Fill(et)ing the Lords – 2

The House of Lords is the largest parliamentary chamber in the world apart from China’s rubber-stamp assembly, but few attend at any given time, and no wonder. Stoppard (the most British playwright ever to come out of Czechoslovakia) had it right: “The House of Lords, an illusion to which I have never been able to subscribe – responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.”

There is frequent talk of cutting the numbers down, but those in the seats hold their position for life, and Prime Ministers do insist on sticking more cut-price peers in the House than leave it in the natural way. There should be a moratorium, except that it would leave in place those elevated in the last lot’s packing-the-benches exercise.

In the absence of the French solution (which is both illegal and immoral), the House of Lords can only be shrunk by stripping the rights from existing peers.

Not every Lord has a right to sit, but only those who receive at the opening of each session a writ of summons. Since Blair’s constitutional games, the hereditary peers (most of whom would be fitter on those benches than the rejected politicos who have been shoved in there) may not receive a summons unless given a life peerage. A peer otherwise entitled may request leave not to be summoned, and so must stay out unless he withdraws that request. Furthermore, certain lords are excluded by law, including holders of judicial office, those under 18, bankrupts, foreigners, those convicted of treason or those who have not attended for six months. It would be but a little stretch to add more reasons to withdraw a summons.

What of those who cease to provide substantial public service outside the House? They are the nominal nobility of the land, and noblesse oblige: a true nobleman (if not the paper noblemen of the current House of Lords) recognise that with the privilege of the title and wealth comes a duty to public service. Many a Lord serves as a magistrate or in the Army, or commands a local TA unit. Some sit for little reward on committees of national or local import, or for no reward as charity trustees (and those charities may be worthy ones, not the fake charities which besmirch the name).

On the other hand, some of this generation of pound-shop peers have got there simply for sitting on quangos, without necessarily doing a good job or making the quango actually worthwhile in its existence. Once such a person might have received an OM or MBE as a thank-you: now honour-inflation gives them a peerage. Such service if it is a career should not be enough and might be better as a disqualification. The army, the justices’ bench and public service for duty not for career are noble. If the ermine is just for show or to give a leg-up in a career drinking taxpayers’ money, it should be stripped off their backs.

Come to that, it would be a good exercise to keep out of the Lords any whose main income is derived from taxpayers’ money, apart from an army officer’s salary.

The rules also exclude a peer from sitting if he or she is a member of the European Parliament. That one is by the board now, but what of others who are in the pay of foreign powers, or in thrall to them? What of peers who conspire with foreign powers, which is easy for a susceptible man to slip into? They should not be in Parliament. They know who they are.

Maybe some of the less worthy lords could be bribed to go away. If that sounds underhand, it is no more dishonest that living the high-hog on taxpayers’ money.

New conditions on the writ of summons would be valuable. The lurking danger is that wokeists will hijack the idea, and force exclusion for imagined transgressions and a careless word here or there, or they could take over the approval panels and impose those rules where there are no rules. Quis judicat ipsa judices? This needs careful work.

It may be that in these ways so many would be hurled from the benches that the House shrinks to manageable size. It may be that so many are sent away that more peers are needed. Appointing peers – that is another challenge.

See also

Fill(et)ing the Lords – 1

It is only a few months since we were comparing the House of Commons to its behaviour before the Civil War. Now we have a Cavalier Parliament in the Commons, but with Cromwellian disdain for the House of Lords.

It is not that the Lords are positively rebellious, blocking the Commons, but they are either potentially threatening or useless. The live question is whether to attempt to reform it. The last person who did was Tony Blair, and while his changes looked as if they could shrink the House to a manageable size and fill it with experts, it has swollen even more and been filled with cast-off cronies. That was always going to be the end of the Blair reforms: William Hague said as much in an infamous speech he made at the time.

The remedy is harder, because no one can agree on what the ideal House of Lords would be.

We in the general public may see it the way Oscar Wilde did in A Woman of No Importance: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.”

That is not a satire though: it is the ideal. In America, the Senate was devised to be the elder, learned body restraining the passing enthusiasms of the popular house; the “fickleness and passion” as Madison put it. Bagehot thought it valuable as “formidable sinister interest may always obtain the complete command of a dominant assembly” needing a second chamber of an opposite sort to oppose the captive chamber; but he also observed that “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”

Idealism fails. The Commons may be captured by an enthusiasm for a few years, and often are, but in the Lords it may be embedded for a generation. The best characterisation of the House in its reality is one of Tony Benn’s observations: The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians.

The Liberals wanted to replace the Lords with an elected chamber back in Gladstone’s day, and it has never happened, because MPs will not brook a rival set of chancers like themselves. Every parliament has those promising unspecified reform, or abolition, election or goodness knows what.

Until the ideal is determined, the remedy cannot be. Most other countries have a second chamber, because they follow at a distance the Westminster model. We can look at what they have done, and that is enough to put us off reform. No other though has our Outer Mongolia for retired or failed politicians (Outer Mongolia by the way has no second chamber).

Pound-shop peerages handed out like toffee have made the House of Lords intolerable or embarrassing. Boris Johnson has promised to consider reform, but did so just after handing out more toffees.

What to do? Another article, I feel.

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The beggars: fake charities

There was a longstanding rule in charity law that political purposes cannot be charitable. Political purposes includes any purpose to change the law or government practice, here or abroad. For centuries judges would take a dim view of attempts to get around the rule. A political purpose cannot be for the good of the public because there is no way to judge it.

This was strictly enforced. A society for encouraging friendship with Sweden, which seems benevolent enough, was struck down because, as the judge observed, the court could not take the view that it is always for the public benefit to be friendly with Sweden – for all the court knew, it might benefit the public to have a war with Sweden.

That is not to say that charitable uses were very circumscribed. There have been some strange charities, and to go through the conditions placed upon village charities for educating boys or feeding the worthy is to realise how the past can indeed be a foreign country. Then there is the Baconian Society, which seeks to prove that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays and which is a charity because the course of its ridiculous quest involves scholarly research that might be of public benefit and might turn up genuine insights (if not the one they are looking for).

There may still be funds founded in the seventeenth century for buying Christians out of slavery on the Barbary Coast of Africa. That used to be seen as a quaint leftover, but these days the number of slaves held in the world makes such funds as relevant as when they were created.

The turbulent politics of the twentieth century pushed at the boundaries. Occasionally there would pop up an educational charity ‘to educate the public in the benefits of socialism’ – not charitable. (The socialists instead just took the mainstream educational institutions over and still use them to promote socialism anyway.) Wealthy charities started to play politics, because political individuals infiltrated their governing structures to do so, and all that cash donated by starry-eyed elderly ladies is a big draw for someone who wants to spend it on their personal campaign.

Spending charity funds outside the charitable purposes for which it was given, which includes spending on any political purpose, is a breach of trust and in effect is theft.

There is subtlety in the abuse: it is not called lobbying but advising government from a position of expertise. The line between advice and naked political advocacy is a fine one and the Charity Commission used to issue guidance on what is acceptable and what is naughty. One rule was that a charity may not get its supporters to lobby their MPs and may not send them pro forma letters to use. Well, I posed as an RSPCA supporter once and collected some lobbying packs which blatantly broke all those rules: the Charity Commission made excuses for them. I had seen the Commission falling like wolves on innocent, small charities for minor infractions, but here was a huge abuse of charity funds being winked at. It might not have been the wholesale corruption of the Commission, just a single junior clerk afraid to make a fuss about a powerful charity, but when a national body presented the same material higher up, the commission when into self-defence mode and it was again brushed off. Here it became clear that a very wealthy charity like the RSPCA could ignore the rules against politics with impunity, as if somehow close coworking had turned into regulatory capture.

All the rules changed under Tony Blair. The old rule against political purposes was nominally kept in place, but charitable purposes were now to include ‘the protection of human rights’. That can be anything.

Even the most virulently socio-political organisation can claim charitable status, their objects being to protect the human rights of their client group. Charitable status shuts the mouth of doubters – it is a state-sanctioned approbation of moral goodness and to condemn a charity it therefore a secular blasphemy.

While it shuts the mouth of critics, charitable status open the public purse. Grants are made to large, political charities for ‘research’, and it all goes to fill the swollen coffers, so that the government is using taxpayers’ money to pay for lobbying against itself. Our money is being used to fund damaging social and political campaigns.

You may look at the extremist campaigns run by political advocacy groups like Stonewall and Mermaids and wonder how on Earth they have the money to campaign – you and I are paying for them. We are paying for the circulation in schools, of mendacious propaganda, aimed to shape tender minds to political goals and out-and-out lies. If a fantasy writer had penned a tale of a small committee who hate maleness so much they deem it toxic and set about lopping the goolies off as many small boys as they can, it would be classified as a disgusting dystopian fantasy, and the idea that the state would fund it – that would be beyond Kafka at his most lurid. However that is happening, and the same group is using taxpayers’ money to take over the school curriculum and silence dissent. That group is a charity under Blair’s dispensation.

These are fake charities: not charitable under any logical definition but that which Blair’s law attributed, running not from the benevolence of donors to a public benefit, but from an abuse of taxpayers’ money. Further, any charity whose trustees or officials join with the motive of using donated money to run a political campaign, that is corruption.

The immediate thing must be to turn off the tap of taxpayers’ money to these fake charities. Find out how they get the grants; find which civil servants approved them, and show them the door.

Then try to bar propaganda from schools. It would help if there were sources of information to replace those from the lobbyists – I can moan, but those of us who just do that are complicit in not providing an alternative.

Next, reverse Blair’s deformation of charity rules and at a stroke revoke the charitable status of political bodies. Let charity mean what it means to most people.

See also

A cabal of its enemies

Hercules diverted a river to clean the Augean Stables, so a Hard Rain is quite a modest response.

Still, it will have to be a very hard rain indeed to change bureaucracy. Standing outside, it is incomprehensible but one feels a slight guilt at doubting the dedicated work presumed to go on behind the walls of Whitehall and of endless agencies and offices the purpose of which is unknown even to those who work there.

Robert Conquest’s Laws of Politics notes cynically that “The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

To prove or disprove Conquest’s observation, the lid is to be ripped off the obscure world of bureaucracy, and what it reveals may be embarrassing or may correct misassumptions.  The senior civil servants reassure us they are misunderstood, but that is itself misunderstanding the complaint: the target is a system, which is the collective network of individuals, who are individually dedicated to their roles, but somehow collectively getting things wrong and spaffing the taxpayers’ money up the wall as they do so. The test is not good intent: it is good achievement.

Governments have tried for decades to get over failures by hiring more brains. It has not worked, so it must be something else going wrong.

One thing observed, by one who is preparing the rain machine, that there seems to be no sanction for the individuals whose failures they are – just move on and up to another position, and watch it fail too. That cosy system will be opened up to the hard rain. On the other hand, you have to ask why someone with a head full of brains and a team working with them will goof so disastrously as we have seen so often. That may come down to the inability to handle novelty, because novelty is outside the expertise of the person entrusted with it.

The obvious response to novelty outside ones expertise, and the criticism that will descend, is to establish systems and practices in place of actual action: and therefore the biggest efforts are in risk-avoidance and back-covering, not achievement of allotted tasks.

This looks not like Conquest’s rule, but very like the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

Invoking the Peter Principle leads me on, for what happens in Whitehall is a mystery to most of us, glimpsed only through satire.  There is Parkinson’s Law too, starting with “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”, but Parkinson went a great deal further in his book about the rise of increasingly bulbous bureaucracies, and is worth dusting off and re-reading.

I hope that these satirical observations are just that, but each example of failure appearing in the press, and each interaction I have with the higher levels of bureaucracy seems to suggest they are accurate.

The obligatory COVID-19 reference comes in here. There is a two-edged sword reaction to the Civil Service’s response in lockdown: firstly they showed that speedy action is possible, but secondly that they can work perfectly well, and arguably better, when they have sent most of their staff home and restricted themselves just to urgent work.  This suggests that the people are not at fault but that the system which the senior officers impose on those people is at fault, as the problems are eliminated when it is lifted. Further, the ability to work better with a skeleton staff suggests a major redundancy in capacity.

Recently this blog carried an analysis of one systemic failure in bureaucracy, which (if I can summarise so briefly) is the tendency, through natural means, to ossify into a homogenous block with no variety in character nor accordingly much breadth of thought.  Many similar observations have been made by commentators: another ‘law’, by Robert Michels, is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, or a version by John O’Sullivan, one of Margaret Thatcher’s advisers), that “Any organization not explicitly rightwing sooner or later becomes leftwing” (presumably because those of a conservative mind are willing to hire anyone who can do the job, but those on the left-wing will hire only other left-wingers). Perhaps the Little Hobb version would be that “Any organisation will coalesce into a small range of character-traits”.

The point of the civil service however is not to make jobs for the sort of people who coalesce there: it is to achieve the ambitions of the elected politicians. If they are unable competently to handle novelty then they must give way to those who can, and that means leaving the service to do the bare minimum clerking work and going outside for actual expertise. That immediately hits a bigger wall: the Civil Service is unable to procure contracts competently, so they cannot go outside.

The result of all these factors suggests that the Civil Service is dedicated indeed and full of highly intelligent men and women but for solid reasons is unable to do what it is there to do. Bureaucracy in indeed controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

See also

Books

Things they won’t do with the British Constitution

A stonking majority does not give power to abolish democracy because even the most loyal MPs will not contemplate that.  Margaret Thatcher herself, for all her command, was restrained on many occasions by the thought ‘I could never get this through the House of Commons’. The opposition may tweet madly, but some things are fundamental:  the majority is, after all, not of radicals but of Conservatives.

Forget grand and mendacious declarations attempting to entrench the concerns of the moment: the British constitution just gets on with it: we consider these truths to be self-evident, so there’s no point writing them down.

I must add before I proceed a reminder of a caution given by the greatest of philosophers:

Therefore, where there is already erected a Soveraign Power, there can be no other Representative of the same people, but onely to certain particular ends, by the Soveraign limited. For that were to erect two Soveraigns; and every man to have his person represented by two Actors, that by opposing one another, must needs divide that Power, which (if men will live in Peace) is indivisible, and thereby reduce the Multitude into the condition of Warre, contrary to the end for which all Soveraignty is instituted.

Some countries do very interesting things in their constitutions, which fit the conservative mindset and might work here too, but they will not be done. As an exercise, I looked at some randomly selected.

A special majority for raising taxes

They have this in a number of American states. Whether it actually reduces taxes, I cannot say, but the good motive is there. They went even further in Georgia as part of Mikheil Saakashvili’s reforms.  He may have ended his presidency in the recriminations of the Russian war and flight into political exile, but in his time, Saakashvili achieved wonders where no one thought he could, ending corruption and boosting the land into economic growth, until the Russians came.  One of his reforms was to add to the constitution that any increase in tax rates needs approval in a referendum. That was later repealed, and was impractical. However requiring a special majority of the Commons is tempting.

If they ever thought about it, on the same principle you could argue that there should be a special majority for creating a new criminal offence, but a simple majority for repealing one. That speaks of a concern for freedom. It won’t be done.

An obligatory balanced budget

Another American innovation: that the Government may not spend more than it earns. That is everyday life for a household economy, but considered outlandish in the national economy.

I can imagine the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for all his former pieties on this point when he was a backbencher, having a fit were he required to reduce spending and borrow nothing, or nothing more than is needed to replace existing bonds as they mature. Sir Geoffrey Howe managed it. Has any other since his time? It do not think it would get through, somehow.

The default clause

There has been no default on British government debt since the days of King Charles II, and investors know this, which ensures a high credit rating. It has not had to be put in statute that default is forbidden. If ever default were hinted at, all other payments from the state should stop to give preference to the honour of the state’s finances, starting with the salaries of ministers, Members of Parliament, quangocrats and maybe even the untouchables of the service. This will not be discussed, in case mentioning it would raise the ghost unheard of for three and a half centuries and spook the financial world.

An elected Senate in place of the Lords

Can you imagine it?  John Major remarked that if the answer to a question is ‘more politicians’, it is a damn silly question. 

The current House of Lords was filled with Tony Blair’s placemen in his day, and their clones following them, now entrenched, unremovable until death or reform. There may be a better way to fill the red benches, but it is not yet more elections of yet more political hacks.. Perhaps it would mean appointing lords ex officio from certain learned offices, but then would-be unelected politicians will target those offices for their own ambition and politicize them.  It doesn’t work well in Eire.

One measure surely would be ensure no one has power unless they have proven that they have an office of responsibility and an income not taken out of taxpayers’ pockets.

If I had a hand, I would itch to scythe down the career politicians with a retirement age, bribe others to retire maybe or remove them if they have no honest income.  I might enact that no new peerage can be created until the House is below 500 life peers, and then allow no one to be appointed unless they are a serving justice of the peace (as magistrates have proven service, responsibility and hands-on understanding of the actual deeds of actual people); and they can be picked by lottery.  The House, shorn of paper lords, might be renamed the ‘House of Elders’. Also I could bring back the Earls.

Privatise the Civil Service

This one is impossible, but actually a more sensible idea than it seems when looked at in depth, which I am not going to do. If an article along these lines appears on this blog in forthcoming months, do not be surprised.

The thing I won’t mention

There are a few broken nations in the world where they might have this, but in Britain it would be a disastrous, and utterly stupid idea; so daft and damaging that if it were ever suggested then its introduction would become the uncompromising demand of every loud, fringe, lunatic and special interest group in the land.  I would expect to see it in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto and portrayed by the BBC as “when not if”.  There is that example in – well, let’s not mention it, just in case, eh?

Restoring the Lords’ absolute veto in further cases

The House of Lords lost its absolute veto on legislation in 1911, except in one case: no bill to extend the life of a parliament can pass without the House of Lords (although a bill to abolish that one reservation might be passed by the Commons alone in theory.) Perhaps there are other principles too fundamental to be left at the mercy of the House Of Commons alone? It might first need a reform of the Lords. Even so, I can see dangerous territory ahead there.

Optional two-member constituencies

The old system, before reform, was “two knights from each shire; two burgesses from each borough”, and instead of dividing a county or a borough in two, the whole county elected the top two candidates. It is a thought – and you could ask each double-constituency each election whether the want to vote together or as two parts. Predicting the electoral arithmetic would be a nightmare, but the exercise would be instructive, if possibly also destructive.

An extra vote for net taxpayers

We have all thought it: the House of Commons is filled with politicians eager to rob the taxpayer to pay for votes, so should it not be the victims, those who have a financial interest in the result, taxpayers and their families, who get to choose them, not those who are motivated to encourage this robbery? Then again, there are millions who are technically taxpayers but whose money comes from taxes in the first place and the cash is just recycled: they are not real taxpayers. All right, so this important reform will never be done, but it is out there. An extra vote for taxpaying families would be nice.

Members for the overseas territories

Often discussed, always in the “too difficult” tray, but it is a popular idea in Gibraltar. If anyone wishes to sponsor me, I will stand as member for the British Antarctic Territory.

CANZUK

Ah – another article, I feel.

Any more….

Getting the hang of impossible constitutional ideas is a troublesome balance between thinking of things that are whacky but thought-provoking and those that are too impossible, with the risk of writing ideas that I think are daft only to find someone actually agrees with them. There is no proposition so absurd that it has not been urged by politicians.

The most important thing to remember, is that I do not believe in any of them. Someone will.

See also