I was critical of the Parliamentary process last week, so let me redress the balance just a shade. We’re back for a slightly dotty two week session before we break up again for the Party Conference Season. I think we should abolish (or perhaps consign to weekends) these outdated jamborees in seaside towns.
My Parliamentary life for a few weeks will be dominated by chairing the Committee Stage of the Offensive Weapons Bill. Law is made in this country in a complex series of processes. A Green paper, media comment, think tank papers produce the idea; a White Paper laying out the ideas in detail may follow; then its First Reading of the resulting Bill, which is simply a first sight of the printed draft; Second Reading is a whole day debate in the Commons, discussing the principle behind the Bill; then it’s into Committee where every line, dot, comma and word is debated to try to make it good law, whether or not one agrees with the principle; Report Stage is when the Committee reports back to the whole House on the changes they have made, and when further detailed amendments can be carried; then its Third Reading to discuss the amended Bill in full. After that the Bill goes off to the House of Lords, where a similar process is followed, and any amendments which are agreed by them, then come back and forth to the Commons (‘Parliamentary ping-pong’) until the Bill is finally agreed and goes off to Her Majesty for her signature.
As a member of Mr Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen, it is my job to chair committee stages of bills, chair debates in Westminster Hall, and very occasionally the main Chamber when we are sitting as a “Committee of the Whole House” on finance or constitutional issues. It’s quite a challenging role. You have to be even-handed, even if you have your own clear views on the Bill in question; you have to understand and implement the extremely complex procedures of the House as laid out in Erskine-May; you have to recognise even the most obscure or recent backbencher when they rise to speak; and you have to stay awake, no matter how dull the debate may be.
Without compromising that impartiality, I can say that the Offensive Weapons Bill seems like a good idea - banning acid sales to prevent these horrific attacks, controlling knife sales, and limiting certain types of weapon. Yet those who make Elderflower cordial are concerned about getting the citric acid it requires; the catering industry are worried about whether or not knives should be bought on the internet, and posted; and specialist gun clubs are fussed about large-bore weapons, which the Bill bans. These and a host of similar details will be thrashed out in Committee.
As Chairman of the Bill Committee, I take no view on it, and cannot vote at any stage in its consideration. So I apologise to the small number of constituents who have tried to lobby me on it.
There are four committee sessions a week- two each on Tuesday and Thursday, each lasting up to three hours or so, so it can be a gruelling experience for the Chairman. But the end result- the legislation - tends at least to have been carefully chewed over, amended, explained. Like the Bill or hate it, the British system at least ensures that it has been well discussed and that it is as good an Act as it possibly can be.
Over 40 years or so, Parliament has become weak, emasculated and muddled. Brexit may be just what it needs. Our powers to scrutinise and hold to account the Government have been eroded - by the EU, devolution to Scotland, Wales and local government, and by 24-hour rolling news providing an effective opposition singularly lacking elsewhere.
We must never forget that Parliament's job is not to run the country but to scrutinise and hold to account those of its members who, by right of their Parliamentary majority, form the government and seek to do so. It's about scrutinising Bills, and like them or loathe them at least making them into good, workable law. It's about holding Ministers to account through debates and question times, Select Committees and so much more... It's about shouting the corner for the unique local needs of an MP’s own constituency; and it's about speaking up for minorities and for the weak, and for those unable to speak for themselves, however they voted.
Tony Blair was the first PM to realise that the weaker Parliament is, the more unfettered Ministers' freedom to act will be, and he took steps to further that erosion. It was under him that we first saw the near universal use of Parliamentary 'guillotines' – the time-limiting of debate. By that means, he abolished one of the few real weapons at the disposal of the Opposition - time. We Conservatives voted against Timetable Motions for thirteen years arguing that they were a scourge of Parliamentary democracy. But in Government, of course, we love them and have preserved and extended them. Time limits on speeches mean that we err on the side of quantity rather than quality. Debates are pretty shabby little rags by comparison with the great old days of Thatcher, Churchill, Disraeli, and the quality of the legislation we send up to the Lords is as a result so poor that it demands dozens of amendments, many of them from the Government itself, during the much more thorough Lords' scrutiny of our Bills.
Mr Blair's emasculation of Parliament went further. He used to send his backbenchers home for 'constituency weeks' and brought in innocent amusements to keep the backbenchers happy. Westminster Hall debates are worthy enough, but being incapable of a vote are in no way 'binding.' Even less so are the recent invention of debates on public petitions which give people the entirely false impression that if they raise more than 100,000 signatures, they will get a debate in Parliament. The 4 million who petitioned for a second EU Referendum must have been more than a little disappointed at three hours of discussion concluded by a wind-up from a junior Minister.
Regular Opposition day debates in the main Chamber are routinely voted down by government backbenchers who have not been present for much of the debate; and the fairly recent invention of 'Backbench Business Committee Debates' allows a good airing of some topic dear to an MP's heart, but has little effect on policy or governmental behaviour. Debates and question times are largely formal and formulaic, the Prime Minister and Ministers pay them little attention, numbers attending from the backbenches are low and debates end early through lack of speakers.
Now they are keen to get rid of the visible signs and symbols of Parliament – the funny clothes, ancient traditions, wigs for the clerks at the Table; the long tradition of impartiality by the Speaker; the careful language, the powerfully influencing speeches. Soon they will close the building under guise of 'modernising it', making it more public-friendly and the rest of it. And in the meantime, unheeded by us, the Government are allowed to get on with whatever they want to unhampered by our only mildly irritating scrutiny. It is a weak, idle and emasculated Parliament indeed.
So what do we need to do about it? First, we should, as we Conservatives always promised to do, abolish timetable motions. That might well make life less comfortable for we backbenchers. The Parliamentary day would be less predictable. We might have to cancel some of our overseas trips, perhaps stay in Westminster for longer in the evening. It might well be a bit of a bore; but it’s the job we signed up to. We should limit the worthy but perhaps relatively ineffectual Westminster Hall debates, Adjournment debates, Backbench Business Committee debates and Opposition Days. They give us the warm illusion of holding the government to account, but are in reality largely ignored.
We should seek to cut back on 'case-work' which largely involves us in doing things which actually ought to be done by local councillors, social workers, immigration lawyers. "He's a good Constituency MP" now tends to mean not that "he is representing the constituency well by speaking up for us in Parliament", but that "he is always here.” Do we represent the constituency in Westminster, or Westminster in the constituency? It is my view that the pendulum has swung too far towards the latter.
Post-Brexit, many of the powers which we have lost to the EU over 50 years will be returned to the UK. We must ensure that they are not just hoovered up by the Government; and that Parliament is the body which must decide how they are used and then keep a watchful eye on it. Brexit may be the moment, and the means, to reinvigorate Parliament.
The summer recess is a good moment to reflect on the complex relationship of an MP and his or her constituency and Parliament. I am fortunate that I love North Wiltshire and its (surprisingly varied) people, that in my 25 years or so living and working here, I have got to know every corner, every street, every village and hamlet, and that I have had some engagement or another with pretty much every organisation or event. In the best part of 1,000 surgeries, I must have seen perhaps 10,000 people; on top of that I probably have written 100,000 or so letters plus 24,000 or so to eighteen-year-olds on their birthdays. (I have been doing the latter for 21 years, so that anyone who lives here and is aged 39 or younger should have had at least one personal letter from me.) I visit schools and businesses and organisations of every kind, make speeches, open fetes, and just generally ‘get around the patch’. Perhaps as important as any of that, I live here, and just going about one’s ordinary everyday life, one picks up the flavour of what people are thinking and doing.
That, I think, is the most important aspect of an MP’s ‘constituency’ life. Of course I do what I can to help people locally, and I do seem to get involved in the most abstruse of issues on behalf of local people. But that, in a sense, is not the absolute central part of my job, which is to represent the people of North Wiltshire in Parliament, rather than vice-versa. A bear trap for an MP might be to make two common errors. Either to become so massively ‘embedded’ in their constituencies, spending their whole time doing things which really ought to be done by local councillors at county or district or parish level, or by all sorts of local organisations and bodies, that they land up neglecting their parliamentary duties; or to become so fixated by Parliament that they frankly ignore their patch. Both failings diminish the purpose in being an MP. I should know exactly what the people of North Wiltshire are thinking and doing, and then seek to reflect that in the Commons.
There is another common misunderstanding here. Some people write to me with an argument along the lines that since I represent them in Parliament, I am duty bound to represent their views, even if they are views with which I personally do not happen to agree. They are confusing a ‘representative’ with a ‘delegate’. On almost any issue there will be a divergence of opinion in North Wiltshire, and it would therefore be impossible to represent them all. That means that I must use my own judgement, my thoughts about what would be best for the nation, the constituency, my party and then myself, in that order, and then act and speak, and vote accordingly.
If, overall, most people conclude that I have done the right thing for them and for North Wiltshire over the five years of a Parliament, then presumably they will re-elect me. If I have not, they will have the ability to get rid of me at the ballot box. That is the great advantage of the age-old First Past the Post electoral system which ensures a close and direct personal link between the MP and the constituent.
That my majority has increased over the 21 years that I have been your MP from 3,500 in 1997 to 23,000 in 2017, suggests, I hope, that by and large I have been successful in pleasing most of the people at least most of the time. To those who disagree with one or other aspect of my work, I apologise, and can only hope that overall you will nonetheless conclude that I am doing my best to serve all the people of North Wiltshire.
It’s been close a to a month now that Parliament has been in Recess, which has given me a chance for quite a lot of constituency engagements, a fair bit of reading and writing, a week or so’s holiday, some travelling on Parliamentary business, and a great deal of thinking. And at such a huge cross-roads in our country’s life, it is perhaps the last of these which is the most important.
My thinking on Brexit has developed over the Summer. You will know that I was deeply unhappy with what was proposed in the Chequers Summit and resulting White Paper. I felt that it did not deliver Brexit to the 17.8 million people who voted for it; but nor was it satisfactory to the 48% who voted against Brexit. It was the worst of all possible worlds. I was equally clear that deeply unacceptable as it already was, any further (even slight) slippage on that position was wholly unacceptable. The people voted to leave the EU and that is what we must now do. The white smoke emerging from the negotiations over the summer, and the intransigent attitude of M Barnier in particular, has made it plain that Chequers will not be accepted by the EU, and nor really will any worthwhile ‘deal’. It may be that, as is their wont, they will string out the negotiations till 2359 on 29 March next year, and then in a dramatic summit they will then present some kind of a ‘deal’ as being the best that can be achieved seeking a ‘take it or leave it ‘approach.
There is very little likelihood that any such deal, even if it were an unamended Chequers would be acceptable to Parliament, and it is increasingly unlikely that anything less than Chequers will be acceptable to the EU. So I have come to the straightforward opinion that there is no deal which can be done which would satisfy both the EU and the House of Commons, and that therefore we should seek another approach altogether.
There are a number which should be considered. There is ‘Canada +++’; there is the EFA as a temporary measure; there is a straightforward World Trade Organisation arrangement, under which we trade with the rest of the world just as America, Japan, China and Australia do. Do we really need an EU trading deal? I think not. After all it covers only some 7% of our GDP (in manufactured goods).
So I am increasingly nervous about all of the EU hype over a ‘deal’ and their scaremongering over the Irish Border. My constituent, Terence Mordaunt, who is Chairman of Bristol Docks, tells me that he has no concerns over a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, since most of his trade is pre-registered and so does not get held up at all at customs. Dover might be slightly different, but he sees no problem at all with our borders. Of course there will be matters to sort out - like the Medicines directorate, carriage of nuclear goods across the Continent, Air traffic control, and no doubt many more. But I am certain that it would take a few civil servants a few afternoons in a darkened room with a cold towel round their heads to sort out most of those matters. We don’t need a ‘deal’ to achieve it.
So I am increasingly worried that we will be ‘bounced’ into last minute concessions, or a ’deal’ which we will be told is the best achievable, but which is very different to any normal person’s understanding of what ’Leaving the EU’ means. It seems to that it means ‘leaving the EU’ and that is what we must now do - lock, stock and two smoking barrels. WTO is probably the best route.
The immediate aftermath of two General Elections and the Brexit Referendum have rather dominated the last three summers. So it is good to have a campaigning-free Summer Recess. Philippa and I have a week off in Spain (if the runways in Barcelona have not melted), and I am leading a trip to Greenland (more about which thereafter.) But for the most part we are right here in Wiltshire. People pay a lot of money to come here on holiday, so we who are lucky enough to live here should jolly well enjoy it.
I am hoping to do a bit of reading and writing. My new book, ‘Full English Brexit’ is due out in late September, and next Spring I am planning a compendium of these Columns, ‘Wiltshire to Westminster’. (From a bookshop near you.) I have just completed an article about the Inuit which will be coming out in Geography Magazine in October, and a 4000 word essay for the Royal United Services Institute on the use of the Royal Prerogative to go to war. My weekly Column gets a gratifying number of readers and commentators, so I shall keep up my ramblings over the Summer.
It’s time for a fair bit of reading too (which one never gets a moment to do during the Parliamentary session.) I am half way through Gordon Brown’s very well written Autobiography. I like the personal bits, but get a bit weary of his wanderings into ‘Neo-endogenous Growth Theories’. I was glad to read my son John’s two brilliant books- on the history of stationery and of silk screen printing, would you believe? And I have a ‘Must Read Table’ piled high in my study.
One aspect of an MP’s job is to take complex and obscure subjects and try to summarise their real impacts for their constituents. The main one at the moment, of course is Brexit; but there are constant others. That can only be done if the brain is given a little down-time from the daily hurly-burly; and with a bit of reading and writing to soothe the troubled breast.
Gladstone had a library of 20,000 books; Winston Churchill of course was a prodigious reader and writer, and Clement Attlee was famous for his love of the classics (and for catching the bus into Parliament); Macmillan loved poetry; and William Hague is a brilliant biographer - Pitt the Younger is one of the best political biographies ever.
So I will be keeping up my constituency engagements over the summer, but perhaps at a less hectic pace than normal. I hope to spend a fair bit of time in my ‘man-cave,’ reading and writing, resisting Philippa’s demands that I should ‘get out and about and do something useful,’ and generally preparing the old brain for what will, without doubt, be a tumultuous Autumn.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA