Saturday, 22 June 2013

That Alternative Queen's Speech

There has been a bit of interest today about a group of Conservative MPs - Philip Hollobone (Kettering); Peter Bone (next door Wellingborough): and Christopher Chope (Christchurch) - managed to get a set of Bills onto the list of Bills, although they do not (yet) appear on the list on the Parliament website.

And a curious mixed bag of Bills they are.

The first thing to note is that both main parties have their awkward squad. Labour had to deal with the Militant Tendency in the early 1980s - who were unrepresentative of that party. Conservative leaders have had to deal with an element on the right of the party.

The problem is that these are the sort of groups who convince themselves they speak for the "silent majority", for "true Socialism/Conservatism" and that they have found Policy X which will bring landslide victory.

They do not speak for the Conservative party or for Conservatism.

The second thing to note is that this is not a Daily Mail fantasy. It is silent on that paper's hobbyhorses. There is nothing about banning GM crops (that paper thinks that "Frankenstein food" is an acceptable response to the scientific evidence) or making climate-change denial official policy.

There is nothing requiring female celebrities to parade through London weekly in their bikinis so that people can go "OMG. She has really let herself go. Plump or what?"

And there is no Carole Middleton (Lifetime Incarceration In The Tower Of London Dungeon & Permanent Disposal Of Its Key) Bill.

The third thing to note (a bit less flippantly) is that there is not much of an attempt to reverse the constitutional work of the 1997-2010 Labour Government. Sure, there are attempts to merge the Departments covering the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, but despite the dire warnings of the mid-late 1990s about devolution, nothing in there to undo devolution. The removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords was once The End Of Civilisation As We Know It and the overturning of A Thousand Years Of History, but what planned House of Lords reform there is does not intend to bring back the hereditaries.

This week, the Political & Constitutional Reform Committee has been looking at the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, with Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, noting that allowing the Prime Minister to set the election date was "quaint and quite dangerous".

Now, hang on a second. Practically every election has been at the Prime Minister's discretion. The 2011 Act has not been used yet. But just 2 years after it hit the Statute Book, it is now seen as part of our tradition. And that is how British parliamentary traditions work - they are created overnight and stay.

Just as the devolution and the removal of the hereditary peers are part of our constitutional and parliamentary tradition.

The fourth thing I want to note is that awful term "Tory Taliban". I think Godwin's Law needs to be updated to include Taliban references alongside the Nazi ones.

These Conservative MPs are not trying to make women wear the burqa, they are not banning women from driving, they are not shooting girls who go to school, they are not calling for hands to be amputated.

With that out of the way, onto the Bills themselves. And there are often variations on a theme:

  • European Communities Act 1972 (Repeal) Bill
  • Fishing Grounds & Territorial Waters (Repatriation) Bill
  • Romanian & Bulgarian Accession (Labour Restrictions) Bill
  • United Kingdom (Withdrawal From The European Union) Bill
  • EU Membership (Audit Of Costs & Benefits) Bill

So, what do they want? Just a review of EU membership (the fifth Bill)? Unilateral withdrawal from some parts of European law (the second and third Bills), while remaining part of the EU?

Or is it total withdrawal (the first and fourth Bills) - and if so, is it by the idea that Parliament can unilaterally withdraw at any time with no-one else's permission (the first Bill), or via the procedure in the Treaty of Lisbon?

Unconnected with the European Union, this brings me to the Alleged Terrorists Bill, whose emotive title doesn't make it immediately obvious that its purpose is to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, ostensibly so that suspected terrorists whom British courts have ruled cannot be deported can then be deported.

Hmm, so why not call it European Convention of Human Rights (Withdrawal) Bill?

And what's all this about "alleged terrorist"? Either someone has been found guilty, in which case they are a terrorist. Or they haven't been, in which case they are innocent until proven guilty. Since when has the principle that alleged criminals should have their human rights withdrawn been part of the legal system?

Next up is a trio of Bills:

  • Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill
  • Collection of Nationality Data Bill
  • Foreign Nationals (Access to Public Services) Bill

Hmm, so the first will restrict the entitlement of non-British citizens from the European Economic Area to state benefits. Now, this would breach European law unless we withdrew from the EU (see above) - and it is unclear whether they wish us to withdraw from the EEA as well.

As a matter of curiosity, how this will affect people from Northern Ireland who chose to identify as Irish rather than British when it comes to which passport they carry? Or the Irish ex-pat community here?

We have never made any real distinction between British and Irish citizens, but will this mean we will do so?

Collect and publish data about the nationality of people in receipt of benefits? Er, but if you're going to withdraw benefits from people who are not British citizens, then by definition those people in receipt of benefits are British nationals - unless you are going to redefine nationality (e.g. based on ancestry).

Abd if you are going to restrict access to free public services (e.g. health services) for people who are "foreign nationals", then how are you going to do it? The various times this year I have been taken to A&E, I have not had to prove nationality - and in an emergency, this would slow the paramedics down. Would this become one of the things they have to check? The logical step for this would be to them introduce ID cards - sorry, entitlement cards - by the back door, those cards which have been a constant solution in search of a problem.

  • BBC Licence Fee (Civil Debt) Bill
  • BBC Privatisation Bill

Well, what do they want? To privatise the BBC - and therefore get rid of the licence fee - or to make it easier for people to avoid paying the licence fee?

This seems to be turning into a knee-jerk group of contradictory Bills.

  • National Service Bill

By the right, quick march! Right, right, right, right, right, right,.....

OK, where do I even begin with this?

I remember when we did GCSE History, there was the discussion of conscription in the First World War. What is interesting is when it came to the dads of people in our class - and this shows how old we are. For some people had dads who were old enough to have been called up for National Service in the post-Second World War era, and indeed, some of them had dads who were conscripts fighting in Korea.

And that is conscription - people fight wars.

There used to the sort of letter in the Daily Mail of the "There are these 13, 14-year-olds hanging around. A bit of National Service will be good for them. I had to do National Service and it never did me any harm" variety. Hmm, so the way to deal with children who hang around is to send them into the Army later on in life?

And surely this misses the point of the military? It's not there to be the social workers who intervene at age 18 to ensure children are better behaved at 13. It's not there to pick up what parents failed to do.

Over the past few years, there have been military interventions. Just consider what happens when conscripts' coffins are brought back from Syria, and the public response. Is that really what these MPs want?

  • Young Offenders (Parental Responsibility) Bill
  • Prisoners (Completion of Custodial Sentence) Bill
  • Sentencing Escalator Bill

Bit of a curate's egg here. Of course, with sentencing, judges are allowed to take into account someone's previous conduct - if they want a US-style "Three strikes and you're out" then they should say so - but I am concerned when Parliament tries to remove judicial discretion.

And there is a tradition of prisoners who have shown good behaviour being released on parole, perhaps by being tagged. One part of the prison system is rehabilitation, and early release gives convicts something to work towards to encourage them to progress in this. Without the possibility of early release, this motivation is not there. It sounds tough, but is counter-productive.

  • Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill

When I lived in Leicester, there were times when the sports centre I used was women-only. I recall a group of men, called The Equality Squad objecting, on the grounds that equality means men should be allowed to use it during these times.

I personally had no objection - some Leicester ladies are from cultures where it would be seen as wrong for her to use a swimming pool or a gym when men were there. I don't mind giving up some of my freedom to allow these ladies to exercise (pun intended) their freedom for a short period each week.

Ban the burqa, and you won't have some ladies going out bare-faced. You'll have them not going out at all.

Think burqa-clad women going out and about aren't integrating? Well, how will making them stay inside help them integrate?

  • School Governing Bodies (Adverse Weather Conditions) Bill

Now, I remember the cold winter of 1986/87, and how our secondary school was closed at times. However, they didn't tell us - you turned up, the registers were taken, and then we were sent home. Radio Solent would have the daily announcements of closed schools.

Now, closing schools creates consequences - parents find themselves having to take time off work, parents' colleagues find themselves having to do more work to cover (unless their workplace is closed).

But isn't this a bit prescriptive? Do we really want to see headteachers ending up in court because they took a decision they thought was in the best interests of their staff and pupils? All that in loco parentis, duty of care stuff....

  • Government Departments (Amalgamation of Scotland Office, Wales Office & Northern Ireland Office) Bill
  • Department of Energy & Climate Change (Abolition) Bill
  • Foreign Aid Ring-fencing (Abolition) Bill
  • Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Abolition) Bill
  • Prime Minister (Replacement) Bill

I have included the fifth one here, as it ties in with the fourth.

But first we need to take a step back. Under the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975, ministerial functions are transferred via Orders-in-Council. To do this by primary legislation is a regressive step.

It is true that since devolution, the Cabinet ministers for the non-English parts of the United Kingdom have had fewer responsibilities, and indeed, there were times of combinations (e.g. Alistair Darling combined being Scottish Secretary with being Transport Secretary; Peter Hain combined being Welsh Secretary with being Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons).

In addition, there have been light-duty posts, such as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord President of the Council, Lord Privy Seal, whose holders have been given something else to do (such as leading the House of Lords or the House of Commons). There is something to be said for a Scottish Secretary etc. having lighter duties to enable him or her to sit on more Cabinet Committees than colleagues do, or having more time to provide political advice to the Prime Minister.

This combination has been suggested before - I recall rumours that the last Labour Government would appoint a "Secretary of State for the Union" or a "Secretary of State for the Nations & Regions".

Aboloshing the Department of Energy & Climate Change - I assume that these are from the wing which thinks global warming is a myth (no doubt drawn up in Brussels), and things such as the Wind Farm Subsidies (Abolition) Bill and the Control of Offshore Wind Turbines Bill.

If you are a Conservative hardliner, then this is the stance you should be taking on the environment.

The tricky one is abolishing the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Does such an Office exist? And actually, does a Deputy Prime Minister exist?

To be blunt, the United Kingdom doesn't have - and never has had - a Deputy Prime Minister. Sure, there have been individuals allowed to use it as a meaningless honorific, but at no point was Nick Clegg, the Lord President of the Council, given any Seals of Office for "Deputy Prime Minister". In May 1997, John Prescott was given the Seals of Office for "Secretary of State for Environment, Transport & Regional Affairs", swapping them in June 2001 for those of "First Secretary of State".

The Parliament website list puts Clegg under the Cabinet Office with no mention of an Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

However, the Government website does have a Deputy Prime Minister's Office, while stating that Clegg is based at the Cabinet Office and the Deputy Prime Minister's Office. To make things more confusing, the official list of ministerial responsibilities only puts Clegg in the Cabinet Office.

The Cabinet Office is a strange beast. Seems not so much concerned with what Government does, more with how Government does what it does.

So, is there an "Office of the Deputy Prime Minister" to be abolished? Are they talking about abolishing the Cabinet Office if that is where Clegg is based? Sure, things like voter registration and electoral policy could go to the Home Office or Ministry of Justice (both of which have covered these before); industrial relations and trade union reform could go to the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills; but nothing else seems to have a logical place elsewhere.

This brings me on to the idea of legislation to establish what happens when a Prime Minister is unavailable. Why so urgent now? In June 1953 Winston Churchill suffered a stroke while Prime Minister - being out of action for 4 months - and the sky refrained from falling in.

I remember being a member of a Anglican church while we had a lengthy interregnum, and near the end one of the wardens mentioned that the church had been well-run during that time, so we'd probably wonder why we actually needed a vicar! To be honest, if the Cabinet is run well as a collective body, then we could manage without a Prime Minister for a few weeks.

I lived in Scotland in October 2000, when Donald Dewar, the First Minister who headed a Labour/Liberal Democrat administration, died. Now, the Scotlsnd Act 1998 outlines the procedure when the post of First Minister falls vacant - the Presiding Officer appoints a de facto Acting First Minister, with the Scottish Parliament having 28 days to elect a new First Minister or else an extraordinary general election is held (unless it is less than 6 months from the day the next general election was due, in which case that election is brought forward).

When the administration was formed, Dewar appointed Jim Wallace - at the time the leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the Scottish Parliament and now in the British Government as Advocate-General - as Deputy First Minister (as well as Minister for Justice). There was some press stuff that David Steel, the Liberal Democrat Presiding Officer, was concerned this would tie his hands if the post of First Minister fell vacant, as Dewar had effectively indicated that if he died then he wished Steel to appoint Wallace to take over temporarily.

But the benefit of Wallace being in charge was that he could not be a candidate for leading the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, and by agreement whoever led Labour would be First Minister. Therefore, no-one could be Acting First Minister and use it to push their claims to be First Minister.

Interesting to note that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act does not list a lengthy vacancy in the post of Prime Minister as a dissolution-causing event.

If David Cameron does have to give up being Prime Minister at such short notice that there isn't time for the Conservatives to have completed a leadership election (or even begin one) then it is logical for the Queen to ask Clegg to lead the Government (and hence be the first Liberal Prime Minister since David Lloyd-George), with the Cabinet understanding that he would resign once a Conservative leader is chosen.

But I guess the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that Clegg never becomes Prime Minister, even on a short-term basis.

As an aside, currently in Scotland, the First Minister (Alex Salmond) and Deputy First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon) are both from the Scottish National Party. I was recently in Edinburgh and chatting to someone who is just as interested in Scottish politics, and we wondered whether the big headline for later editions of the papers on Friday 19 September 2014 would be "Salmond resigns". In which case, Sturgeon would logically become both Acting First Minister and a candidate with a realistic chance of being elected SNP leader and hence First Minister in her own right.

And then there is the little kneejerk plea to end our commitment to international aid being a certain percentage of GDP.

Appeals to the Daily Mail and Daily Express lobby, but the problem here is that the Budget is decided by discussion with the Treasury and other departments. Why should a Chief Secretary to the Treasury have their hands tied by Parliament setting the amount to be spent by one department, but not any other?

  • Margaret Thatcher Day Bill

No! No! No!

We do not name bank holidays after people in this country. And it reduces the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, down to a political football.

Do we really honour a famous workaholic by giving everyone an annual day off in her memory?

Keep the August bank holiday as it is. There is no alternative.

And now the worst of the Bills:

  • Sexual Improprietry in Employment Bill

Ah, the Groper's Charter.

Over the past few months, we hsve seen celebrities being arrested for alleged sexual offences from decades ago (and in some cases leading to convictions), and you get the predictable response - "in my day, it was just called giving someone a cuddle".

Thankfully the law is tightened up now. Even a few years ago there was one guy I knew who was consistently inappropriately acting towards female colleagues - the dirty, sexually suggestive language he used was ugly to listen to, and I should have had a bit more courage and intervened.

Whenever the Daily Mail has a story about a woman objecting to being wolf-whistled at, then you get the usual responses (which get heavily green-arrowed). What is her problem? Surely she should be glad that she is pretty enough to get wolf-whistled at?

The problem was this guy's boss was keen to be "one of the lads", and for him, what was happening was that there was simply a "bloke" who was "having a bit of a larf". Sexually suggestive comments to women was just "office banter".

That sort of environment is ugly. And why these MPs want to make it acceptable again is beyond me.

People go to work to work. Not to get touched up or to be on the receiving end of sexually suggestive language.

So, that is an overview of the proposed Bills. There is a bit of good stuff in there, but it is all eclipsed by the kneejerk bad stuff.

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