The Professors passion for "The Science of Deceit" started here...

Employed by the Ministry (in a covert capacity) to help introduce the law ending dishonest politics, you can see his hand all over the posts of past.

Current political circumstances have forced him to reveal himself and as we speak, MPs are signing up to re-introduce The Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill for debate with over 80,000 voters supporting them.

Posts before Jan '08 are purely for the record (with hindsight they make fascinating reading). Posts after May 13th mark the Professor's return.

Meet the Professor

Monday, August 20, 2007

Wholesale theft

Without exception, the MPs we’ve lobbied to support the Misrepresentation of the Peoples Act have cried, “Parliament is the place to hold a duplicitous government to account - not the courts.”

When pressed, they admit that in its current state, Parliament isn’t doing this.

Profuse apologies to Quintin Letts re. his article/blueprint for re-establishing power in the House of Commons (from yesterday’s Observer) - we’ve lifted it wholesale....

Perhaps Gordon will do the same.


Thrash the whips and other ways to beef up the Commons

Parliament needs a thoroughly good shake-up to reinvigorate its present moribund ways. And as for Speaker Martin ...

Gordon Brown's newfound belief in parliamentary scrutiny is a marvellously comic conversion, as unexpected as Osama bin Laden popping up on Al Jazeera in a yarmulka, or the Rev Ian Paisley attending a Celtic match in a green and white scarf. But it has happened. We must believe our eyes. Soon after reaching No 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister stood before the cameras and, his purply-grey jowls quivering, asserted that it was time ministers and Whitehall rediscovered respect for the House of Commons. Translation: I'm not that Tony Blair who told such porkies before the Iraq War.

Can this be the same Gordon Brown who, during a decade of budgets, concealed numerous taxes from the House and told MPs scant detail about the nasties in the Treasury red book? Can this be the same Gordon Brown who, as Chancellor, kept dodging parliamentary questions about tax credits, preferring to leave those to his underpowered colleague Dawn Primarolo, she of the dreamy eyes and the voice like a fading moped? Can this be the same Gordon Brown who seems happy for Europe's powers to mushroom at the expense of, good lord, Parliament?

August is, however, no time for discreditable cynicism. We journalists are meant to be pressing our shoulders to Gordon's civic wheel, as in some socialist-realist art tableau of communal endeavour. So let us rejoice, comrades. Mr Brown has seized the issue of parliamentary sovereignty. Strike up, ye Soviet choirs! Be grateful!

In the new spirit of consensus which Mr Brown is allegedly keen to engender, here are six ideas which could re-establish the standing of the House of Commons and, in some cases, make life for ministers considerably more peppery. This, after all, is what it is all about. MPs, whatever their party affiliation, should be in the business of discomfiting the government. My proposals are comparatively cost-free, so Mr Brown, who likes to assure us he is prudent about the public purse, need not complain about them being too expensive. Nor do they carry any copyright. David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell should feel equally free to borrow them and insert them, word for word if The Observer's syndication department will wear it, in their parties' manifestos before the next general election. Anyway, here goes. The House of Commons could be reinvigorated by the following simple measures:

1: Allow follow-up questions. At present, the Commons rules are ridiculously strict. MPs' opportunities are like snipers' shots. A backbencher has just one chance of a kill - one chance to elicit an answer from a minister. Surprise surprise, ministers have become shameless about ignoring difficult questions. They know that if the MP in question tries to jump up again to press home the query, he or she will be told to sit down by that gormless wonder, Mister Speaker (of whom more in a moment).

The experience of Westminster's select committees shows that MPs are far better at drawing informative answers from our rulers when they are allowed to press their suit a second, third and sometimes even fourth time. It is left to the chairman of the select committee to decide when an MP has pestered the minister enough. That arrangement would not translate directly to the Commons, but if MPs were allowed at least two bites at a minister, it would allow them to embarrass members of the executive who were resorting to blatant flannel.

2: Move the dispatch box. As happens every summer, the Palace of Westminster is currently crawling with carpenters, electricians and hard-hatted workmen who are making renovations and repairs while the Houses are in recess. Here is another small job for them. At present, ministers sit on a bench next to the Commons dispatch box, on the side of the party with the most MPs. Moving the government dispatch box to the centre of the House would loosen the link between party and executive and would underline the fact that ministers are meant to be servants of all sides of the House.

Yes, it would expose ministers and cut them off from the physical assurance of all those 'hear hears' behind them. Good. That might also encourage timid Labour MPs to become more astringent.

This change would involve alterations to the Commons table, a large piece of furniture which is used for jugs of water, reference books and footrest for indolent frontbenchers. Ministers could either be seated at the far end of the table, where the Commons mace currently hangs in a bracket, or they could be placed at the near end. At present, this is home to the wigged clerks who are positioned there so that they can whisper urgent advice to that remarkably dim lightbulb, the Speaker (of whom more in a moment).

3: Weaken the whips. The cost of any minor alterations to the Commons table could be more than met by scrapping the generous state salaries which are paid not only to government whips in both the Commons and the Lords, but also, astonishingly, to some opposition whips. Paid whips tend to be brutal whips (they are keen to hold on to that money, so they do their jobs without mercy). And brutal whips, pretty obviously, are bad for parliamentary independence.

If this withdrawal of whips' salaries seems too big a leap for the Prime Minister and the other party leaders, they could start by destroying the power of the whips to decide which MPs sit on select committees. They should in future be chosen by secret ballot rather than by the party managers.

Sadly, the traffic is at present flowing in the wrong direction on this matter. One of Mr Brown's first acts on becoming Prime Minister was to decide that parliamentary private secretaries (who are effectively unpaid members of the government) can in future sit on select committees. Shortly before the summer recess, furthermore, the government blithely ignored protocol and made Keith Vaz a member of the highly sensitive home affairs select committee. When the opposition complained about this, they were told to shut up by that beacon of purity, Mister Speaker (of whom more in a moment).

The growing independence of select committees has been most welcome in recent years, but at present it can safely be said to be in peril.

4: Evidence on oath. Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay once talked memorably about 'the High Court of Parliament' but there is a telling difference. When witnesses appear in front of MPs at select committees, they do not swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There is no 'so help me God' moment with a Bible or holy text. The same was the case at the Hutton inquiry. Not everyone who appeared at that inquiry may have told 'the whole truth' and there is often a feeling that select committee witnesses are less than entirely honest. Make them take an oath. Make them realise that Parliament, with its wigged orderlies and its legal-collared Speaker (of whom more in a moment) is indeed a high court. Witnesses should be made to stand in awe of it.

5: Scrap Westminster Hall debates. During New Labour's first term, an offshoot of the Commons was opened, at vast expense, in a room next to the 11th-century Westminster Hall. The morning debates held in this subsidiary chamber are pathetically ill-attended, both by politicians and public. The topics for debate are often parochial and many MPs use them simply to ensure a favourable mention in their constituency newspaper. The debates are chaired not by Mister Speaker (be patient and we will come to him presently), but by other MPs.

Members understandably love this outlet for their gushings. The government's business managers have also been known to 'park', but we should recall the words of William White, head doorkeeper of the Commons in 1870: 'If all the useless verbiage could be strained out of our parliamentary speeches, their force would be increased, the morning papers might diminish their reporting staff - and many a valuable life would be prolonged.' Westminster Hall, quite apart from costing hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, dilutes the importance of the real Commons chamber. Let debates be held in the main House in the morning, if need be, but nowhere else.

6: Sack the current Speaker. Michael Martin, Speaker since 2000, has not been a success. The opposition front benches have grave doubts about him. He chats in a matey manner to Labour MPs and has failed to radiate the impartiality of his recent predecessors. He has also, recently, employed the services of Messrs Carter-Ruck and partners, perhaps London's hungriest libel lawyers, as his spokesmen. This is hardly an act of parliamentary accountability. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, we now know that Carter-Ruck's services are being paid out of public funds. Although within the law, this seems little short of a scandal.

If Gordon Brown is serious about restoring the strong name of Parliament, he should lift his telephone, ask to be connected to Speaker's House, and suggest to the irascible old fellow at the other end to bow to the inevitabilities of life and relinquish his shrivelling, palsied grip on office.

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