Is Parliament Fit for Purpose?

From Mark Bennister – Reader in Politics. This blog was originally posted on the PSA Parliaments Group blogsite (You can find the it here).

There has been plenty of procedural drama and political intrigue in the UK Parliament in the last fortnight. Mark Bennister, who is an academic fellow in the House of Commons, discusses why these events pose a challenge to how Westminster is perceived by the public.

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Parliament behaving badly?

Each of these in turn represents a challenge to how Parliament is perceived by the general public and highlight some of the arcane process issues that have stubbornly resisted reform. Taking first the walkout by the SNP during PMQs on 13 June, while a piece of orchestrated theatre designed to gain the SNP a wave of publicity (and an unintended boost in membership), it highlighted – as Louise Thompson has written – the challenge for smaller parties in getting a voice in the chamber, when procedure is so weighted towards the two main parties. Denied time to debate the contentious devolved consent aspect of the EU (Withdrawal) bill, the SNP were livid and took their largely symbolic action. The following day the FT published an in-depth feature detailing cases of sexual harassment in the Commons as the result of a series of interviews with parliamentary staff. Since these allegations surfaced, Parliament has struggled to put in place the very necessary reforms to provide for even a reasonable complaints and disciplinary procedure. The day after, Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope became a household name for all the wrong reasons when he blocked the progress of a Private Members’ Bill to ban upskirting, sponsored by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse and supported by the Government. There are few routes for MPs to initiate legislation and Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) and other devices (this one started as a presentation bill) stand little chance of progressing without government support and even then, depend on time being found in the business schedule. Chope, an old-fashioned libertarian Thatcherite has a history of blocking PMBs, objecting to ‘nanny state’ measures, but also as a means to protest against backbench bills being nodded through. Perversely his actions made legislation more likely, as the Government, with the Prime Minister’s support, will now find business time for a bill of their own on upskirting, but it highlighted the arcane practice and procedural limitations on backbench time. It also looked bad for Parliament.

Too Grieve or not

This brings us to the so called Grieve 2 amendment, tabled when the EU Withdrawal Bill returned to the Commons on Wednesday 20 June. For the procedural nerds (my parliamentary studies students take note) see Jack Simson Caird’s excellent explanation of the amendment. For those outside the Westminster bubble, however, you had the absurd situation of the Grieve amendment being rejected by Grieve himself, the rebel leader of the anti-Brexit Tories who is neither a rebel nor evidently a leader, and seemingly not even that anti-Brexit. Even though the Tory rebellion melted away, the Government were sufficiently worried to suspend usual ‘nodding through’ voting arrangements which meant that we had the unedifying sight of Naz Shah MP being wheeled though the lobby in a wheelchair, wearing pyjamas and dosed up on morphine, and heavily pregnant MPs having to vote in person. The Government’s victory meant the rejection   of the Lords amendment – the episode is wonderfully summed up by this clip from the Lords – and the completion of the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Who’s in control?

The amendment of an amendment may have a comical ring to it, but what to make of it all? Is this what taking back control looks like? Largely procedural questions over what happens if there is no deal, or a deal is voted down by Parliament, have centred on the status – amendable or otherwise – of motions in this event and the potential role of the Speaker in determining the status of subsequent motions. Important (though technical) this may be, it essentially amounts to a fudge to avoid a defeat for the Government who can stumble on and keep malcontents on the hard and soft Brexit wings on board. The Government managed this, but it is all still political. Portrayed as a battle between Parliament and the Government for control of the Brexit process, I tend to agree with Jill Rutter that it was more a battle within the Tory party. In the end Parliament may have a little more say in the matter than it might have done, thanks to Grieve’s threats of rebellion, but the Tory rebels have been flushed out as unwilling or unable to assert themselves sufficiently. They are not fringe MPs as the Maastricht rebels were under John Major, but are largely loyal former ministers reluctant to place ideals above party. With Labour Brexiteers like Kate Hoey and Frank Field prepared to vote with the Government, the influence of the Tory remainers is weakened. The emphasis on what happens after a no deal or defeat in Parliament suggests that it is these scenarios that are looking more likely now. Indeed, while the Government has been preoccupied with such arcane internal party management, the clock continues to tick.

We are a long way from anyone taking control. The Government has seemingly little idea of its negotiating stance, still at odds within cabinet. The Prime Minister cannot assert any authority or even vision on where we are going. Parliament is merely the site for party differences laid bare and can provide little institutional direction or control of the process. The two Houses of Parliament seem more remote than ever: though their Lordships are free from any constituency pressures to raise some legitimate issues, the Commons is in a quandary of representation, uncertain whether to act in national, party or referendum-mandated interests. Furthermore, the inability of the Commons to reform itself to make it fit for modern politics allows complexity, bad practice and weakness in the face of the executive to remain. A degree of clarity over who controls the process could however be found at the Brexit Select Committee on the same day as the Bill staggered through parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s chief negotiator set out how the EU is in control, setting the timetable, terms and conditions of withdrawal. This is perhaps where Parliament’s greatest public service may come, in exposing the external reality away from the game playing in the Commons chamber.

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Levels of Exclusion: What floor are you on?

From Katarina Hill – Intern for Politics and International Relations.

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I tend to forget that most art galleries offer free entry. If I am going to a museum or gallery my first thought, being a student, is usually along the lines of ‘how much is that going to cost?’, but then I remember it is free and open to all – in theory. While interviewing the visitors at the Tate Exchange space at the Tate Modern the week before last, one observation made by many was the notion that yes, galleries are open to everyone, if you have the money. While most galleries in the UK are free to enter, if you want to see certain exhibitions, you may find yourself having to pay. If you are a student or above the age of 60, this price is probably quite feasible, but if two working parents want to take their three teenagers out for a day of cultural exploration (a suggestion that would probably be met with the obligatory hormonal groan), suddenly you could be looking at spending a pretty penny. Of course, there are still plenty of exhibitions and engaging art that you can visit for free, such as the Tate Exchange. I was talking to one of the young artists behind the work exhibited at the Tate Exchange about the exclusivity of galleries. On asking her if she thought galleries are open to everyone, she answered that “it depends what floor you are on”.  This answer has played on my mind ever since, and for the remainder of my time at the Tate Modern, it made me look at the space in a different way.

Outside the Tate Modern there were numerous posters advertising the current exhibitions including one on Picasso’s 1932 works, something that seemed very typical for any gallery. But step inside the Turbine Hall, and you would never know the art of one of most adored artists of all time, was located somewhere in the building. The massive hall is essentially just a big grey concrete box, and although it is at times used for art installations, it is currently empty; making for some serious echoes as you walk across the floor (in my case while wearing flip flops which were embarrassingly loud). Entering the Tate from any side comes with a mandatory bag check by security. Even though the security staff were all very lovely, walking up to the building every morning, always triggered that sense of panic. You know the kind of panic I am talking about. It is the same one you get when you are driving and you see a police car; you have done nothing wrong, but you still think you will get arrested. Opposite the Turbine Hall is the Blavatnik Building, named after a member of one of London’s greatest treasures: the Russian oligarchs (let’s face it, we need them to keep the diamond business alive since we millennials don’t buy any). Apart from a café that makes a rather satisfying cup of coffee, the Blavatnik Building does not seem like much at first glance. Jump in the lift up to level 3 however, we suddenly see a much more gallery-esque setting where the Picasso exhibition, which is £22 per adult or free if you are a member, is currently taking place. I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition one morning, and with the concept of levels of exclusion linked to different floors (see what I did there?) in the back of my mind, I started to notice the differences between this gallery environment and that of the Tate Exchange environment on level 5. After spending a few days surrounded by some rather confrontational art and performances, loud toddlers running around in fairy wings and feather boas, and dance music playing non-stop, the quiet and somewhat serious setting of the Picasso exhibition felt like quite an extreme change. I almost felt as if I was in a library, and had to be quiet as a mouse. I kept thinking the more senior visitors were looking at me with the kind of judgement and resentment often reserved for my ‘snowflake’ generation (in my defence, Generation Z are much worse than we are). And although the stares were most likely something I imagined – at least I hope they were – it made me question whether I really ‘belonged’ there. Am I looking at the art the right way? Will I be in trouble for photographing the art with my smartphone (or iPod, as my wonderful grandmother calls anything remotely electronic)? Should I maybe have worn kitten heels rather than flip flops? So many concerns, so little time.

What I noticed the most with my new perspective, was the difference between visitors at the Picasso exhibition and the Tate Exchange Space. The Picasso exhibition sported many gallery goers of a more serious and snobbish nature; the occasional whiff of Chanel No. 5 here, a duck egg or blush coloured twin set there (yes, I am stereotyping – just go with it). All of them with very thoughtful and profound expressions on their faces. The Tate Exchange visitors were of a much more casual demeanour and dress, and quite a bit louder too. Exiting the level 3 gift shop, purchasing a fridge magnet for my stepdad’s collection, and returning to our glittery, musical, feather boa wrapped room on level 5, I almost felt as though I had been through quite a culture shock. In all my apparent middle classness I never really noticed whether gallery spaces were particularly open to all or not; but being told “it depends what floor you are on” suddenly shattered those rose-tinted glasses of mine. Although I really only spent time on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th floor of the Tate Modern, I started to see some truth in those words. The Tate Exchange space on the 5th floor also seemed like such a free and welcoming space to those of all shapes and sizes, whereas the Picasso exhibition the 3rd floor seemed so much more restricted and monotonous regarding the types of visitors. Oddly enough, it seems that as far as the Tate Modern is concerned, the exclusivity of gallery spaces becomes more relaxed the further up you go. Perhaps a metaphor for the lower classes having to work harder (or climb more stairs) to earn the benefits?

CEFEUS Submits Two Pieces of Evidence to Parliament

From our students – Christian George, David Turner and Noora Eveliina Virtanen 

Since we both started working our respective RED internships, we’re helping Professor Amelia Hadfield and the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) prepare evidence submission to two enquiries currently underway by Committees the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively.

 

EU UK Security Treaty Evidence

On the 25th May CEFEUS submitted evidence to the House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee inquiry on Brexit and the proposed UK-EU security treaty. This marks the 8th evidence the Centre has submitted and was written with the assistance of CEFEUS Research Assistants Noora Virtanen and Fennel Wellings.

The submission highlights the key components that are under a threat after Brexit if a suitable deal is not negotiated. These components included maintaining access to information sharing, such as the SIS II, and police cooperation through Europol and Eurojust. The submission also highlighted the opportunities of negotiating bilateral treaties, such as the 2018 Sandhurst Treaty between the UK and France.

Putting together evidence is a rewarding process. We started with collecting information from the EU and the UK official databases and reading existing treaties. Once we had put together a draft version of the submission, we were lucky to be able to interview a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Criminal Justice and Computing at CCCU to find out their insights on the the inquiry, and add them in. All in all, writing the submission required close attention to detail but was a very rewarding experience. We were able to learn about the topic in great detail which will be useful in the future.

 

Brexit Freight Evidence

Then on Wednesday 6th June, CEFEUS submitted evidence to the Transport Committee on Freight and Brexit, marking the 9th submission by the Centre. It was written with the assistance of Christian Turner and Lucas Pierce. The inquiry is looking into the impact of Britain’s departure from the European Union will have on the freight industry, in addition to the proposed ‘Road Haulage and Trailers Permit’ Bill currently being debated in the House of Commons.

The submission draws upon CEFEUS’ work on a proposed report on the Border, which has involved meetings and evidence gathering from a range of sources at local, national and international level. The evidence submission itself focus on ‘The Kent Imperative’; namely issues that will affect the county of Kent. Over 16,000 HGVs travel through the county each day and any potential delays can have an egregious effect on the county. Port of Dover recently estimated that an extra two minutes processing per vehicle would result in 17 mile queues in both the UK and France. Finally, the submission concludes with some suggested solutions to the issues outlined, such as membership of the Common Transit Convention (CTC) and a Kent Brexit Bill.

Both pieces of evidence will now be considered by the committees in relation to their inquiries. Often, written evidence is subsequently published online, and in some cases, you can be asked to appear before the committee to present oral evidence in order to answer any questions the committee may have. This occurred most recently in December 2017 when Amelia Hadfield was asked to appear before the Communities and Local Government Committee on their inquiry on Local Government and Brexit. Finally, the committee will publish a report based on their inquiry, and the evidence submission may be formally cited in their observations.

 

All in all, it has been an exciting and helpful exercise that may help bring about meaningful change in policy at national level and we are grateful to have been given the opportunity to work on the submissions.

Students Debate Controversial Issues In Fifth Annual Youth Parliament

From Mark Bennister – Reader in Politics

Organised by Canterbury Christ Church University’s Outreach Team, students from across the county took part in the University’s annual Canterbury Youth Parliament debate which also welcomed guest speaker Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield

The one-day event attracted more than 120 pupils, ranging Year 9 to Year 12, who debated some of the most controversial topics of the day, from the war on plastic to Artificial Intelligence.

Its aim is to encourage youth participation in current affairs and politics and to raise confidence in public speaking for students.

The debate which involved eight schools, challenged the right age to vote, regulation concerning social media, and pupils also put forward topics they would like to discuss in the future, which included LGBTQ, stereotypes in society, mental health awareness, homelessness, the EU referendum and immigration.

Storm Herring, 14, from Astor College said: “For our project of the day we learnt about waste in school and talked about how much one person made in an academic year. It was around 22k of waste and then we expanded it from nurseries through to college – from age two to 18.

“Everyone made valid points which could be used as potential solutions. There was positive reinforcement from Rosie Duffield and lecturers within the University.”

It took place in the Powell Building on the Canterbury Campus on Friday, May 11. Canterbury schools who attended the event included The Canterbury Academy, Spires Academy, St Anselm’s Catholic School, The Archbishop’s School, alongside Brockhill Park School in Hythe, Astor College in Dover, The Malling School in West Malling and Hartsdown Academy in Margate.

Rosie Duffield spoke about the importance of politics among young people and was delighted to attend the event.

“It was fantastic to see so many engaged young people with a view to make a difference. During my Q&A session it was evident that young people care about a big variety of issues, ranging from public transport in the county, to global warming.

“Canterbury Youth Parliament gives young people the chance to participate in debates and explore practical solutions to their concerns. I really enjoyed hearing the student’s creative ideas to tackle the war on plastic. I’m excited to share these ideas with my Labour colleagues in Westminster”

Other speakers included Dr Amelia Hadfield, Director for the Centre of European Studies at Christ Church and Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics at the University.

Speaking about the event, Amelia said: “From the role of citizens in an ever-changing political climate, to the war on plastic, from body issues to the job market, the students engaged brilliantly and bravely on subjects of genuine interest to them.

“It was a pleasure to have Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield at the event to give students both an insight into the day to day realities of an MP, as well as inspiring them to work actively for causes that they were passionate about.”

Abjection, boobs, and a whole lot of glitter: My week with the Tate Exchange

From Katarina Hill – Intern for Politics and International Relations.

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There I am, 6.45am on a Tuesday, standing in the middle of Canterbury in the pouring rain. No, this is not the start of a new millennial craze, but rather the first day of my internship. I am waiting to be picked up and taken to Dover, to help transport a number of items to the Tate Modern for the upcoming Tate Exchange exhibition. Fast forward an hour, and I am sitting in the back of a minibus surrounded by mannequins, a life-size dress-up doll, and numerous boob bags (beanbags with nipples – yes, I am serious). These are just some of the artworks by the young people at Astor College, Dover in association with artist, Kelly Green.

We arrive at the Tate Modern around 10am and with only two trips in the lift, we have managed to transport everything to level 5 – our exhibition space. Our young artists, whom I have yet to meet, are not arriving for another two days, so I am now trusted not to damage their hard work (no pressure). A couple of hours later, following instructions by our lead artist, Kelly Green, we have successfully set up the collection of works entitled ‘What Are You Looking At’. The pieces deal with the concept of ‘otherness’, and forms of social abjection related to class and gender; and invite the viewer to interact with the artwork rather than just look at it.

Wednesday, I am back at the Tate Modern for the opening of the exhibition which CCCU and the Astor College kids are partaking in, along with the organisations People United and Valleys Kids. The boob bags now form our feminist reading corner, in which we engage in some ‘classy’ workshops throughout the day. The workshops on social class relations revealed me to be much more posh than I generally care to admit, placing me at the top of the class line among the other workshop participants. It also raised some interesting questions on class: can you be in a class transitional phase? Is shopping at Primark a working class trait, or merely a cost-effective option for all classes? In all honesty, I have no clue. Growing up and living in Denmark for 19 years, the concept of belonging to a social class was something that rarely concerned me. I am certain that all countries enforce social class division to an extent, but in Denmark it is not a label used to define oneself the same it is in the UK. Since moving to the UK, I am suddenly very aware of just how middle class I really am, and how ‘middle class’ seems to be a four letter word. The workshop struck up quite a fun debate on what it means to be a ‘chav’. Everyone has different connotations to the word, and for most it is probably a derogatory term for someone with an intense passion for tracksuit bottoms. For Kelly Green however, it is something to be proud of, and she is on the road to reclaiming the term ‘chav’ through playwriting and tattoos galore. When I was not discussing class relations and ‘chavs’ whilst surrounded by boobs, I had a chance to engage with the people from the Welsh charity Valleys Kids. Their pop-up youth club with table tennis, a pool table, fancy dress, and music was popular among many of the visitors. Although, we were faced with some harsh realities when the young people of Rhydfelin (the people behind the pop-up youth club), told us the story of how their own youth club had been shut down and left them with nowhere to go. A live performance accompanied by a short film hit the audience right in the heart, but came to a happy close when everyone was invited to join the dance party and parade around the exhibition. In a quieter corner of an old fashioned Welsh living room made entirely out of cardboard, the lovely people from Valleys Kids taught me how to crochet! I can tell you that it is a very addictive activity, and returning to the final workshop after finally mastering the needle-yarn tension was not easy.

On the Thursday, our young artists from Astor College arrived and their pieces were ready to be explored by everyone. We were quickly making our mark on London at our makeup station, a piece on how gender identities can be constructed and broken down through use of makeup. Chloe and Stephanie where giving glittery makeovers to anyone that felt their inner unicorn needed to make an appearance; and as often is the case with glitter, it was everywhere in no time. People United had set up an interactive task for people to sit opposite a complete stranger, and look at them in silence for 20 seconds. Then you write down 5 things about this person: what they like or dislike, if they have pets, etc. Either I am very easy to read or the woman opposite me was psychic, because everything she guessed was correct. They were all very nice things, so I was rather pleased to be honest. Friday’s events were quite similar to Thursday’s, except there was even more glitter and I had the chance to chat to our visitors about their thoughts on ‘What Are You Looking At’ and their opinions and beliefs regarding class and abjection. The question of what middle class people would think of the art, came with varied responses. Some were convinced the middle class would enjoy the art, while others were adamant that they would not. Through these chats I learned that people’s perceptions of class can vary quite a lot, but that their perception of the term ‘chavs’ are all very similar. I was informed that sexism is a non-issue, and simply a natural occurrence as a result of human nature and reproductive needs. Most of the visitors I spoke to were however very concerned with gender related issues, especially within the lower classes.

Saturday was my last day working with the Tate Modern as my ‘office’. I engaged in some more chats with exhibition visitors, this time with a discussion on gender stereotypes in relation to parenthood. The boob bags proved a hit with the toddler demographic (for obvious reasons?), and the little ones even decided to have a ‘read’ in the Zines we had made and printed for the reading corner. I finally had a chance to get to know the young people from Astor College a bit better, and we ended up in a longer conversation about school dress codes at which there was a lot of eye rolling (on my part), at how girls for some reason are not allowed to express themselves without supposedly being distracting. My week concluded with a personal triumph as I mastered a new crochet pattern, and a bittersweet goodbye to all the wonderful people I had met during my time at the Tate Modern. The Astor Kids were very excited about a trip to Nando’s, and I said bye-bye to my ‘London office’ and pondered what I had seen and learned over the week on my way back to Canterbury.