitehall’s abject failure to confiscate the stolen assets of  criminals.

Theresa May’s claims that crime musn’t pay were torn into tatters by a report which showed  what a woeful record the present government has in confiscating them.

You would think that her top Home Office civil servant – permanent secretary Mark Sedwill – would do everything to make amends for this poor performance.

But think again. When he came to account for missing almost every target set by Parliament a few years before his complacent response so angered MPs on Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that he was sent packing by the chair Labour Mp, Meg Hillier.

I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

Now Mark Sedwill has a stellar nickname – thanks to a jokey reference in a  recent Christmas card put out by the Commons Home affairs Committee, which monitors the home office.

He is proud to be depicted as” Darth Vader ” the evil figure in the Star Wars movie – to Theresa May’s Princess Leia as part of cast of characters on their Christmas card ( see picture above.)

As he told Civil Service World  ” It’s always better to be one of the stars, even if you’re the dark lord, than to be disregarded. I think he’s the coolest character in the pantheon – so I’m not that bothered.”.

His performance before the committee was anything but stellar. And the criminals would be delighted that the man representing the Dark Side was happy to pretend he had recovered their loot.

He obfuscated, denied reality and pretended that he had never agreed with the report’s findings in the first place. He even started quoting government propaganda that  ministers were delighted with his efforts – which left at least £203m worth of assets uncollected.

So angry was one Tory MP, Stephen Phillips, a QC and member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, that he accused him of turning the hearing into ” a farce”and said his performance was ” an exercise in Sir Humphreyism.”.

And the committee abruptly halted the hearing – an almost unprecedented event- when Meg Hillier told him:” I do not think we have any option but to adjourn this. This is something I never wanted to do in this Committee. As Mr Phillips said, we want to get answers. This is a hugely important area and I am really disappointed that we are going to have to take this form of action. I do not think we are going to get very much further today.”

He has a chance to redeem himself next Tuesday when he will have to come up with some real answers at a resumed hearing.  We have to hope  this time the  MPs will turn into Jedi knights to get some explanations.

You can watch the hearing here..

 

 

Vaz defeats Mactaggart in ight for home affairs chair

 Keith Vaz MP


Keith Vaz MP

Updated: Keith Vaz easily saw off Fiona Mactaggart for the chairmanship of the home affairs committee winning by 412 votes to 192. This will make him one of the ;longest serving chair of any Commons select committee as he will remain chair for the next  five years.

Keith Vaz, one of the more controversial Labour MPs, is facing a strong challenge for the chairmanship of the influential  House of Commons home affairs committee.The MP is being challenged by a former home affairs minister – the equally forthright Fiona Mactaggart. MP for Slough, and a doughty campaigner on human rights, civil liberties and race equality with strong views about prostitution -linking it to people trafficking and comparing the men who used prostitutes as little more than child  abusers.

The battle seems to have divided MPs – all of whom have a vote including ministers and shadow ministers – at next Wednesday’s elections.

The divide can be shown by the list of people nominating each candidate – which has to include political opponents – as well as people of their own party.

Vaz has been backed on the Labour side by Sir Gerald Kaufman, Jo Cox, Chris Evans, Mr David Winnick, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Mr Chuka Umunna, Clive Efford, Ms Diane Abbott, Conor McGinn, Gareth Thomas, Mary Glindon, Steve McCabe, Tristram Hunt,  and Jonathan Ashworth .

Among Tories he is backed by Zac Goldsmith, who organised the all party pressure for the establishment of the child sex abuse inquiry, and MPs  like  Tories Chris Heaton-Harris and Nicola Blackwood, Scots Nat, Angus MacNeil. and Democratic Unionist,Sammy Wilson.

Fiona MacTaggart MP

Fiona Mactaggart MP

Fiona Mactaggart, is backed by Labour MPs, Margaret Hodge, Ian Mearns, Kate Green, Nia Griffiths, Jeremy corbyn, Jess Phillips. Bill Esterson, Alison MKcGovern, Liz McInnes, Rupa Huq, Daniel Zeichner, Gavin Shuker, ann Coffey, Diana Johnson and Yvonne Fovargue. Outside Labour she has got support from Tories, Daniel Kawczynski, Guto Bebb, ex home office minister,Damian Green, SNP member Tommy Shepherd; and SDLP member Mark Durkan.

Commons insiders say Fiona will have to campaign strongly to defeat Vaz who has been chairman since 2007 – and also been able to stand again because he has not served two full terms.

Parliament: Computer says No (again!)

Just when Parliament’s IT boss had promised that their new computer system was up and running again and ready to expand, guess what happens.

 It takes just 90 minutes for another crash with a hasty call  to IT experts to convene to sort out why so many MPs and peers offices still can’t access the internet.

 Full details of the story are on the Exaro News website and in Computer Weekly .They come from the latest leaks from inside Parliament – one general memo to all staff telling them everything is working well  and another to the IT team saying everything has started to go wrong.

At this rate it looks as though Parliament with its thousands of internal subscribers  is going to join other institutions in Whitehall and the NHS with a system plagued with problems.