Parliament and making laws: 5 things lawyers often don't know

Parliament and making laws: 5 things lawyers often don't know

Parliament can often look unyielding and impervious to change.

It has been bombed, flooded and clambered on. The site on which it sits is now, somewhat unhelpfully, sinking into the Thames. What's more, St Stephen's Tower, or Big Ben to you and I, has even started to lean.

And yet it is still there, 175 years after its foundation stone was laid.

All of this history can, at times, make it seem more a relic of the past than a modern working institution at the heart of our democracy.

That this 'elegant disaster' needs a lick of paint—well, a potential £7.1 billion 'lick of paint'—is clear.

However, whilst the surroundings are crumbling, the institution itself, contrary to much public opinion, has been constantly renewing itself over the years. At times, many of these changes have been done in a 'hush-hush, there's-nothing-to-see-here' sort of way. However, in recent times, the institution has been improving the way it engages with the public.

To this end, last week, I attended a Parliamentary Outreach event at Portcullis House: 'How Parliament Works'.

Much of what was discussed were matters known, or ought to be known, to most lawyers. That said, there were some useful nuggets of information which I took away from it. Here's my top five:

  • Contentious bills typically start in the House of Commons: Bills start in both Houses of Parliament for no other reason that it makes logistical sense to split the workload. However, as a rough rule of thumb, bills started in the Lords are likely to be less contentious than bills started in the Commons. This is because bills started in the Commons can be forced through the Lords under the Parliament Acts (the legislative ‘nuclear option’) but this cannot happen with bills which start in the Lords.
  • It is easier to find specialists in the House of Lords who may be able to help: If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can contact a member of the House of Lords? Peers have no constituencies. Accordingly it should be much easier to find a peer who is interested in the subject matter of your problem. For details, contact the House of Lords Information Office. Another way of finding a willing peer is to use Google (or another search engine of your choice) by typing in ‘Lord’s Hansard’ plus your chosen key words. This should, in theory, bring up links to where a member of the Lords has spoken on your particular subject. Finally, if you want to contact a peer based in your region, you can work this out (roughly) by using the pdf of House of Lord expenses which shows the county where he or she lives.
  • The composition of the House of Lords may not be what you expect: For the first time the Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons but, conversely, have no corresponding majority in the House of Lords. The number of Liberal Democrats—far greater than their eight MPs would suggest—and (independent) cross-benchers means that the Lords actually reflects the 2010 parliament much more than the current one. Although the Prime Minister is likely to appoint more peers at some point it is unlikely that this balance will change anytime soon. The fact that the Conservatives hold less than a third of seats means that passing legislation through the Upper House might not be as easy as it first looks.
  • Backbenchers have become more rebellious: Research by political scientist Philip Cowley is that MPs have rebelled much more in recent years. In particular, Twitter, Facebook and the like have given many non-government MPs a much wider voice. Backbenchers enjoy flexing their muscles nowadays. The upshot of this? Emboldened backbenchers and a slim majority for the government in the lower house means that passing laws will doubtless prove to be challenging in this chamber too
  • The rise of the select committees: Something about the word 'committee' oozes a deathly dullness. Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party MP said in 2015 of Parliament generally, 'the wood panelling is gloomy, the carpets have come straight from a 1970s pub, and there's a pervading smell of school dinners'. I suspect that this might be many people's views of committees too. As it happens, many of these committees are held in the much brighter Portcullis House, just over the road from Parliament. In any event, don't be fooled by the name. These powerful bodies, where the members are elected on a cross-party basis, are becoming an effective tool to hold the executive and other powerful bodies to account. They are also becoming much more visible; witness, for example, Margaret Hodge's work on tax avoidance as chair of the public accounts committee during the last Parliament

So, if you fancy having a nose around Parliament and learning more about what it does, check out the link in the tweet below.

You can also check out the Parliamentary Outreach page here.

If you fancy seeing Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) you'll need to apply some time in advance for free tickets. They are only issued to UK residents who contact their MP or a Member of the House of Lords to request them.

So what do you think? Has Parliament got it right in terms of how it works with the public? Or has it got much more to do? Do initiative such as the e-petitions website help? Do let us have your thoughts below.

Portcullis House:

Portcullis House during Open House
Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

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