This week I made a visit to the Parliamentary archives in the Elizabeth Tower. The Tower is the large central one which dominates the Palace. It was specifically designed to hold the Parliamentary archive after a fire burned down the medieval Palace in 1834. The great rolls of vellum stacked on shelves that hold the Laws of Britain look like the age rings of giant trees.
You can see how busy monarchs were by the number of rolls carrying their name. Interestingly there are few rolls for Charles 1st, a man who did not like to call Parliaments, did not like to be held to account for his spending and ….. the rest is history.
We are coming to the end of the first session of this Parliament. It's been slower to get going than my previous three Parliaments. Structures have to be in place before Parliament can fully function and we can add to those rolls of vellum. We need a Speaker so that MP’s can take the oath of allegiance to the Queen before they can speak in the Chamber and debates can begin.
You need to elect Deputy Speakers and select of Members of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs to facilitate the debates. You also need Chairs of Select Committees, Members of Select Committee’s and other outside bodies.
I have been elected to the Defence Select Committee and re-appointed to the Speaker’s Panel. I will Chair debates in Westminster Hall and deal with the legislative processes of Bills, Statutory Instruments and Delegated Legislation. We expect a wide range of legislation to be brought forward for debate as we unpick the consequences of Brexit and the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
The Bill is highly controversial as it contains what are called Henry VIII powers enabling the government to deal with ‘deficiencies arising from withdrawal’. It gives power to Ministers (not Parliament) to make regulations as they consider appropriate to anything they feel may be needed to ‘prevent, remedy or mitigate’ the transfer of EU legislation into British legislation. Government has awarded itself huge powers over Parliament. You can expect a noisy Parliamentary session ahead as the traditional battle between Government and back benchers and oppositions goes into overdrive.
Why will Parliament not just nod changes through? Because rules, standards and agreements matter. Two areas which impact on life in communities across Bridgend have come up this week.
Euratom is the agency which regulates the transportation of nuclear materials across the 28 member states. Nuclear material used to generate energy for electricity for homes and business, to power submarines or for use in medicine and research. The UK cannot move or access nuclear materials from the EU without complying with these regulations. The body ultimately responsible for arbitration in disputes is the European Court of Justice and the Government wants to leave the ECJ.
The Reach Rules control the use of chemicals across the EU. Britain’s motor manufacturing companies must abide by the Reach Rules as four fifths of cars produced in the UK are exported to Europe, the world most valuable consumer market. The car export market is worth £17.8 billion to the UK so we cannot ignore it.
To protect our future economic wealth, our industries, local jobs, our health service, power generation and defence capability those Henry VIII powers will be challenged.
Governments don’t like to be challenged. They don’t like to be told they have made mistakes and their sums don’t add up. I’d like congratulate the Gem for demonstrating this most graphically in a recent article. Commenting on my contribution to the Queen’s speech debate. In an exchange with Chair of the Defence Select Committee (Conservative Dr Julian Lewis) we both expressed our concern that the government was only able to claim it was spending 2% on defence by including military and civil servant pensions. Dr Lewis commented, “It is a measure of the management downwards of our expectations that we are supposed to ring the church bells in triumph at our not falling below the bare minimum that NATO members are supposed to achieve. We really have to rethink this. We really should be looking at 3% of GDP, and not this bare minimum of 2%.”
I was therefore delighted to see the quote from Minister Mark Lancaster in the Gem article. As a national defence journalist texted me ‘if the minister wants to lash out they can be v quick at giving a quote’. Seems my speech and the Gem article touched a nerve. We are underfunding our armed services, personnel numbers are cut to the bone because the MOD is struggling to pay for American equipment it cannot afford, partly because of the drop in the value of the pound. The £20 billion black hole in the budget is not shrinking no matter how much Mark claims was spent in the past in Iraq and Afghanistan or is being spent with Welsh business.
The next few years are going to fill up those shelves with more rolls of vellum as we tackle Brexit. The impact on Britain and our place in the world will be tested and the need for ingenuity in legislation and decision making stretched. The largest roll in the current archive dates from 1820 and contains the registration of all of the land ownership in England and Wales for that year. Talking to the archivist I question how often this figured in the rolls. We plan to look for Bills relating to the building of the railroad and harbour in Porthcawl to transport coal from the mines in valleys to the north. That was our past. I’m confident Bridgend will add more to those rings of vellum over the next few years.