Wednesday 19 January 2011

Fighting past battles

One of the closest things that I’ve heard from the ‘no’ side to a reasoned argument for retaining the current system of LCOs is that the National Assembly is a unicameral legislature with no revising chamber.  (As, of course are the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly).
In the context in which the argument is put forward, it’s utterly misplaced – the suggestion that a legislature which looks at which powers are to be transferred before legislation under those powers is even drawn up is in any way acting as a ‘revising’ chamber is obviously a nonsense.  But is there, nevertheless, a germ of a point in there somewhere about the dangers of a unicameral legislature?
Acting as a revising chamber was never the original intention of the House of Lords – it was far more to do with securing the representation of different interests, and specifically different classes.  Giving the traditional hereditary aristocracy at least an equal say with the richest of the Commoners was the aim.  But things change with time, and the functions performed by the Second Chamber now are very different from those envisaged at the time of its creation. 
Few would deny that the House of Lords has, on occasion, managed to improve legislation, sometimes significantly so.  Does that prove the need for a Second Chamber?  I’m unconvinced.  Around half the world’s states seem to manage quite happily with a unicameral system of government; it’s far too easy to assume that that to which we are accustomed is somehow the ‘norm’.
I suspect that the real reasons why the UK probably still needs a Second Chamber (albeit not the current one) are that the First Chamber is too dominated by the Executive to give proper consideration to the legislation it considers, and frequently too rushed in its consideration.  Those are the real lessons for our National Assembly, and I’m not sure that they’ve been learned yet; it sometimes appears that the Assembly is in danger of replicating the mistakes of the past with over-compliant backbenchers and rushed legislation.  The so-called 'Mother of Parliaments' has a habit of creating images of itself rather than building on the needs of people.
Insofar as the naysayers have a point (about the need for a revising chamber) what they should logically be proposing is either the establishment of a bicameral system in Wales, or else the submission of Assembly Measures to an existing body (such as the Welsh Grand, if they'd really like to reduce things to farce).  Both of those options, however, start from an acceptance of the legitimacy of the Assembly – and that is the real problem of the ‘no’ campaigners.  They are, in truth, still fighting the battles of the past.


Cibwr said...

Interesting post John. As usual True Wales are short of the mark with their claim that there will be no scrutiny of Welsh laws if the yes side win, partly because there is no external scrutiny of Welsh laws at the moment. All that is scrutinised is the transfer of law making power in a specific area. Now there are those that have tried to narrow that transfer significantly so that it can only be used to create a tightly circumscribed law, but this has been done with limited success.

I would argue that in many ways the National Assembly scrutiny process is better than that of the Commons as there is more scope for the taking of evidence of external experts, both at the prelegislative and the committee stages. For a legislative body, such as the National Assembly, I think a second chamber is fairly redundant. The trend in other such legislatures is to abolish the upper house.

What is the function of an upper house? Well even that varies. In federations and confederations it usually represents the component members of the federation, usually with equal representation of weighted representation, so its not just a reflection of the lower house. In unitary states it often elected on a different basis, an older electorate (as in Italy), or a more restricted electorate (ie only local councillors vote as in France) or by a different electoral system. Usually it has only limited power of delay not out right veto. In Norway and Iceland they drew lots from the elected members and 1/4 formed a second house to review legislation, but that process was abandoned as party politics meant that they just duplicated the work of the lower house.

So the questions to be asked is do we need a house of review and if so how should it be constituted, what powers should it have, and how can it be independent of the executive?

Spirit of BME said...

Mr Dixon, I must take issue with you on the following

"Acting as a revising chamber was never the original intention of the House of Lords – it was far more to do with securing the representation of different interests, and specifically different classes."

It has failed miserably as a revising chamber – e.g. Poll tax and I put to you that the vested interests are still its main purpose, plus being the public face of the Establishment, I agree that some of the labels of these interests have changed over the decades and as they insist in having titles the class business is still enshrined in their make up.

I fear ,Mr Wigley (et all) ,has forgotten his Tom Paine ( I know he has read it ) when in his book Common Sence (1776) in the chapter “Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession”, he puts forward the bold fact that any title that separates you from the common man ( or woman) is an act of oppression by the State.
Shame, -on the Tories and the (to borrow a phrase of the Left) “running dogs” of the English regime, in the Blaid, who turned over decades of principled stand on entry to the Second Chamber.- What a shower!! I trust good Plaid members will work hard to overturn this decision and cast adrift any person there who speaks in our name.

John Dixon said...


"So the questions to be asked is do we need a house of review and if so how should it be constituted, what powers should it have, and how can it be independent of the executive?"

An alternative perspective might be to free the first house from the control of the Executive - I don't think we then need a second house.

Where the Executive is drawn from the Legislature, and where a significant proportion of the members of a legislature see politics in terms of careers (which means getting into the Executive), there is a tendency for those on the government benches to see the scrutiny process in terms of defending their government rather than in terms of holding the government to account. The smaller the legislature (and the larger the government majority) the fewer backbackbenchers that leaves to do serious scrutiny. And if the background of those members is broadly similar as well...

I think (and have posted on this before) that we need to look at splitting the Executive from the Legislature, as happens in, say, the US (although I don't understimate the democratic difficulties either). The problem is more acute in a small country like Wales than it is in the UK - the pool from which the Executive is drawn is limited, and a high proportion of government AMs end up 'on the payroll'.

The stated intention of the Assembly's processes is that all backbenchers - even government backbenchers - are a full part of the scrutiny process at present. But that isn't what I observe in practice.

John Dixon said...


There are those who might argue that 'casting them adrift' (aka getting them out of the way) is one of the reasons why some politicians get sent to the Lords in the first place. Not all of them though, of course.