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"Here's a pretty kettle of fish"

Posted by Helen Thursday, August 23, 2007

There are times when I become convinced that knowledge of the British Constitution (oh yes, we do have one) even among people who ought to be aware of all the nuances of what there ought to be and what there is, tends to be limited to an early viewing of that priceless Savoy Opera, "Iolanthe".

Among other joyous episodes, it has the Peers’ March during which berobed members of the Upper House sing:

We are peers of highest station,
Paragons of legislation,
Pillars of the British nation,
Nowadays this is considerably more true than the other set of lyrics about the House of Lords, which I reproduce here almost in full:
When Britain really ruled the waves—
(In good Queen Bess's time)
The House of Peers made no pretence
To intellectual eminence,
Or scholarship sublime;
Yet Britain won her proudest bays
In good Queen Bess's glorious days!

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well:
Yet Britain set the world ablaze
In good King George's glorious days!

And while the House of Peers withholds
Its legislative hand,
And noble statesmen do not itch
To interfere with matters which
They do not understand,
As bright will shine Great Britain's rays
As in King George's glorious days!
Wouldn't it be nice if we could achieve a political state in which all legislators withheld their hand and did not interfere "with matter which they do not understand"? On present count that would produce a couple of laws a year, if that.

Sadly, that is not how it works and an article the other day in the Daily Telegraph by Greville Howard, Lord Howard of Rising raised the issue of which House does its job yet again.

Anyone who has ever followed legislation through Parliament (I am not talking now about whatever comes from the blessed European Union), anyone who has ever listened to debates in the two Houses, anyone who has ever paid attention to statements by parliamentarians would know that the House of Lords is the one that does its work "and does it very well", despite the continuous onslaught from the present government and the endless jeers from our elected but not terribly representative MPs.

Yet, at a recent meeting of the steering committee for the Rally for Referendum (I must be mad but then our readers know that anyway) there was discussion as to which MPs might or might not vote for a referendum amendment when the Treaty is debated as an Amendment to the European Communities Act.

As it happens, I do not think that many Labour MPs will defy a three-line whip, precisely for the reasons Lord Howard explains in his article. It would spell a death to their career. If an amendment is going to be voted through it will be in the House of Lords, I said.

After a moment's silence people started agreeing with me, saying rather sheepishly that they had forgotten all about the Lords. Great, I thought. This is the vanguard of our battle to restore our Constitution and they do not know it themselves.

There is a curious political irony here. We are supposed to be living in a democracy (set aside the EU dimension for a moment) and in a democracy it is the elected representatives who govern because they represent the people. Possibly, democracy as we know it, will prove to be a failed experiment. For there is no question about it, it is the House of Lords, so far unelected, a mixture of appointed and a few hereditary peers (who actually are elected by their peers) consistently fulfils its constitutional duty in holding the executive to account and in trying to legislate as it sees right not as the government tells it to.

Consider this, as Lord Howard points out:
At present, the only real power for the Opposition and backbenchers lies in the delaying of the progress of Bills. This tactic forces the Government to choose what legislation it will make time for, and what it will abandon.

In order to ensure that these tactics are not abused, there is a mechanism known as the Allocation of Time motion, or "guillotine".

These motions cut short or limit the time available for a debate - to ensure that certain stages of a Bill are completed according to the desired timetable. In 1997, Programme Orders were introduced to supplement the guillotine and further ease the passing of Bills.

In the 50 years between 1947 and 1997, Allocation of Time motions were used 138 times. Between 1997 and 2006 - only nine years - Allocation of Time motions were used more than 320 times. That's quite an increase.
Among the guillotined debates were those on the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice. In other words, matters of huge constitutional import were not allowed to run their course but were pushed through as fast as possible by the government.

There is no guillotine in the Lords, though undoubtedly when all the unnecessary and harmful "reforms" go through, and peers are elected from a carefully selected list thus becoming party hacks just as MPs are, whipping and guillotine will become a strong feature of debates and legislation in the Upper House as well.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea to reverse the old slogan of "Peers v the People" into the new one of "Peers and People against the Commons". That might make them appreciate certain truths.

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