Most of us spend our lives outside of the Parliamentary and Westminster bubble and are either disinterested in what goes on inside or struggle to make sense of the work of a Government which controls significant elements of our society. Last week I met someone who is interested in how to challenge some of the bad decisions that get made on our behalf. Our discussion included a question regarding how Ofsted should be held to account as he had been trying to make sense of that for some time. It is a reasonable question to ask following his observations of how a senior Ofsted officer addressed a group of MPs and appeared to tell them to mind their own business. Of course Ofsted is only one small if powerful element in our complex set of governmental structures. Just as their behaviour has raised questions for my new friend, there are many other questions that arise on a regular basis from other locations. One came up last week in the House of Lords when Hugh Dykes asked a very simple question. Although Hugh is now a Liberal Democrat, he was a Tory MP from 1970 to 1997 but left the party shortly after he lost his seat in Harrow because Ken Clarke failed to beat William Hague in becoming the successor to John Major. It would be fascinating to consider how different our current situation would have been if the 18 Tory MPs who voted for William instead of Ken had changed their minds on the day!
Last Wednesday afternoon Hugh Dykes asked the question “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received on a People’s Vote on Brexit” which is clearly a question that many Sussex residents are interested in. This question was responded to by Martin Callanan who is the Minister of State in the Department for Exiting the European Union. His response set the tone for the debate which although it only lasted 8 minutes enabled Martin to make it clear that he lacks the ability to answer most questions in an appropriate manner. His initial response was “My Lords, the Government have been clear that we will not hold a second referendum. A clear majority of the electorate voted to leave the European Union in the people’s vote held in 2016. We must respect both the will of the British people and the democratic process which delivered that result.” What was fascinating in terms of this statement was that later on in the debate one of Martins party colleagues, Terence Higgins who was MP for Worthing from 1964-1997 stated “My Lords, referendums are often described as democratic, but they are not what we usually mean by democratic in this country, where we have a system of representative parliamentary democracy. The effect of having a referendum is to undermine that system because it changes Members of Parliament from being representatives to delegates. Will the Minister look at the situation in the Netherlands, where the Government are considering banning referendums altogether?”
Thankfully Terence and Martin weren’t the only two participants in the debate and one of the questions which Hugh Dykes and a Labour Peer known as Genista McIntosh also asked of Martin Callanan was how many representations he or his department had received from anybody on the subject of the peoples vote. His response to these questions was clear “I will certainly go back and check with the department, but I receive a lot of correspondence both publicly and privately and I do not recall seeing any such representations. This is not to say that there have not been any letters in the department—there may have been one or two, but I certainly have not seen any on my private email.” When I read this I decided to ensure that Martin received at least one email as I disagree with Martin and Terence. I went online to a website called ‘They Work For You’ and when you click on the name of a member of the House of Lords you get access to another website called ‘Write to Them’ which allows you to send emails to Peers. What was particularly surprising was that Martin Callanan has not released his email address to that website and so the email to him has to go via the Conservative Party which explains why he has not had any emails sent direct to him! Perhaps one of the Sussex based Conservative MPs or Peers could call on their friend and ask him to make his office a bit more accessible to the people who pay him substantially more than £300 a day for being a Government Minister based in the House of Lords!