Constitutional issues

27 Aug 2013 11:03:28

70 MPs sign up to call for Parliamentary debate before war is declared in Syria

By Mark Wallace
Follow Mark on Twitter.

Paul reported yesterday on the start of a campaign by MPs to insist on a Commons debate before any action is taken against Assad over his use of chemical weapons.

That campaign is now gathering pace. Graham Allen, the Labour MP who chairs the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, sent out an appeal to his fellow MPs yesterday afternoon for signatures on an EDM which reads:

This House believes that Parliament should hold a full debate before any British commitment to military action in Syria

He tells me that he has already secured the signatures of 70 MPs. The incomplete list I have been sent includes no fewer than nine select committee chairmen:

Graham Allen, Richard Ottaway, David Davies, Hywel Francis, Malcolm Bruce, Graham Stuart, Tim Yeo, Keith Vaz and Clive Betts

and 52 other MPs:

George Mudie, Martin Caton, John Redwood, David Wright, Adrian Sanders, Bob Blackman, Mike Crockart, Nigel Mills, Stewart Jackson, Mark Lazarowicz, Sammy Wilson, Steve McCabe, Robert Ainsworth, David Ward, James Gray, Albert Owen, Douglas Carswell, Julian Huppert, Naomi Long, Fiona O’Donnell, Angus Robertson, John Leech, John Robertson, Adam Holloway, Jim Sheridan, Philip Davies, John Hemming, Kate Hoey, Robert Smith, Diane Abbot, Mike Weir, Sandra Osbourne, Martin Vickers, Bill Esterson, Grahame Morris, Mary Glindon, John McDonald, George Galloway, Michael Meacher, Dai Harvard, Katy Clark, Toby Perkins, Paul Flynn, Mike Gapes, David Anderson, Madeleine Moon, Graham Stringer, Gisela Stuart, Andrew George, Julian Lewis, Eleanor Laing and Stephen Doughty.

As you can see, support is drawn from a wide range of parties and opinions. Some undoubtedly support the motion as part of their opposition to any intervention against Assad, but others view it as a constitutional principle that Parliament should be able to scrutinise something as important as a decision to go to war.

As readers will be aware, I support military action against Assad - indeed, I think our policy of isolationism is responsible for the rise of Al Qaeda in Syria - but I cannot see why Parliament should be bypassed on this issue.

The Conservative manifesto pledged in 2010 to make Royal Prerogative powers, such as the declaration of war, subject to "greater democratic control". That promise should be honoured.

21 Dec 2011 11:20:13

History, Europe, family and needs of business feature in Christmas adjournment debate

By Joseph Willits 
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In yesterday's Adjournment debate before the start of the Christmas recess, a mix of topics were raised by MPs.

SkidmoreChris Skidmore MP (Kingswood), who also wrote on ConservativeHome yesterday about making history a compulsory subject for under-16s, spoke of the study of history reaching a record low. Skidmore said that "in 77 local authorities fewer than one in five pupils is passing history GCSE". Despite these figures already being low enough as it is, there was a need to break them down, he said, "because in places such as Knowsley under 8% of pupils are passing history GCSE". 

Skidmore continued:

"Often it is the Daily Mail or academics who discuss what type of history should be studied in schools, whose history should be studied, how history should be studied in the curriculum, whether we should have a narrative form of history or a more interpretive form of history that looks at sources, and whether history should be seen as a framework of facts."

Whilst this debate was important, he warned of history "becoming a subject of two nations" and Britain's isolation in Europe, if people were not united in the view "that history is a crucial subject that binds us as one nation".

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7 Dec 2011 18:10:41

We should not aspire to the inequality of hereditary peerages as portrayed in Downton Abbey, says Eleanor Laing

By Joseph Willits 
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LaingDownton Abbey has a way of entering in to the political arena. David Cameron's controversial mimicking of Australian PM Julia Gillard, will always be associated with his dressed like "an extra from Downton Abbey" attire. More recently, the series has been highlighted by MP Eleanor Laing as evidence of inequality in hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, and a historic lesson of what not to aspire to.

In his Lord Mayor's speech, Cameron discussed "the historic agreement" made about royal succession at the Commonwealth conference in Perth, that "if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have a little girl, that girl will be our Queen." Whilst changes have been made to the law on royal succession, there are currently no plans to do so regarding hereditary peerages in the House of Lords.  

A report by MPs in the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee, have discussed "modest" rule changes to the House of Lords, but at present, suggests "there may be no compelling reason to alter an historic system of inheritance", due to the fact that "aristocratic titles no longer confer any particular rights, duties or privileges".

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1 Jul 2011 12:30:25

Jacob Rees-Mogg celebrates the monarchy as "the greatest institution in our land"

By Matthew Barrett
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JReesMoggParliamentJacob Rees-Mogg, the Member for North East Somerset, has, in his time in the House, distinguished himself as a defender of traditional British institutions. In the debate that followed the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement on the Civil List, Mr Rees-Mogg defended and celebrated our monarchy. 

His key points were:

  • We want a monarchy to be proud of: "We have just focused on the cost of the monarchy, but our sovereign represents the greatest institution in our land; it is that bit that makes us British, and we do not want a mean monarchy. We want a proper and well-funded monarchy, not a bicycling monarchy, even if riding the Mayor of London’s bicycles."
  • Those who want a "good value monarchy" are wrong: "That makes Her Majesty sound as though she is something to be bought off the top shelf at Tesco, and it really cannot be how we wish to approach our constitution. The Crown is an essential element of that constitution; everything of importance that happens is done in the name of the Crown."
  • The Royal Family have a huge tax burden: "The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said that he wanted the royal family to be treated as any other family but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) pointed out, if they were any other family they would not be paying such a high tax rate. Given the 15% provision, Her Majesty will be expected to pay an 85% tax rate, which is more than the 50% tax rate that many of us hope will go over the course of this Parliament."
  • The monarchy should not be opened up to scrutiny: "I clearly have not asked for full transparency on the royal tax affairs. Indeed, I would argue for the precise opposite, because I do not think it is particularly sensible to be investigating in close detail how the royal family spend their money."
  • MPs are not in a position to criticise: "I recall a line about motes and beams; we have had quite a problem with our own expenditure in this House and I am not sure that we have got things entirely right. Before we start criticising the monarchy and looking over every biscuit that the Queen buys, we should make sure that we have our own house in order."
  • The Government's proposals are "canny": "Now the Crown Estate is in substantial surplus and I think that the Chancellor, in his proposals, which in many ways are very good, may be being somewhat canny, because the next sovereign would be able to cancel this arrangement and say, “I should like £200 million a year, thank you very much.” There is no requirement on a new sovereign to agree to hand the Crown Estate over in return for a civil list."
  • The Crown Estate belongs to the monarch: "The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said that this is taxpayers’ money and not the Crown’s money, but it really is the Crown’s money because, on becoming King, the Prince of Wales or any other sovereign could simply rescind the agreement and claim it back. The Crown Estate is the sovereign’s property, which the sovereign gives to Parliament to help to pay for the costs of the nation; it is not taxpayers’ money that is being handed over."

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3 Aug 2010 07:33:23

New Commons Committee complains that Clegg has not replied to its letters and is not giving adequate time to discuss AV law

By Tim Montgomerie

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by Labour MP Graham Allen has complained that it has been given inadequate time to scrutinise the legislation that will fix parliamentary terms, cut the number of MPs to 600 and enable a nationwide referendum on the voting system.

The text of Mr Allen's full letter is below:

"You wrote to me last week about the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.

The bills were published on 22 July. Both are to receive their second reading in September. For the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, this gives my committee a grand total of two clear sitting days in which to consider and take evidence on the bill before second reading. The time that we have to scrutinise the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is only marginally less inadequate.

Both bills are, as you say, “fundamental to this House and to our democracy”. Contrast this with your approach to House of Lords reform, where a draft bill will be published before the end of the year, which will then be subject to full pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint select committee over several months before a bill is formally presented to Parliament. On what principle can you justify this different treatment of legislation affecting the two Houses?

The Leader of the House has told the Liaison Committee that your government remains committed to pre-legislative scrutiny, and that proper pre-legislative scrutiny requires at least twelve weeks. Even though these two bills clearly deserve this degree of proper pre- legislative scrutiny, I have made every effort to adjust the committee’s schedule to meet the government’s legislative timetable, and I have written to you twice, on 25 June and 6 July, to try to find a window, however small, within which some reasonable level of committee scrutiny of the government’s bills could take place. I have had no reply to either of my letters.

Your legislative timetable has put me and my committee in an extremely difficult position. When the House agreed to establish the committee, it did so, in the words of the Deputy Leader of the House, “to ensure that the House is able to scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister”. In the case of these two bills you have denied us any adequate opportunity to conduct this scrutiny."


14 Feb 2010 08:51:02

Tory plan for equal sized seats will change [almost] every constituency boundary

Screen shot 2010-02-14 at 10.10.22 I'm grateful to John Rentoul's blog for alerting me to the amendment put down by the Conservatives ahead of last Tuesday's voting reform debate that set out Tory plans to reduce the number of constituencies by 10%.

The equalisation of constituency size has been a longstanding concern of ConservativeHome. We launched our 'fair seats' campaign in January 2008. In the amendment reproduced below the Tories reveal their desire for constituency size to be no greater than 103.5% of the national average and no less than 96.5% of the average. This reform would help eliminate the injustice in the current boundary distribution which sees a small number of electors in depopulating urban seats elect every Labour MP and every Tory MP needing a much larger number of votes to win in expanding rural and suburban seats. I simplify but you get the gist.

Many small 'c' conservatives will not like what this means for natural boundaries. The most obvious example of an 'unnatural seat' will be the splitting of the Isle of Wight constituency into two with part of the second seat being on the mainland.

It will be interesting to see how David Cameron proposes that MPs are readopted under this scenario. Every boundary across the country is likely to change and there will be unhappiness if existing MPs are given special treatment in being adopted for seats with very different boundaries. If they are not given special treatment the MPs will be spending more time pleasing their constituents and less time pleasing the whips.


The number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be reduced by 10 per cent. from the figure existing on 1 July 2010.


A constituency shall be located wholly within one of—

         (a) England, (b) Wales, (c) Scotland, or (d) Northern Ireland.


The electorate of any constituency (a) shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable, and all other special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, shall be subordinate to achieving this aim, and shall in any case be no greater than 103.5 per cent. and no less than 96.5 per cent. of the electoral quota, except where this makes it impossible to meet the provisions of clause 2 of this schedule.


In accordance with rules 1 to 3, the Commission may have regard to— (a) local authority boundaries in England, Wales and Scotland, and (b) the boundaries of wards in Northern Ireland.


In the application of rule 3— (a) the expression “electoral quota” means a number obtained by dividing the electorate of the United Kingdom by the number of constituencies in it, (b) the expression “electorate” means in relation to a constituency, the number of persons whose names will appear on the register of parliamentary electors in force on the enumeration date under the Representation of the People Acts for the constituency. (c) in calculating this number, the Boundary Commission shall have regard to—

(i) the number of persons whose names appear on the register of parliamentary electors in force, under the Representation of the People Acts for the constituency,

(ii) official local authority population forecasts provided by the Statistics Board, and
(iii) any change in the number or distribution of the electors likely to take place within five years from the review,

(iv) in all cases, the most up to date official electoral and statistical data available.
(d) the expression “electorate” means in relation to the United Kingdom, the aggregate electorate as defined in subsection (b) above of all the constituencies in the United Kingdom.

(e) the expression “enumeration date” means, in relation to any report of the Boundary Commission under this Act, the date on which the notice with respect to that report is published in accordance with section 3 of this Act.


In this Schedule, a reference to a rule followed by a number is a reference to the rule set out in the correspondingly numbered paragraph of this Schedule.

Each Boundary Commission shall, within eighteen months of the passage of this Act submit a report to the Secretary of State under section 3(1)(a) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.

Section 3A of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 shall not apply to a report required under section (2).”’."

Tim Montgomerie

5 Aug 2009 18:48:20

Should the House of Lords leave moral issues as the unique preserve of the Commons?

An editorial in today's Telegraph raises the issue of which chamber should take precedence on moral issues in the context of the debate about assisted suicide:

"It might be thought that MPs who have shown that they cannot behave morally when it comes to their own expenses will struggle when debating one of the burning moral issues of the day. But they must at least try. Capital punishment, abortion, in vitro fertilisation – all have been decided in the House of Commons. It is an abdication of responsibility to leave such "difficult" issues to the House of Lords – or, far worse, the judges."

By convention, the Lords will not overturn manifesto commitments made by a Government, but would it be desirable for there to be a new convention stating that the Upper House would not reverse the will of the elected House on moral issues?

I'm not sure that such a convention would even be feasible to enforce, since everyone would have a different definition of what makes an issue a matter of conscience. What do you think?

Jonathan Isaby

25 Nov 2008 11:59:14

The Earl of Caithness and Lord Selsdon pose questions about the constitution

Earl_of_caithnessLord_selsdonConservative peers have tabled written questions about Britain's (uncodified) constitution.

The Conservative Party has some tough decisions to make about these kind of issues. They may not be glamorous, but they matter. Can ConservativeHome readers offer some suggestions as to how we can avoid laying siege to our constitution as New Labour have?

The Earl of Caithness asked about the presence of judges in the upper chamber:

"The Earl of Caithness asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many representations they have received since the passing of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 about the presence of Law Lords in the House of Lords; and from which individuals or organisations. [HL6260]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): Ministers have received two letters and one Parliamentary Question from the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, answered by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath on 29 September 2008 (Official Report, col. WA416) specifically about the presence of Law Lords in the House of Lords since the passing of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005."

That question was followed by another:

"The Earl of Caithness asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What assessment they have made of the effect of the presence of (a) judges, and (b) Ministers in the House of Lords on the principle of the separation of powers. [HL6261]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): The Government set out in their proposals for establishing a separate Supreme Court the importance that they attached to a visible and institutional separation between the judiciary and the executive and the legislature.

However the UK has never been governed under a system of the pure separation of powers. In a parliamentary democracy, where the executive are directly dependent on and constituted from the legislature, it is appropriate that the executive should be directly represented in both Houses of the legislature."

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