Rwanda Bill becomes law: but what was really going on behind the scenes in Parliament? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 31 transcript

26 Apr 2024

The Rwanda Bill has made it over the parliamentary finishing line but not without some last-minute drama. We talk to the SNP’s Alison Thewliss MP about what went on in a small room, behind the Speaker’s Chair, away from the cameras!

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00:00:00:00 - 00:00:15:22 You're listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society production, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more at 00:00:15:24 - 00:00:59:20 Welcome to Parliament Matters, the podcast about the institution at the heart of our democracy, Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox and I'm Mark D’Arcy. Coming up, finally, at last, the deed is done. The Rwanda bill scrapes over the parliamentary finishing line, but not without some last minute drama. We talk to the MP behind the surprise procedural ambush. And what on earth is going on in the minds of MPs after another in a succession of sleaze scandals hits the fan. And farewell to Frank, the backbenchers’ backbencher Frank Field, one of the most extraordinary parliamentarians of the last 40 years. 00:00:59:22 - 00:01:18:15

But first, Ruth, let's talk Rwanda. Finally, the Rwanda bill, as you said, is done. It's got through its last parliamentary hurdle. The Lords and the Commons have finally agreed a definitive text, and the Bill is off to be signed by the sovereign after an extended, but not unusually extended bout of what's known in the trade as parliamentary ping pong. 00:01:18:19 - 00:01:35:07 That process of agreeing the final wording of a bill. When the Lords think one thing and the Commons continually votes for something else. It's been treated as if it's some sort of great constitutional outrage for this to happen, but it's actually perfectly normal for a bill to bounce between the two houses a couple of times before things are sorted out. 00:01:35:10 - 00:01:54:21 Yeah, I mean, that's the purpose of the process. The House of Lords exists as a revising chamber. It's fair to ask the House of Commons to think again. It's there to press the MPs about what improvements that things could be made to the bill. But as we've seen throughout the process, the government has stood firm. It has basically taken the view of, no, we're not accepting any of these amendments. 00:01:54:21 - 00:02:17:22 So what's been happening is a majority in the House of Lords has been saying it wanted particular changes to be made. At the last two, there were around this legal assertion that a Rwanda is a safe country as a matter of law, and the Lords wanted a committee to rule on whether or not that was indeed safe. And that would inform the decision of a secretary of state on whether Rwanda could be declared to be safe. 00:02:17:24 - 00:02:38:01 And that bounced back a couple of times. And there was also this issue of protecting Afghans who'd served with the British forces alongside British soldiers in Afghanistan, protecting them from being deported to Rwanda, which the government argued there was an alternative process that already dealt with that point. And peers were for quite a long time unconvinced on that one. 00:02:38:03 - 00:02:56:10 And so these points bounced between the two houses repeatedly. And that's what's supposed to happen here. Yeah. And the Prime Minister had a press conference on the morning of the last round of ping pong earlier this week. And he was making the point that he's the Labour peers who are blocking this bill. You know, not so much, not so much. 00:02:56:10 - 00:03:13:05 Not so far. Little copper. Yeah. You look at the breakdown of the parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Lords. The conservatives are the largest group. There's no majority, of course, no parties, no groups have got a majority. Although some people have been claiming the government has a majority in the House of Lords. Actually it doesn't. Just as purely as a matter of fact. 00:03:13:05 - 00:03:36:20 Yeah. So the Conservatives are the largest group. They've got 277 peers, and you've got the crossbenchers with 182. And of course, the crossbenchers don't always vote uniformly. You know, they're not a party. They don't have a whip, they don't have a party line. They're a group of people whose defining characteristic is they're not aligned. Yeah. And then you've got 172 Labour peers, so significantly fewer Labour peers than there are Conservatives. 00:03:36:22 - 00:03:58:19 But the Conservatives themselves did not get all their group out to vote in these divisions. And I think that's kind of what's interesting about what happened and what we saw earlier this week. The Conservative Party actually got fewer peers through the division lobbies this last round than they did in the earlier rounds. Roughly a quarter of their parliamentary group did not turn out on any of these ping pong divisions. 00:03:58:19 - 00:04:15:16 And if they had been able to get the forces out to get their troops out, they’d have won some of these earlier, earlier divisions, and it wouldn't have taken so long as it did, and we wouldn't have had so many rounds of ping pong. Indeed. And but it's worth pointing to the role of particular crossbench peers in all this. 00:04:15:16 - 00:04:34:24 The former reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, David Anderson, who's one of our very early interviewees on this subject on this podcast, led the resistance right till the very last. And it was he who in the end said, okay, we've tried several times and the Commons obviously isn't listening to us. The process must now take its course. 00:04:35:01 - 00:04:54:07 But he was still pretty venomous about the idea of just declaring as a matter of law. The law says, around a safe, independent of whether or not the facts support that. And I think this is one of the issues that really mobilized a lot of people in the House of Lords. They just don't like that kind of declaratory law declaring something to be a fact. 00:04:54:09 - 00:05:25:05 Go back to Thomas More’s speech in A Man for all Seasons. You know, if if the King declares something to be true, does that make it so? And not just declare it so today, but declare it so in perpetuity unless and until the law is changed? I think one of the things annoying to the peers on Monday evening was not just the prime Minister’s statement, essentially using the bully pulpit of the press conference to put pressure on the peer's heads, but also this sort of idea that throughout this process and we've seen it with other bills, but it was particularly strong on this one. 00:05:25:07 - 00:05:46:05 That essentially, the Commons appears to be almost abdicating its responsibility to engage with the constitutional critics in the House of Lords. Yeah, everything was just flatly rejected. No, they shall not pass. And so in the end, the Lords, having tried several times to persuade the Commons to take a different view, saw that the Commons was voting consistently in a particular way. 00:05:46:11 - 00:06:11:24 That's it. Yeah. And the thing that underscores the fact that pragmatic dialog offering of concessions is a natural part of this stage of the legislative process is the government's own guide to legislation, states that ministers will need to offer concessions to avoid losing a Bill when it gets to parliamentary Ping-Pong, and this may include policies that they have defended very strongly throughout previous parliamentary stages. 00:06:12:01 - 00:06:31:16 But of course, you know, this is where the line was drawn. The government wasn't willing to concede on anything. And although they eventually made a statement in the House, the minister made a statement, you know, indicating in relation to the Afghan question made a concession. It was on the record in Hansard. It's recorded there, but it's not in the bill. 00:06:31:17 - 00:06:50:17 It's not a change in the wording of the bill at all. It's not a statutory obligation on the government. So peers were accepting that ministers would stand by their word. But that was it. That was the sum of it. That's that's essentially the only real change that's been made to the bill from the point at which it was presented to the House of Commons back in last autumn. 00:06:50:17 - 00:07:11:14 And if I may push a couple of feathers into our respective caps, I mean, we've got this rise all the way, all the way down the line that this is pretty much what was going to happen. And the one thing that notably didn't happen, although there was some chatter about it, was the idea that the Lords would somehow double insist on a change to the bill, which is the kind of joker that you can play that would have killed the whole bill. 00:07:11:14 - 00:07:32:07 Now, there was a certain amount of rumbling that maybe it would be an idea to kill this bill altogether by insisting on the same amendment twice, which brings the process to a halt by convention. But they didn't go there. They didn't go anywhere near it. And as we were saying last week, it always struck me as very, very unlikely that Labour would want to set a precedent for doing this because in a few months time it might be done to them. 00:07:32:10 - 00:07:49:08 Yeah, I actually think they went around longer than I thought they might do. And I think possibly emboldened by this criticism that came from the government and those two issues, I think were the strongest issues of principle that they felt about the bill, and therefore they wanted to give it another heave. There were a few surprises in the process. 00:07:49:11 - 00:08:13:16 One of the things that happens when MPs reject a change proposed by the House of Lords for a piece of legislation during this ping pong process is that a few of them go into a little corner. A little room just behind the main chamber of the Commons called the Reasons Room, is behind the speaker's chair, and then they compose the official reasons for rejecting the Lords amendment. 00:08:13:18 - 00:08:41:15 And some rather interesting things happened when that happened during one stage of this process. And we went along and talked to one of the MPs who sprang a surprise in that reasons room. Right. We've come into the precincts of the Palace of Westminster for a bit of high parliamentary geekery. With me in this small Commons committee room is Alison Thewlis, the SNP MP who was present inside the last act of the Commons processing of the Rwanda Bill, the reasons committee. 00:08:41:19 - 00:08:59:05

What happens is that when the Commons rejects a House of Lords amendment to a bill, and the Bill has to go back to the House of Lords, a small committee convenes to spell out exactly why the Commons has done it. And Alison, you use that occasion to make life a little bit more difficult for the government. Tell us what was going on. 00:08:59:07 - 00:09:21:09 Well, we know we've been through the process of drawing up reasons for rejecting the Lords amendments four times in this bill, which is quite unusual, to have that amount of Lords amendments coming back and forth in ping pong. And I also wanted to find a way of registering my dissent to this, MPs dissent to the Rwanda bill, because it is a pretty atrocious piece of legislation which the government can't even say on the face of the Bill 00:09:21:21 - 00:09:47:02 is compliant with their obligations under the ECHR. So in those first two rounds of Lords amendments, I voted against the government's reasons because they weren't particularly good reasons to begin with. But I disagreed with those reasons. So I registered my dissent to that. And then when we got through those first two stages onto the next one, I thought, is it a way of changing the reasons or amending the reasons to better reflect the discussion in the House? 00:09:47:02 - 00:10:05:23 And I might dissent to the way in which the reasons have come about. So I had some clerks, and they were able to give me some very excellent and quite quick in the circumstances advice, and I was able to draw up additional riders on those reasons to see why we didn't agree with them, because you can't actually sort of contradict the reasons. 00:10:06:01 - 00:10:23:20 And essentially the Commons has voted to reject the House of Lords amendment. So you can't change that. What you're changing is wording, the sense that the Commons rejects this amendment because its pencil was in fact so one of them was in regards to Afghans. But there are people who have come here who might have been eligible for other schemes. 00:10:23:22 - 00:10:40:09 There was an effort to try and exempt them from that policy. And the government's reason for rejecting the Lords amendments were that people should just come by safe and legal routes. So I added a rider to say... but recognizes that many Afghans have not been able to avail themselves of those rules. So it was the original reason to stand. 00:10:40:09 - 00:11:00:18 But it says, actually, we knew that this isn't the case where some people talk us through the sort of the practicalities and the logistics on the night, because this reasons committee element of the legislative process is opaque. You know, it's not in public. There's no cameras in the room. It's behind the scenes. It's not something that you find in the books about Parliament that much. 00:11:00:20 - 00:11:18:24 How are you appointed to it for a start. So the House appoints people to the committee. Generally you have the minister in charge of the bill, some government whips. You'll have the official opposition person in charge of the bill and a Labour whip, and one person from the third party on to that committee. And by and large, things just get weaved through. 00:11:18:24 - 00:11:37:20 But for this bill particular I didn't feel that was good enough. And all this happens in a little room called the Reasons room, which is just behind the speaker's chair. What does it look like? What's in there? So it is just a small, oblong, wood paneled room, usually with a fridge in the corner, it's got people's abandoned jackets because they've put them down when they go into the chamber. 00:11:38:00 - 00:11:59:13 It's not particularly glamorous and not particularly spacious. And so people who then come round the table and run through the reasons why they're rejecting the amendments, and that's usually it. There's also a clock in the room, two clocks in a room to minute, the proceedings when you're in there and you're saying, well, you know, I won't force a division on the reason I want to add this was amendment. 00:11:59:13 - 00:12:15:03 So you're doubling the number of votes that have to be taken by that. What was the reaction? I don't think there were delighted with me. I'm to be honest. So the first set of reasons what I was simply objecting to, the reasons we already had ten votes in Parliament that night and it was quite late. So we came to the next one again. 00:12:15:03 - 00:12:35:01 Alison. Yeah, again, I'm going to make you vote in every single one of these again because it's so egregious. But this time that we came to the next round, I thought, well, yeah, what more can I do here? Can I change the reasons? Can I do something more here to just note my dissent to this process? And there's already been an early division about the appointment of the committee itself and its membership, which, again, is quite rare. 00:12:35:01 - 00:12:55:02 I mean, I don't recall ever seeing a vote on that. Why did you do that? Having sat through all of the two under Bill and everything else, anything that I could do that would mark my objection to this bill, was something that I was going to try and do. You know, I wanted to be able to see in all sincerity that I had done everything that I could, voted at every single stage to try and stop instantly. 00:12:55:02 - 00:13:14:15 And to prevent this bill becoming law. But the thing is, it was just you voting for these amendments and just you voting against. Yes, the reasons it was. Yes. And I suppose you'd have to ask the Labour Party why they felt they didn't want to vote in any of these divisions that we had in the reasons committee. The plate purposely recorded no vote, but they were in the room, but they abstained. 00:13:14:16 - 00:13:30:07 They were in the room, abstained. Yeah, because of roll call vote. So the clerk will read out each of the names and you'll see I have no or no vote, which is what they did. You'd have to ask them the reasons for that. But for me, it's about putting my objection to this bill on the record about every possible stage that I could. 00:13:30:09 - 00:13:48:03 And has this match set a new parliamentary fashion that when you get bills that are highly contentious, this is just another way to dig in heels and make life a little bit more difficult. And maybe, maybe at some point the Labour Party might try it or someone else might try it may well be I certainly it had a the clerk scratching their heads because they hadn't seen this happen. 00:13:48:03 - 00:14:13:20 Nobody can remember it happening. I mean, even in the heat of all the Brexit debates, we didn't actually get to doing anything of this kind. But I thought it was worthwhile to do, at least to put that debate on the record and to make sure that folk know that we don't just go along with this, whatever happens, particularly because, you know, if you go into the web page for the bill, you can now see the the reasons committee minutes, and you can see that I'm an amendment to these reasons and try my best to try and put that on record for I could. 00:14:13:22 - 00:14:28:11 And then after all that was over, you did actually go over to the House of Lords to watch their side of proceedings, which is not something an awful lot of MPs do. It's surprising how little a lot of members of the Commons know about the way that the other House, the other half of Parliament, works. Yeah, that's definitely true. 00:14:28:11 - 00:14:45:19 And I've been sat in for various Lords Bills at various points because MPs are allowed to go and stand in what's called the bar of the House. It's literally a gold kind of gate that you can go and stand and watch proceedings from. We does it quite a lot during the Scotland Bill when that was going through, when we first came to Parliament as an SNP group. 00:14:45:21 - 00:14:59:05 But yeah, I wanted to hear exactly what Lords we're seeing in response to what ministers had said in the Commons. I thought it was quite important as the Bill had gone on for so long as well, just to go in and kind of say, well, okay. Ministers in the Commons have said this. What are the Lords here moving amendments. 00:14:59:05 - 00:15:16:02 No seeing. What are they willing to accept. What are they willing to push. And it was quite interesting just to hear, you know, where they were on that in particular when we got to the very end stage of this, you know, they accept that the Commons has has primacy here. They can't continue to push this forever. But it was quite interesting to see them still wanted to put on records. 00:15:16:06 - 00:15:35:13 This is how we feel about it. And interestingly, the House of Lords doesn't have its own reasons committee, so it doesn't have the process and procedure. It merely sends a standard reason back because the Lords wish the Commons to consider the matter again. Also, historically, at Mark, I was of learning that the members dining room here was after the Great Fire. 00:15:35:13 - 00:16:05:08 It was established to be a forum for conferences for effectively the parliamentary ping pong stage, but they never used it. They abandoned it before they got to it. And you know, we eventually ended up with reasons Committee instead. I mean, it doesn't seem a particularly effective or useful part of the legislative process. It's not particularly and I think as well, if Parliament was working properly, then the government would take account of the Lords amendments and the revising team would get to do a bit of revising, which hasn't really been the case to much extent on this bill. 00:16:05:10 - 00:16:30:14 And I think in this Parliament that has been the case. Lords amendments. I've just been rejected out of hand. Bills have gone through pretty much unchanged unless the amendments to it. And as far as this bit of process goes, for the reasons committee, you don't get to see in advance what the government's reasons are. And I had to actually request a copy of what the government's reasons were so that I could amend them, which comes very quickly after the votes as well. 00:16:30:14 - 00:16:54:15 So it's almost as if the reasons are written before the votes are had. But the that is a parliament we are in. But yeah, people don't get to see that. And you know, you don't get to see the reasons it doesn't come on an amendment people or anything to Parliament. And it may be my colleague Patrick Davies also suggests it might be better, actually, if you were to see those set out in the paperwork when you come to vote as well, because just now it's just a list of the things government are rejecting. 00:16:54:17 - 00:17:18:12 One of the arguments that I've heard made by some parliamentarians, by ministers and other frontbenchers, is that the fact that it's in private sometimes can help the dialog about legislation. Do you think there's anything in that? I mean, no, in my experience, certainly there's no reason really. There shouldn't be in public. There's no kind of great Donmar secrecy to as very short, but as a part of process as well. 00:17:18:12 - 00:17:40:00 You do these are pre-written reasons. You're just rubber stamping. It's not particularly democratic. It's not particularly transparent at all. A rare glimpse of the inner workings, the finest of fine details of the way Parliament grinds out new laws. Alison Thewlis, thanks very much for joining us on the politics. Thank you. So we're back in the studio, Marc, and, well, we have I'm afraid we're going to have to discuss sleaze again. 00:17:40:00 - 00:18:07:14

We've had another eruption. Mark Menzies MP resigned from the Conservative Party, says he won't stand at the next general election amid fraud and misconduct claims. Some of these stories are pretty extraordinary. it's only so far we can discuss them on this podcast. But this is the tale of Mark Menzies, who allegedly rang a 78 year old aide in his constituency in the middle of the night, claiming he'd been locked up by bad people who were demanding money. 00:18:07:16 - 00:18:29:21 She apparently said no, not interested. And, eventually, another aide reportedly handed over her own money, apparently cashed in her Isa to get the funds to give him the money. She was eventually reimbursed, but no money was paid over to. We don't know who. There’s allegations of party donations being transferred to him for his private medical expenses. 00:18:29:23 - 00:18:47:02 I mean, these are pretty extraordinary. They've all come to light because a whistleblower in the Conservative Party has brought it to the attention of the party whips, and they seem to have sat on it for several months. So this seems come in the media. This seems to have been quite a while ago that all this actually happened, and it's been ticking away in the background and has finally come to light now. 00:18:47:02 - 00:19:07:14 But as you say, there are several things here. And in a sense, the the facts around Mark Menzies Walk on the wild side that ended up in this mysterious flat, almost secondary to some of the other issues that arise. For a start, these local party campaign funds that seem to exist outside the normal campaign fund framework are quite interesting things in themselves. 00:19:07:14 - 00:19:32:16 I mean, I listen to a lot of podcasts at the moment about the American elections, and they have these bewildering rules around political action committees, PACs and super PACs that exist to promote a candidate but can't coordinate directly with the candidates official campaigns. So there's all sorts of weird and wonderful rules. And I think we may be heading in that direction in this country, that there are kind of funds that seem to be outside the normal regulatory framework at the moment. 00:19:32:22 - 00:19:54:12 That might in some way have to be brought within them. All sorts of murkiness here. I don't know whether there's anything proper or improper about this particular fund. I mean, the Conservative Party headquarters have said this week that an investigation has been done, but ultimately they can't conclude that there's been a misuse of party funds because the money was in a fund outside the remit both of the national party and the local association. 00:19:54:12 - 00:20:25:20 So the nature of it belongs to these bank accounts. It is where it's come from. Where it's gone is all very murky. But he he doesn't appear to be denying some of the core elements since the accusations. And he's resigned the whip resigned from the party and won't be standing again. Yeah. I'm behind this looks the issue of what on earth is going on in the minds of certain members of Parliament at the moment after the I don't know quite what you call it in a family caucus, the rather baroque elements of the William Wragg affair a couple of weeks ago, we now have this story. 00:20:25:20 - 00:20:54:19 And in both cases, what you see is parliamentarians behaving in a really surprising way. This is not, I imagine, how people think that their political leaders should be behaving. Whatever else you can say about it. Yeah, there is this argument. I mean, you were mentioning to me earlier this week, Mark, that Stephen Crabb, the conservative MP who was a secretary of state running for the conservative leadership back in 2016, he he was making the point about MPs as risk takers. 00:20:54:21 - 00:21:20:17 And most MPs are risk takers to one degree or another, usually in the areas of money, sex, political opportunism. Add in the adrenaline, the attention you get in the time away from the family. Dot dot dot toxic mix. Now this is a text he sent to a 19 year old, and when those texts came to light, this pretty much killed off his 2016 leadership bid to succeed David Cameron in the in the wake of the Brexit referendum all those years ago. 00:21:20:19 - 00:21:39:16 But it struck me it actually pretty good piece of analysis there, that there is something about the mentality that gets you into politics, or at least get some people into politics. That possibly means that this kind of behavior is more likely amongst that subset of members of Parliament than it is amongst the general public. Yeah, that's one argument. 00:21:39:16 - 00:22:00:12 I mean, Matthew Parris in The Times had a column saying why do they do it? Asking these questions about risk taking. And Baroness Ann Jenkin, conservative peer, co-founder with Theresa may of the conservative Women to Win to get more female candidates in the Conservative Party into parliament. She said it's not a question of why did they do it, it's a question of why does he do it? 00:22:00:12 - 00:22:24:21 She was saying that all the sex scandals in the Conservative Party, in the House of Commons in this Parliament have come from male MPs, not female conservative MPs. I think it's a fair enough point to make, actually, that I mean, there have been scandals involving female MPs, but but not of that kind. Perhaps it's also you could say that the risk takers in the areas of money, sex and political opportunism are more often men than women. 00:22:24:21 - 00:22:39:05 And that seems to be pretty true on the evidence that's available to us at the moment. Of course, there may be a little black book in some whip's office that disproves that point, but we don't know about it. I mean, there are, as you say, there are women who've they've lost the whip. Christine Reece lost the whip for for bullying of staff. 00:22:39:05 - 00:22:57:20 She eventually apologized. She's announced also she's not standing again at the next election. And then we've got the case of Claudia Webb. She was accused and went to court in relation to a harassment case involving the I think the previous partner of her current partner. And that went to court and she was convicted, but her penalty was reduced on appeal. 00:22:57:20 - 00:23:18:24 She lost the Labour whip. She's still sitting as an independent in the House of Commons. But the really sleazy cases do appear. I'm afraid to be the male MPs. And and Jenkin was making the point that maybe candidate selection committees in the constituencies ought to be taking that into account, because of course, the conservatives have been struggling to get their numbers up for female selection for this election. 00:23:19:02 - 00:23:47:11 Is there a factor here that perhaps the electoral thundercloud looming about the Conservative Party at the moment, those terrible poll ratings that they've had for more than a year now is beginning to have an effect on the psyche of conservative MPs that there's something here that's perhaps I'm hinging them a little bit, I don't know. I mean, it comes up in less gaudy ways with talk of a another leadership challenge or with talk of rebellion or taking some wild political stab in the dark to see if it will make a difference. 00:23:47:13 - 00:24:15:05 But it may also be coming through in personal behavior in various ways. I mean, this is a theory that spun. I'm not sure how convinced I am by it. Maybe they've always been people who've done completely bonkers things in political life, and it's just coming to the wicket right at the moment. But you have to feel for Rishi Sunak a little bit, because every time he feels he's got some sort of tiny fragment of good news to put in front of the electorate, it's completely eclipsed by the doings of one of the MPs in his party. 00:24:15:05 - 00:24:35:07 Yeah, I mean, he must read opening his newspaper, watching what's going to be on the front page when he's eating breakfast. But the conservative whips office seem to have known about this for a while and sat on it, and they've been passed stories about this particular MP. So this isn't purely a product of an MP who's political life is coming to an end, facing electoral oblivion. 00:24:35:09 - 00:24:56:23 and hasn't done much in terms of a ministerial career. He's not a particularly well known MP. He's not left much of a mark. So I don't think it entirely explains the situation in his case. And of course, a couple of weeks ago we had Paul Evans, former parliamentary clerk, on the podcast, and he was making the point in relation to the William Wragg case that there were always tales and even, you know, like go back to Edwardian Britain. 00:24:56:23 - 00:25:28:15 There were cases of misbehavior in the House of Commons. And of course, then the media spotlight was not the same. Yeah, absolutely. It tended to be decorously covered up. So the only people who did know were the whips office very often. But of course there's also another issue lurking in Parliament at the moment. But two people have been charged with spying offenses on behalf of China, one of whom is parliamentary pass holder and had worked for first Tom Tugendhat when he was chair of the foreign affairs committee, and then for his successor, Alicia Kearns. 00:25:28:17 - 00:25:54:16 Obviously we don't know whether the charges are going to be proven or disproven. That's a matter for the courts later on. But it does highlight the concern that a democratic institution is necessarily open and at least theoretically, therefore open to subversion by foreign powers. Yeah. And apparently there are also parallel charges in relation to the European Parliament. So if they are experiencing similar, similar issues, a couple of aides to MEPs there appears to be in trouble with. 00:25:54:16 - 00:26:20:08 I think it's the German police. Yeah. Oh, there's two elements to this one. Is this broadening concern about the number of foreign hostile states who may be focusing more on Parliament than they used to in the past, but I think it's a there's also a warning here for new parliamentary candidates after the election in terms of their recruitment of staff, in terms of the process and the due diligence that they do for new staff. 00:26:20:14 - 00:26:41:06 The next generation of MPs need to understand that, you know, they are exposed, they may not know it, they may not realize it, but people that they may be meeting may be a threat. You know, you don't know unless you've got a long standing relationship with somebody that you've known a long time. You may not know much about their background and about their intentions. 00:26:41:08 - 00:27:11:04 And one of the problems, I think, for new MPs that they sometimes struggle with is that they will be inundated with people wanting to meet them, wanting to talk to them, wanting to lobby them about this, that or the other and who may have an agenda. Well, indeed, I do wonder if, in future, particularly when people perhaps, are elected to the next iteration of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and the Defense Committee and maybe some of the others, whether the security services might take a look at who's working for them. 00:27:11:06 - 00:27:35:01 So the charges that the police have confirmed is that, these two researchers obtained, collected, recorded, published or communicated to other people, articles, notes, documents or information, I think interesting question is what is it that these foreign states think that the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defense Select Committee, other select committees, MPs, as you know, just as general backbenchers have access to that would be useful and important to them. 00:27:35:01 - 00:27:58:20 That's not already in the in the public domain. I suspect that neither the Ministry of Defense nor the Foreign Office actually hand over the inner secrets willy nilly to members. A select committee still list of their staff, so you wouldn't have thought that vital national security information is freely available once you're inside the parliamentary estate. But you never know what the whole nuggets might be there, and it's not just about the particular piece of information. 00:27:58:20 - 00:28:23:02 It's also about where some small nugget might fit into a jigsaw. If I mix my metaphors furiously here. But one of the things we're doing is preparing a survival guide for after the next election for new MPs. So I'm busily thinking about how to things like being aware of potential espionage and sleaze fit into that, especially for people who are obviously on a trajectory to be in the sort of defense or foreign affairs side of parliamentary work. 00:28:23:02 - 00:28:42:01 Yeah, an interesting one. We'll probably be doing something about that in or around general election time. But in the meantime, let's talk about some of the people who are leaving because the parliamentary exodus, the the number of MPs who've declared that they will not stand at the next general election keeps on ticking up. It's now past the 100 mark.

00:28:42:03 - 00:28:59:15

One of the notable names to decide not to re stand is Tim Loughton, a Conservative, a former minister in the Department for Education, but now a very effective member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, who gave the government quite a difficult time over the Rwanda bill. What we were just talking about in hearings there, for example, he's decided he's not going to re stand. 00:28:59:15 - 00:29:18:04 He's not right at the sort of high end of the parliamentary age spectrum or anything like that. So he's got plenty of time to build an alternative career, but he's obviously decided that he doesn't want to be in Parliament after the next election. And the statistics now for the parliamentary exodus are beginning to look quite impressive. Yeah. As you say, we've passed the 100 mark. 00:29:18:04 - 00:29:34:16 So 101, I think of the latest numbers standing down. I mean, just for comparison, in 2010, 150 MPs stood down and that was the end of the Blair Brown years, the new Labour era. Yeah. So there's a way to go yet. But of course, you know, the expectation is there'll be more announcements in there. We get to the general election. 00:29:34:17 - 00:29:55:18 Apparently conservative central Office have been asking MPs to coordinate. So there's no it doesn't look like a huge rush for the day with the dropping the week by week. But it's interesting. I mean, a fifth of the Scottish National Party, 21% of their MPs are standing down. And when do you think that most of those MPs came in in 2015 or afterwards you are talking about? 00:29:55:20 - 00:30:19:05 a relatively short parliamentary career, really. I mean, nine years, isn't it? Is not an impossibly long time to be a parliamentarian. Yeah. And, House of Commons library in the Institute for government have been crunching the numbers. And, between them, I mean, 16 former secretaries of state are going former prime minister, of course, and Theresa may, former deputy prime minister and Dominic Raab, nine select committee chairs all leaving. 00:30:19:05 - 00:30:40:05 So that's quite a loss of institutional knowledge. Well, indeed. I mean it's good or yeah, you got Bob Neil, chair of the Justice Committee. You've got Steve Ryan, chair of the Health Committee, you've got Robin Walker, chair of the education committee, all of them ex-ministers, all of them in charge of big public service committees at the moment. And all going, which is really quite startling. 00:30:40:05 - 00:31:00:19 Yeah. So you've got that loss of collective knowledge base about the policy areas, but also about the institution of Parliament. And it's not easy to replace that. It's going to leave a gap. And these are the people who know what the difficult questions are, whose ears will be attuned to the the bit of a ministerial statement where they can see whether skating over some difficult issue. 00:31:00:21 - 00:31:22:07 That's the experience you need in a scrutiny body and it's not going to be there. there will still be ex-ministers floating around, no doubt. But all the same, you feel that the quality of parliamentary scrutiny in the early part of the next parliament isn't going to be that great, because there won't be the experienced figures there to conduct it and sort of learning on the job as I go along. 00:31:22:07 - 00:31:40:02 In the first few sessions, I think very much so. And as you say, the exodus may well continue. A lot of people don't decide until this is almost on the precipice of having to decide, do I want another five years in Parliament? Oh God, I'm not sure I can wear it. And on that point, suddenly someone possibly quite unexpectedly says, no, I'm going to go. 00:31:40:08 - 00:32:08:01 And there's a sort of scramble to do a last minute selection. And sometimes the party machine's quite like last minute selections because it allows them to parachute in some favored son or daughter to a nice, safe seat for their party. If, on the conservative side, safe seats can be said to exist anymore. Possibly not. Well, I was very struck by the case of Graeme Stewart, who stood down as energy minister with a 20,000 majority, I think, in Beverley and Holderness, because he wanted to concentrate on holding his constituency. 00:32:08:01 - 00:32:32:07 Now 20,000 is normally be considered a pretty safe majority to have, but I think these days it may look a bit more like 2000 seemed in previous Parliament. Did you saying that you'd seen Rishi Sunak in your constituency, which is also got a stonking conservative party? Absolutely. I live in Horsham in West Sussex, conservative since roughly the Cretaceous period, and, of wandering around in the local shopping center. 00:32:32:07 - 00:32:52:11 The other day I noticed a lot of policemen, I assume that someone had attempted to buy the New Statesman in the local Smiths or something, but no, it was the Prime Minister paying a visit in a pre-election period. So what is, on paper, one of the safest conservative seats in the land. And there he was, with the local MP in attendance, meeting the staff in the local boots. 00:32:52:13 - 00:33:09:21 I think launching some agenda about combating shoplifting, but it's not the sort of place you would have expected a conservative prime minister to have to go to in the immediate run up to a general election, and his time is very, very rationed and very, very carefully used. And if Horsham is the kind of place that the conservatives feel it necessary to shore up, well, I don't know. 00:33:09:24 - 00:33:35:04 Yeah. Well, should we take a break there, Mark, and come back in a minute? 38 years ago, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, sitting together in the House of Commons smoking room, paid a 1 pound subscription and so became the first members of the Hansard Society. The challenges facing our democracy are different to those that motivated them to help found the society in 1944, but they are just as urgent. 00:33:35:06 - 00:33:58:16 So to mark this important milestone, we're launching the Churchill Attlee Democracy Lecture, and we're delighted that former Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed to give the inaugural speech on Tuesday, 14th of May. She’ll reflect on her life in Parliament, drawing on the unparalleled insights she's gleaned during her time as prime Minister and as a backbench MP. With a wealth of experience in the corridors of Westminster. 00:33:58:18 - 00:34:18:20 Her lecture will explore what's wrong with Parliament and why, and how it must change. So why not join us as we honor the legacies of our first members, Churchill and Attlee, with what promises to be a thought provoking exploration of the challenges facing Parliament in the years ahead. Go to the Hansard Society website, to book. 00:34:18:20 - 00:34:54:02

We're back. And Ruth, we were discussing the loss of experience and institutional knowledge from the exodus from Parliament. That's clearly underway at the moment. But also this week we have the rather sad news of the demise of one of the great backbenchers of the last 40 years, Frank Field, who became Lord Field of Birkenhead after the last election, who had been a select committee chair back in the 80s when he took over what was then the social Security Select Committee. 00:34:54:02 - 00:35:16:22 He was chair of that for ten years, from 1987 to 1997. And then a bit later on, he became chair of the successor Work and Pensions Select Committee. After an interlude where he'd been a minister briefly and possibly slightly disastrously in the middle. But he was a figure who had had a remarkable impact on the debate about the nature of the country, social security and pension systems, partly because he actually understood both of them. 00:35:17:02 - 00:35:39:06 Yeah, I was very struck. It's a sort of a measure of the man, the number, the volume and the nature of the comments, the messages of condolence from conservative MPs, not just those on the Labour side. He was clearly somebody who was highly respected across party lines. And of course, he'd done as well as, you know, what you've just said about, his work on Social Security and so on. 00:35:39:12 - 00:36:09:20 He'd also done the independent review into Poverty for David Cameron back in 2010, and he worked with Theresa may on the modern slavery legislation. He was not a really tribal politician, but we've been sort of discussing you think he's possibly one of the most influential select committee chairs of. Yeah, he was one in decades. He was one of the first select committee chairs to really utilize select committees as a public platform, as one of those sort of in house in Parliament role. 00:36:09:22 - 00:36:34:23 So if you think back to the demise of Robert Maxwell, the then owner of the Daily Mirror, who in mysterious circumstances was found drowned, and then it emerged that the mirror Group pension fund had been rather emptied of funds. And there was a huge inquiry into that. And as chair of the Social Security Committee, Frank Field was also in charge of pensions issues and scrutinizing those. 00:36:34:23 - 00:36:55:09 And he had Robert Maxwell's two sons in front of the committee for a session to explore what on earth had happened to all the money that was supposed to be in that pension fund. And both of them turned up with high priced lawyers who basically then repeatedly said that they declined to answer any questions. But as a piece of political theater, it was startlingly effective. 00:36:55:09 - 00:37:14:18 And it was a kind of harbinger of things to come, because later on, when he returned to chair the work and Pensions Committee, he famously had all sorts of people in front of his committee for evidence sessions and make their life extremely difficult indeed, including Sir Philip Green to explore what had happened to the British Home Stores pension fund. 00:37:14:20 - 00:37:37:15 You once told me that part of the way in which he leveraged that was to say, well, Sir Philip, if you come along, I won't feel it necessary to summon Lady Green, your wife, in front of the committee as well. You can come and give evidence to the committee and, in the end, I think that committee appearance was fairly instrumental in finding several hundred million pounds for that pension fund. 00:37:37:17 - 00:38:00:08 So he used that committee highly effectively as a public platform, a bully pulpit, you might say. I don't know if people remember that session. It was absolutely extraordinary session in which at one point Philip Green turned and complained that one of the committee members was staring at him rather hard. You know that. And it's like, well, there's a certain weirdness to it, but it got results. 00:38:00:08 - 00:38:16:07 And Frank Field was capable of getting an awful lot of results. And he was very, very effective at that. And as I say, not least because he actually understood the systems he was dealing with at a level that had an awful lot of other people who thought themselves quite expert in them, slightly in awe of his ability to do that. 00:38:16:09 - 00:38:37:17 But as you said, interestingly, he didn't really do well once he was in ministerial office in the early years of the Blair government in 1997. So he was serving as the number two to Harriet Harman and asked to think the unthinkable about Social Security. I think it's best to say that their relationship was possibly fractious. Fractious is certainly one way of describing it. 00:38:37:17 - 00:38:57:07 I mean, it was a nightmare at the time. It was seen as a very bold appointment by Tony Blair. Wanted Frank Field in there to think the unthinkable about making the Social Security system work better. And I think brackets be more self-financing as well. And Frank Field came up with all sorts of proposals and ideas. He was very keen on a system that fostered responsibility. 00:38:57:07 - 00:39:16:23 He was very against the idea of what he called Jack, the lads taking a free ride, not paying into the system, but still getting a fair whack out of it at the end of the day. So he wanted as much as possible a kind of contributory principle around pensions. But that seemed to scare the Treasury a bit. And it certainly scared, the government as a whole. 00:39:16:24 - 00:39:35:10 Tony Blair was, I think, extremely uncomfortable with the kind of ideas that were coming out. And the end result was not only did Frank Field end up resigning from the government, but Harriet Harman, who had been Secretary of State and had been a major figure in the Labour Party up to that point, was summarily, rather demoted and other people took over. 00:39:35:10 - 00:39:54:21 And Frank Field's ideas went on to the backburner. And I think Frank Field was not amused by that, and in particular blamed the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for his demise. And then that started a bit of a feud. Yeah. There's a wonderful account in Tony Blair's Memoirs of all of this. He talks about Frank Field. He was asked to think the unthinkable, but in the end, what he came up with was unfathomable. 00:39:55:01 - 00:40:09:24 And I think there's a whole Mr.. A sort of view that perhaps he was too far into the weeds of the policy, that he couldn't explain it and couldn't sell it. I think it was a big issue. And the fact that Harriet Harman was, you know, needed in that department a degree of policy wonk career to drive the policy forward. 00:40:09:24 - 00:40:28:11 And she's not much of a policy wonk between the two of them. It was all a bit disastrous. But he goes back then onto the backbenches and has this long career and I think, well, I think it's the sad thing really about when I think about his career is that it all then ends with him losing the Labour whip, essentially losing the 2019 general election. 00:40:28:11 - 00:40:50:24 He ran as an independent candidate in Birkenhead because of the essentially the Trotskyist membership in his local constituency party. In Birkenhead. He had had a terrible time with his constituency party right from the get go, really. He was elected in 1979. He was being threatened with Deselection by the early 80s, and had to have the National Labour Party essentially step in and protect him. 00:40:51:01 - 00:41:17:01 I think the relationship had always been fairly fractious. I mean, I once visited as a BBC reporter, his constituency, and, I went to a church hall where he was presiding over an event there, and the was rather terrifying Merseyside ladies who, Betsy Braddock's. And then some who, treated Frank Field with great reverence, referred to him as Mr. Field in slightly hushed tones. 00:41:17:01 - 00:41:39:07 And then they turned to me and used well, I in the family podcast. I can't really repeat the words they used, but they went to my personal hygiene, shall we say. but they were very reverential about Frank Field himself, and it was quite striking that there was a feeling that this is a man who understood their problems, who understood the issues of the existing on very low incomes in social housing and was on their side. 00:41:39:09 - 00:41:55:21 And I think that stood Frank Field in pretty good stead for quite a while, but wasn't enough to save him when he finally did run as an independent against an official Labour candidate in the Jeremy Corbyn era, because he felt completely out of sympathy with the Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party, even though he's one of the MPs and actually nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership. 00:41:55:23 - 00:42:26:13 On those historical ironies that comes back to bite. But he was an extraordinarily effective operator in the world of Westminster. He once told me that, in the Theresa may era, when the government was so preoccupied with Brexit that it really didn't have the headspace for anything else, he went to see the Prime Minister in Downing Street, and he told her that if she couldn't come up with a social agenda, maybe the thing to do was to subcontract it to the select committees and let them put forward legislation on a series of social issues, because that would be a way to get things done and deal with a few problems that she didn't have the 00:42:26:13 - 00:42:43:03 bandwidth to deal with at the time. I'm not sure that any Prime Minister would take desperately kindly to that idea, but he had a try and that was the way his brain worked. He tried to get ideas from the backbenches of Parliament out of the front of house if you like. Yeah. And he was also you mentioned Brexit. 00:42:43:03 - 00:43:00:12 Of course. That was one of the reasons for the passing of the ways with the Labour Party. I mean, he generally supported Brexit, partly because he was concerned about free movement and immigration. But he was one, of course, of the few Labour MPs that backed Theresa May's withdrawal agreement. number of times on the votes that you and I were commentating on BBC Parliament back in the day yesterday, right? 00:43:00:12 - 00:43:18:02 Yeah. And, you know, he supported calls for an English parliament for return of national service, a religious. Oh, yes. He was on the Church of England General Synod at one point, and he was a member of the Prayer Book Society. Once he described the Prayer Book Society to me with the Blairite phrase of traditional values in a modern setting. 00:43:18:04 - 00:43:32:18 But, you know, all of this sort of came together to inform his politics. And, yeah, I think it's, we knew it was coming because he denounced, a while ago that he was he was very seriously ill. But I think it's a it's a great loss. And you don't see many pulmonary careers like that these days. 00:43:32:18 - 00:43:55:12 Absolutely. A memo to selection committees everywhere. If you're looking for a new MP, look for someone a bit like Frank Field, someone who really knows something about some area of public policy, someone who is driven by a set of principles they may not be the easiest people to work with, but if all you want is anodyne androids who never think in original thought and act exactly on the advice of their party whips at all time. 00:43:55:17 - 00:44:15:09 Parliament becomes a much less effective place. Frank Field made a genuine difference, you know. So with that thought, Mark, I think that's all we've got time for this week. To all our listeners, thank you for tuning in. And, if you're still liking the podcast, remember to rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts each week, but also look out for a bonus episode in a few days time. 00:44:15:12 - 00:44:39:22 We've got an interview with Chris Morris, the chief executive of fact checking organization Full Fact, about MPs correcting the Hansard record and the threat that artificial intelligence poses to parliamentary democracy and the general election. It's absolutely fascinating. Do tune in. It's a great conversation. Till then, goodbye. Bye. 00:44:39:24 - 00:44:59:23 Well, that's all from us. For this week's episode of Parliament Matters, please hit the Follow or Subscribe button in your podcast up to get the next episode as soon as it lands, and help us to make the podcast better by leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback. Our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost. Tell us more about the algorithm. 00:45:00:00 - 00:45:41:04 What do I know about algorithms? You know, I write my scripts with a quill pen on vellum and then send it in my carrier pigeon. Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament, and you can find us across social media @HansardSociety to get more content related to the show and the wider work of the Hansard Society. 00:45:43:08 - 00:45:59:13 Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit or find us on social media @HansardSociety.

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