There really is no credible reason to deny same-sex couples the right to marry

Nik Darlington 10.32am

The Prime Minister is right to say that society is made stronger by people’s commitment to each other. It should matter little whether those people are husband and wife, husband and husband, or wife and wife (admittedly, the same-sex marriage lexicon needs some work).

I was uncertain about the logic or need for the Government’s opening up the debate earlier this year. Few people were insisting on it, fewer still would place it highly on a list of public policy priorities in the midst of economic pain.

Yet now that the question has been put - i.e. should same-sex couples be allowed to marry? - there is no conceivable way that I could disagree, as a Christian and a citizen (the two aren’t incompatible, mind).

Several Conservative MPs cavil at the thought. One has been quoted as saying the policy would unnecessarily split the party. Considering this caucus consists of many who persist in splitting the party over other issues, not least the European Union, that’s a bit rich.

In a cogent and moving article today in the Times (£), Tim Montgomerie writes:

"Every Tory MP needs to think about how they want their vote on same-sex marriage to be remembered. Young people think homosexuality is as natural as ginger hair, skin colour or left-handedness. Tory MPs should think about the day that their children and grandchildren ask how they voted."

It’s been a while now since I was a schoolboy so maybe the ‘gay’ taunts that we would all chuck about are relics of the past. That aside, Montgomerie’s point is apt, however uncomfortably direct for some.

Many conservationist Tories (and non-political conservationists for that matter) will quite rightly insist on our not putting that Tesco megastore there, or that new ring road here, for the sake of future generations. As will environmentalists proclaim the precautionary principle.

So however guilt-inducing Montgomerie’s call to arms might be, the teleological line of argument is correct. There is no longer a convincing case (was there ever really?) for civil society to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to marry.

That this is a ‘civil’ matter is fundamental. Part of me had hoped that following the public consultation, the Government would hold firm on its ban on religious groups offering to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. Now it seems that they will be allowed to, should they so choose (the Quakers and some Jewish synaogogues have indicated they will). My fear is this will open up legal problems for the churches - such as the Church of England - that do not opt in. The Government, however, seems sure of its legal position and we should hope this is indeed the case.

Opponents within and without the Conservative party claim the Government has no mandate for the policy. Taking 2010 election manifestos into account, those opponents have a point. Nonetheless, the forming of a coalition has oft muddied those waters already and shall continue to do so for the duration of this Parliament.

Moreover, while opinion polling is nebulous (depends on how you ask the question), there does appear to be a broad acceptance of the policy in the country. This after one of the most extensive and lengthy public consultation processes in history (something many opponents that I’ve come across have for some reason remained unaware of).

Above all, if Members of Parliament are not our democratic representatives, what are they? Put the matter to a free vote and, as Sir John Major said over the weekend (£), “the Labour party will vote for it, the Liberals will vote for it, huge numbers of Tories will vote for it.”

You can conceivably wonder why the question was put at this point in time. Yet now it’s been asked, why on Earth not?

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Press freedom, or press responsibility? It is time we checked the most powerful organisations in Britain

Giles Marshall 9.50am

Eight-six MPs and peers have signed a letter urging David Cameron not to accept any recommendation for statutory oversight of the press, should such be made by Lord Leveson in his much anticipated report.

In many ways it is encouraging that so many legislators, themselves often the target of press attacks, should be so concerned about what they have termed an issue of free speech. They are right in wanting to steer clear of political control of any media outlet. Yet the issue for the British press is no longer really one of free speech; it is one of responsibility.

The Leveson Inquiry’s exhaustive hearings unearthed example after example of astonishing abuse of press power. This wasn’t simply the willingness of some newspapers to use illegal methods to obtain information; it was also their relentless commitment to the harassment and persecution of those who they decided, often on a whim or on the barest of hard knowledge, to victimise.

Famous examples of non-celebrity figures include the McCanns and Chris Jefferies, but they were hardly the first. There have been many more low-profile examples. The stories of Juliet Shaw and an innocent deputy headmistress, both caught up in the Daily Mail’s tangled web of media ethics, serve as a reminder of just what happens when there isn’t a major inquiry into the conduct of the press.

The Sun managed to identify an innocent man as a paedophile and never produced an apology, so weak is the current system of press regulation. There are plentiful, regular examples of how an out of control press - particularly the tabloids - smear people’s reputations with no requirement to apologise or make restitution when they are proved - as they so often are - wrong. The intrusion of the press into private lives continues unabated. The best observation of press antics comes at the moment from heroic blogs such as Tabloid Watch and The Media Blog, which makes depressing reading.

The MPs who signed the letter today rightly consider that the ability of the press to investigate political and commercial interests without fear or favour should be unhindered. Agreed.

The problem is that it so often doesn’t. It isn’t MPs or political interests who require the defence of a proper system of regulatory control. It is the little people, the small people’s interests, who urgently require this support. The very people MPs should be representing and whose interests they should be considering. It is in some ways astonishing that the eighty-six signatories of today’s letter have been so willing to leap to the defence of powerful, vested media interests, but have remained mute when ordinary people have been victims of press abuse.

Then again, many politicians mix freely with owners, editors and reporters. Mr Cameron’s friendship with Rebekah Brooks; Michael Gove’s past employment with Rupert Murdoch’s Times; Boris Johnson’s present employment with the Barclay twins’ Daily Telegraph; Jeremy Hunt’s cringeworthy emails and texts to a senior aide of the Murdoch corporation - all these relationships betoken an unhealthy danse macabre that wholly fails to protect us from a rampaging, lazy, abusive press.

The Guardian has published a poll finding today suggesting that 79 per cent of the public want a powerful regulatory body to control the press. It would be difficult to find an issue on which there is such variance between our representatives and ourselves.

Preventing the press from publishing untrue statements that irreparably damage people’s lives is not the same - nowhere near - as political control and it is a pity that today’s letter’s signatories don’t realise this.

It was Stanley Baldwin many years ago - using a comparison possibly offered to him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling - who noted that the press “have great power without any responsibility. The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

Too much of the British media has failed to show even the slightest hint of willingness to regulate themselves. It is time they were subject to the same strictures as every other organisation in this country, for they wield the greatest power, and power should never be allowed to go unchecked.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

LATEST NEWS on Select Committee and 1922 elections

Nik Darlington 6.27pm

Results have been announced for the latest round of elections to House of Commons Select Committees and the Conservative party’s 1922 Committee.

The biggest congratulations go to Robert Buckland (MP for Swindon South and a vice-president of the TRG) who has been elected Secretary of the 1922. Robert will do very well and I wish him all the best.

Robin Walker, MP for Worcester, has been elected to the Business Committee, alongside Caroline Dinenage, MP for Gosport.

In other moves:

  • Angie Bray (Ealing Central) and Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) and Tracey Crouch (Chatham & Aylesford) are elected on to the Culture, Media & Sport Committee.
  • Brooks Newmark (Braintree), formerly in the Whips Office, is now a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
  • Karen Lumley (Redditch) takes a place on the Transport Committee at what is a critical juncture for British transport.
  • Meanwhile, there is some surprise that Simon Hart (Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire), a former head of the Countryside Alliance, did not make it on to the Defra Committee but election to the 1922 Executive will serve as good consolation.

What House of Lords reform tells us (encouragingly) about the House of Commons

Richard Ellis 8.27am

For centuries, the House of Commons had been intent on acquiring power. Blood was spilt and lives lost to secure greater authority for MPs. They became the foremost authority in the legislature and the chief seat of the executive.

Recent years have seen a near-total volte face. The House of Commons has been casting away its powers with an unbecoming incontinence. Whether to the European Union, to quangos or to the courts, MPs have hastened to jettison the rights for which their predecessors fought so long and so hard.

Who has the right to stay in this country? Who may vote? For how long can terrorist subjects be imprisoned? These are tricky subjects and they should be the subject of political discussion. The House of Commons should debate these points, have the necessary votes and pass the appropriate laws – and be subject to judgment at the ballot box.

MPs, sadly, have failed to take that line. Now the final decision on these and many other questions are taken miles away from any ballot box and often miles away from our own shores.

It is little short of pathetic that the Labour party should want a judge to hold an inquiry into the banking system. Banking reform is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Not only should the House of Commons be the prime mover, it should be chomping at the bit to be the prime mover. Labour MPs, however, want to sneak away from the fight and ask the wig-and-gown brigade to do the heavy lifting. Feeble.

The debate over the House of Lords, now delayed by yesterday’s decision to withdraw a timetabling motion that the Government knew it would lose, offers MPs the chance to stop this descent into impotent lethargy. Many of those who oppose this reform say that their main concern is the prospect of an elected House of Lords - with the greater legitimacy of a democratic mandate - challenging the supremacy of the House of Commons. It is a rare treat to hear that supremacy championed.

An elected House of Lords would indeed seek to challenge MPs.  It would, moreover, be right to do so; if you have a democratic mandate you are duty-bound to seek to have your way. Hence this Bill, which passed its Second Reading last night despite a Tory rebellion of 91, would lead to constitutional chaos. That is just one reason why it must be thrown out.

Nonetheless, these reforms may have a positive legacy. It can only augur well if the idea of an elected House of Lords has reminded MPs how important any elected chamber (the Commons included) should be.

If the House of Commons has finally woken up and recovered the will to defend and advance its role in our constitution then we may yet owe a debt of gratitude to Nick Clegg. The European Union, the judges, the media, the bankers all have great power over the British state. They have all got much wrong, none are properly accountable and all could provide much work for our newly-active democratic representatives. A reinvigorated Commons could be just what the doctor ordered.

With any luck these reforms could be a footnote in the history of the House of Lords and a turning point in the history of the House of Commons.

Fingers crossed.

Nik Darlington 10.11am

We don’t publish nearly enough videos on these pages, though it is not for want of trying. Most political videos are over-viewed and undercooked.

However, this footage of energy minister Charles Hendry planting his derriere in the lap of his Lib Dem boss, Ed Davey, is too irresistible to pass over. Particularly for a lazy Saturday morning.

And I am sure, in the interests of a good giggle, our TRG patron will forgive us for bringing the moment to your attention.

Coalition-themed captions there are aplenty, I’m sure. Any suggestions…?

It is pure folly to reduce the number of MPs

Craig Prescott 11.58am

At the last general election, both coalition parties pledged to reduce the size of the House of Commons. The Conservatives offered a 10 per cent reduction (manifesto is oddly no longer available online), while the Lib Dems (link here) wanted to cut the number of MPs by 150. The eventual Coalition Agreement is actually weaker than both parties’ original pledges, as Parliament will only be trimmed by 50 MPs from its current level of 650.

This 600 figure was created by the negotiating teams during those ‘Five Days in May’. That episode revealed one of the worst aspects of our unwritten constitution: essentially, just six chaps in a room determined how many MPs will sit in the main chamber of our national legislature. In most other countries in the world the number of seats in the legislature is defined in a constitution - in the USA, each state is allocated two Senators - and the process of changing this is considerably more laborious than chatting over some tasty biscuits.

There is no underlying rationale for this reduction. For the Liberal Democrats it was part of a grander constitutional scheme, the only part of which that may emerge is House of Lords reform (but even this could be in difficulty).

For the Conservatives, the rationale is one of reducing cost both in line with ‘deficit reduction’ but also as part of the response to the MP’s expenses scandal.

Another justification, considerably more viable, is to equalise the number of constituencies. A fundamental principle is that each vote should count as equally as possible. However, it does not automatically follow from this that the number of MPs had to be reduced. Any party gain is likely to be minimal. Psephologists believe the bias against the Conservatives will be reduced, but only by 3 per cent.

As far as I can tell there has never been any serious consideration as to the optimal sum of MPs. There should have been some thought dedicated to this before committing to a final number, and it may well be the case that considerably more or fewer MPs would be needed.

My view is that Parliament would be better served by more rather than fewer MPs. The reduction of MPs will not be followed by a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers (the ‘payroll vote’). This is a shame. Much has been made of the quality of the 2010 intake and the fact that MPs are more rebellious in this Parliament than at any point since 1945.

Furthermore, there have been procedural reforms to enhance the role of the backbench MP, in particular the creation of a Backbench Business Committee. Parliament matters again.

But fewer backbench MPs means fewer types of people being represented in Parliament, at a time when people are concerned (whether rightly or wrongly) about a so-called political class with little ‘real-world experience’ outside of Westminster. Reducing the number of MP’s does nothing to alter this perception. While expertise is often an argument against House of Lords reform, expertise is also provided by MPs in the commons. The current chamber comprises of the usual smattering of lawyers and businesspeople, but also doctors, academics and economists and former members of our armed forces.

On certain major issues such as the EU and human rights, it is groups of backbenchers rather than the leaderships of parties that tends more closely to represent the views of the electorate.

The ‘gene pool’ for Ministers is also reduced. This may have been one reason behind Gordon Brown’s ‘Government Of All the Talents’, as by the time he became Prime Minister, he had, to some extent, run out of suitable backbenchers.

Parliamentary committees could also be harmed. This is a growth area in MPs’ workloads, so it is inevitably going to be more difficult for the smaller number of MPs to fulfil their commitments in this area alongside all their other commitments without an increase in resources (which will hinder the overall intention to reduce the cost of politics).

The greatest irony in all of this is that should Scotland separate from the rest of the UK in in the forthcoming referendum (whenever that is held), the cost of politics in Westminster will be reduced at a stroke, and the opportunity to revisit constituencies would have emerged. Boundaries could then be equalised without any of the harmful side effects mentioned above.