23 February 2017

Lording it up

The Lords are at it again - sticking their unelected noses in to the business of the Commons. How dare they oppose the elected chamber. Well, so those who support Brexit-at-any-cost will tell us - ironically most of which are the same bunch who had no interest in, or actively opposed, changing the unelected nature of the Lords.

But this isn't going to be a Bexit post. Nope, there's so much that could be said but I'll leave that for another day. No, what's bothered me here is the number of people who have yet again come out of the woodwork to talk about the importance of the House of Lords as a 'place of expertise' who's role is to scrutinise and amend government policy, but to leave the job of challenging government policy to the elected House of Commons. Both of these assertions bother me, but for reasons which are not necessarily the ones often mooted.

Let's take the last point - that the Commons is the place to challenge the Government over policy and the unelected House of Lords should stick to using their expertise to tweak what comes their way.

They must be kidding?!
The Government has a stranglehold over parliament.

The commons has little influence over bills brought before it by government, because the government, the executive of the parliament, nearly always has a stranglehold over the commons. The tail wags the dog.

People may well exclaim at this point that the government is very much not the tail, but the head of our country. Which of course is a very common mistake made when people discuss our democracy. It's right up there with believing we elect our Prime Minister (or the government). We don't. The parliament website even spells this out for us in black and white:
"Can I vote for a new Prime Minister?

No. You can only vote to elect your local MP in a general election. Even if you live in the constituency represented by the current Prime Minister or the leader of another political party, you are still only voting on whether he or she will be your local MP in the next Parliament."
As they say, we elect a representative to parliament. The whole of a general election is about us, the people, electing representatives to parliament. Collectively we elect a new parliament at each general election, although thanks to the state of our democracy and our archaic and not fit-for-purpose voting system, much of it is certain to look uncannily like the old one.

So this is bad right? We don't get to elect our government. That sucks, and who the hell does choose our government?

No, we don't, but that shouldn't be a problem. The simple reason for this is that, as we've just said, we elect parliament and it is parliament who is sovereign. It is also parliament who selects the Prime Minister (kind of, the Queen is involved too... but mostly it's parliament). And of course, the Prime Minister then selects the rest of the government (and none of the sensible parliamentary scrutiny like parliament having to approve these appointments, oh no, such things are reserved for the likes of the EU).

And it is parliament who does this, because it is to parliament that the government is answerable (or should be). It is members of parliament who decide who would best implement the things that they fought their elections based on, it is parliament who then scrutinises the work of the government via committees, it is parliament who approves spending and budgets and it is parliament who debates and passes legislation. For much of this they do a good job too.

But, the House of Commons rarely challenges their executive when it comes to amending and passing legislation (or on budgets and spending). They may hold long debates about it, they may even table amendments, but the fact remains that very, very rarely does the government get forced to even amend legislation it wasn't happy to amend, let alone be defeated over it.

The reason for this is of course that by convention the person who commands the most support for being PM in the House of Commons is 'recommended' to the Queen (who alwasy seems to agree) for the post... and it should come as no surprise that MPs always seem to believe their party leader is the most suitable for the job.

Parliament selects a PM (and through the PM a government) to bring forward a program of legislation that enacts, or executes, their will. The government acts as the executive of the parliament, taking decisions within, and constrained by, the legislative framework agreed by parliament. Parliament is meant to be the boss.

When you couple this with the fact that our dreadful voting system nearly always results in one party having a majority of MPs (whether they get a majority of the vote or not) you get the situation where the Prime Minister is also the boss of over half the voting MPs in the Commons... and they have a whip... and they aren't afraid to use it.

People say this leads to 'strong' government, because the government can always 'get things done', but this entirely misses the point - democracy is meant to ensure we are all involved in the decision making and governing of our country - all of us, not just those who voted for one party, or not even just those who voted. And because we don't have the time to read up and know about al lthe decisions which need making we send representatives to do this (and pay them - well).

The Government is not meant to be able to push whatever they want through parliament, that is the whole point of us being represented there. The government is not meant to be able to wag parliament.
What this really is is not a 'strong government' but an unaccountable one. Unaccountable to the House of commons and thus unaccountable to the people.

It's true that each MP remains our representative and should use their conscience to take decisions based on what they believe is best for us, but lets face it party loyalty and the whip system often trumps that (to say nothing of lobbying - not all of which is bad). This would be bad enough if it wasn't also for the fact that our useless voting system (have I mentioned that yet?) has nearly always given a majority of MPs to one party, despite no single party having achieved a majority of the vote since 1931... 1931! The proportion of votes won by the governing party has been on a downward trend ever since (Labour in 1997: 42%, Conservatives 2010: 36.9%, in 2015 37.1%). The votes cast bear little relation to the range of MPs elected, so not only can a government basically ignore the views of non-party MPs, but their majority of own MPs don't even represent a majority view of the public. And don't forget the point of our democracy is that we are ALL represented.

The idea that the commons can challenge the government on legislation is laughable

So that's the first point - that the idea the commons can challenge the government on legislation is laughable. It means that we are in the crazy situation where the House of Lords, unelected as it is, should be more able to challenge policy than the commons. Not because it is unelected, but because party loyalty and the whip system is less restrictive and because the HoL often doesn't have a majority of one party. This ability to challenge has been partially neutered by its unelected status, and all those complaining about unelected Lords challenging the government are strangely silent most of the time - or downright hostile to doing anything about it when they have the opportunity (I'm looking at you Labour and Conservatives) for this very reason - they want any government they may be able to create to be unrestricted, unopposed - unaccountable.

What about the second point - that's surely not contentious, that we need expert opinion in parliament to scrutinise legislation?

Well no, of course it isn't. We obviously need experts to weigh in to policy making (at least I think it's obvious, possibly in this new anti-expert, anti-learning, anti-fact present day people wouldn't necessarily agree). But... and it's a big but.. why on earth do people think the best place for this is in a place which has deliberately had its ability to influence policy curtailed and only gets a say after it has been drafted and gone though the commons?! The place for expertise is at all stages of legislation. In the first conception of an idea, to the final dotting of the T and crossing the I (yes that's how you do it - fact. Anyone saying otherwise is just a liberal language elite trying to control you).

Expertise should be embedded in legislation from the start, the basis of what is put forward, it should be available to the Commons when debating the proposals - it should be the basis OF the debate in the commons - it should not be an afterthought tacked on the end.

That's mad, it's like saying we don't want really want teachers involved in education, but if they could just mark the exams afterwards that'd be great.

Whilst we are at it, lets make sure expert panels are compulsory, that their input is publicised and that they are as much a part of the discussions in the media as the politicians.

We should not need an unelected House of Lords to ensure expertise pervades the legislative process.

We need only look at the frustration of people like David Nutt and Ken Robinson - both top expert advisers who quit their role because of the inability to affect any reasonable influence over policy and legislation to see how much of a sham it is to say expertise is applied to legislation.

We should not need an unelected House of Lords to ensure expertise pervades the legislative process, and the thin veneer it applies to otherwise pitted and fractured policy only serves to gloss over the current deficit.

There are hundreds of experts in hundreds of fields we could call upon to provide expert input, why would we constrict ourselves to those who have managed to steer their way in to getting a peerage? And, importantly, the role of expert does not need to be conflated with that of legislator - the role of a legislator is to take expert advice and to weigh the practical with the ethical and the political before making a judgement. Absolutely experts need a much greater role inputting in to the drafting and amending, but the final decision to approve a piece of legislation is a political one, and must be taken by those whose duty it is to take political decisions.