UK Liberty

Henry Porter on Parliamentary Sovereignty

Posted in state-citizen relationship by ukliberty on March 5, 2008

 [Hat-tip Jon Bright at Our Kingdom]

Quoted in full from his submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (I’ve separated it into a few more paragraphs to make it easier to read) because I think he makes an excellent point:

Parliamentary Sovereignty is the reason that discussion about a Bill of Rights never gets anywhere. Its mystical power is unquestioningly viewed as the secret, or at least the guardian, of our free society. But is that really so?

In the political context, the OED defines sovereignty thus: “Supremacy in respect of power, domination or rank; supreme dominion, authority or rule.” It must be evident to members of both houses that parliamentary sovereignty is a hollow phrase. Parliament is not sovereign, because the executive runs everything. The government decides on and schedules parliamentary business, appoints the chairs of select committees and controls and smothers debate by means of Standing Orders and Standing Committees.

One of your previous witnesses suggested in his oral evidence that 99 per cent of law was made by secondary legislation. Even if only roughly accurate, this is an astonishing statistic and it explains why so many laws affecting our fundamental freedoms are passed without debate and take their toll on our society without proper scrutiny.

Here are some examples. There is no statutory basis for the ever-expanding Police National DNA database, which contains the biological essence of hundreds of thousands of innocent people; or for the expanding network of ANPR cameras; or for the proposals to take 19 pieces of information from people travelling abroad; or for the Transformational Government Project.

These things just happen without debate of the issues or any attempt to defend the people from these oppressive and high-handed measures. For MPs to protest about parliamentary sovereignty in such circumstances seems odd.

Of course it is argued that Parliament is the authority for all SIs but it must be clear that it has no real control over the way Ministers use these delegated powers.

As the story of the HRA shows us, the truth of the matter is that parliament can offer the public little effective protection because it is itself in the control of the executive.

Ideas summed up in two words by Lord Hailsham: elective dictatorship.

It is extraordinary in a way that this is the case even though less than a quarter of the country voted for the party now in power.


Close but no referendum

Posted in state-citizen relationship by ukliberty on March 5, 2008

311 MPs didn’t keep their promises.

248 did.

And three Liberal Democrat frontbenchers resign, because unlike their leader they thought they should keep to their manifesto commitment – 13 LibDem rebels in total.

Do we have enough rope and lampposts?


The debate can be read on TheyWorkForYou.

Conservatives only party to keep its promise on the Lisbon Treaty

Posted in state-citizen relationship by ukliberty on March 5, 2008

The BBC:

The long-awaited Commons debate and vote on whether to hold a referendum on the EU treaty takes place [today, about 7 pm].

The Conservatives’ call for a referendum is backed by the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the Commons along with some Lib Dem and Labour MPs.

Labour MPs have been told to oppose it. Lib Dems have been told to abstain.

The Tories say all parties promised a referendum on the EU Constitution and the treaty is the mostly the same. The government says it is very different.

I discussed whether it is substantially the same in an earlier article: the European Scrutiny Committee claims it “produces an effect which is substantially equivalent to the Constitutional Treaty”; a number of European leaders saying it is substantially the same (the BBC claims “most”).

Wednesday’s vote in the House of Commons, expected close to 1900 GMT, is seen as the key vote in the progress of the EU Amendment Bill which ratifies the treaty, through the UK Parliament.

You can track its progress and read the debates using Parliament’s website. If you want a more easy read (nicely formatted, photos of MPs etc), you can use – as a starting point, search for Business of the House (Lisbon Treaty)”.

Conservative leader David Cameron says he hopes they will win, but that is unlikely unless all opposition MPs (including Lib Dems) and about 34 Labour MPs rebel against their leadership.

He urged both parties’ MPs “to keep the word they gave to their constituents” on holding a referendum at the last election.

He appealed to Lib Dems, saying “they are not part of Gordon Brown’s troops. They don’t have to march to his tune”.

He said: “If enough of them vote with us and if there are enough Labour MPs who vote to keep their word, we can get the referendum that the British people were promised.”

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has defended his decision to tell his MPs to abstain, and maintained that he instead wants a referendum on the “real” issue – Britain’s membership of the EU.

Interesting, a party leader who doesn’t want to keep his word.

A debate on whether to allow the Lib Dem amendment on Tuesday ended in heavy defeat – 68 MPs backed the call, 471 voted against it.

“We want a referendum on whether the United Kingdom stays in the European Union or not,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“That vote is not available to us – it was blocked yesterday by the Conservative and Labour parties and under those circumstances it is logical for us to say … ‘no’ to the very restrictive and in my view almost largely, irrelevant question about the Lisbon Treaty that the Conservatives want and that therefore we will abstain.”

But Sandra Gidley, the Lib Dem health spokeswoman, said she would be defying the party whip and voting for a referendum.

“Rightly or wrongly, my constituents will perceive that I have broken a promise I made at the last election if I do anything other than vote in support of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty,” she told Today.

Exactly, good for her. Indeed it seems a majority of the public want a referendum.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband denied that it was the government’s fear of losing a referendum that drove it to want to prevent the public from having a vote.

“I would dispute that – I don’t accept that proposition… The job of Parliament must be to scrutinise legislation and to decide whether or not to pass it,” he told the BBC.

“In exceptional circmstances where there’s a fundamental shift in the balance of power then of course a referendum should be held.”

As Suzy Dean wrote at OurKingdom, “Government should persuade us to support the Lisbon treaty – not tell us it is none of our business“.

But shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: “What we are dealing with here is something that goes wider than Europe – it’s an issue of trust in politics.”

And ex-Labour minister Frank Field, who said he would be voting for a referendum, echoed that sentiment.

“Whether this is a constitution or a treaty, most people thought they were going to get a vote on what we are voting for today,” he told the BBC.

Good for them, too.

All three of the main parties promised a referendum on the EU constitution in their 2005 manifestos.

But the constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters that year and the Lisbon treaty drawn up to replace it.

The government and the Lib Dems say the treaty does not have constitutional implications, so a referendum on it is not needed.

It says most changes are minor and procedural and it has secured “opt-outs” where necessary.

But the Conservatives, some Labour and Lib Dem MPs and the UK Independence Party among others, say that it is effectively the constitution under a different name – so there should be a referendum.

All EU parliaments must ratify the treaty, which was signed by EU leaders last year, before it can come into force.

MPs have been debating the different elements of the treaty over the past month.

The BBC has a timeline of the events leading up to this point.


Ken Clarke:

I’m likely to be voting with you [David Miliband] tonight but I’m not sure I’m going to be able to agree with any of the arguments you are using in favour of that proposition… Will you stop all this nonsense about it being different from the constitution, because it is plainly the same in substance, and explain why it is better not to have a referendum but have it decided in parliament. You are getting into trouble because of the deviousness and, at times, ridiculousness, of the arguments you are using.

Close but no referendum