Time For Commons To Seize The Reform Moment

01 September 2013

Seizing the moment

There has been much talk about shifts in the balance of parliamentary-Executive relations following the Government’s defeat on the Syria vote on 29 August, with Parliament said to be more emboldened in standing up to the Executive – despite the fact that, for example, it was still only the Government, not the Speaker or MPs, who could initiate its recall to have that debate and vote.

In a recent CU Blogpost criticising the endorsement of the ‘Wright approach’ by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I outlined a way in which the Commons itself could take control of its own agenda and procedures back from the Government.  Here, I explore this issue further, in the hope that someone within the Palace of Westminster might feel that there is now, because of the events of ‘29/8’, a brief window of opportunity for a radical move forward.

The PCRC Report, and its related media and Chamber statements, made the usual call for its particular analysis to be accepted and its proposals to be implemented.  But like all such calls, it has no way of ensuring that the House – in practice, the Government – pays any heed at all to this plaintive plea.  How can the House or its committees make those reforms they may want actually happen, without being totally dependent on the Executive’s blessing?

Bypassing the Executive blockage

One approach would be to bypass existing formal structures and procedures, such as select committees or debates, as these are ultimately subject to Executive veto or control.  Alongside this Government-dominated ‘parliamentary’ Commons where the formal business of the House is conducted (mostly in public), lives an ‘institutional’ Commons, where the Government’s dominance does not apply, at least to the same degree.  At the apex of this ‘institutional House’ – a rather byzantine structure (see the House ‘organogram’) – is the Speaker, the HC Commission and the House Service (ie the House’s own staff), supported (often in private) by any number of departments, committees and the like (some of which, like the Commission and various ‘domestic’ committees, have MP or ministerial membership).

What if a ‘parliamentary reform body’ existed within this institutional structure, and not as a traditional parliamentary committee?

Crucially, the ‘institution’ operates according to public aims, objectives and principles, articulated in its Strategic and Management Plans.  These apply to the House Service, but many of them relate to the ‘parliamentary’ operation of the House (Chamber, Committee and related activities of the House and its Members), and to its relation with the public.  As such, it seems both obvious and logical for any reform proposals coming from select committees, the Government or from external sources also to be assessed against these standards.  Such compliance would also have the benefit that individual reform proposals would be designed to contribute to the achievement of an overall, consistent approach, rather than, as is the norm in the Commons, ad hoc, piecemeal and often reactive.

The HC Strategic Plan as the benchmark

The current version of the Commons’ ‘mission statement’ seems to be the Strategy for the House of Commons Service 2013-17.  For ‘reform compliance’ purposes, the key parts of the Strategy include the following:

“Our vision is that: The House of Commons will be valued as the central institution in our democracy: effective in holding the Government to account, scrutinising legislation, and representing the diverse views of the electorate. It will be seen both in the UK and abroad as a model of good practice and innovation, and will provide value for money. Members of Parliament will have the information, advice, support and technology they need to be effective in their work and to engage closely with their constituents.”

It then lists various ‘strategic goals’ with specific actions, such as

“1. We will make the House of Commons more effective by:

• supporting the House in implementing reforms to the way in which the Government is held to account and in strengthening the scrutiny of legislation

• supporting initiatives that develop new ways to represent the diverse views of the electorate

• influencing decisions on constitutional and procedural change, and being ready to respond to the outcomes

……………

3. We will ensure that Members, staff and the public are well-informed by:

• giving Members and their staff the support and access to the information they require to be effective in their role…

• giving the public the information needed to understand and appreciate the work of the House and its Members, by continuing to develop our website, education and outreach services, and opening a new Education Centre at Westminster

 4. We will work at every level to earn respect for the House of Commons by:..

• encouraging public participation in parliamentary business, including the work of select committees and the legislative process, and making the House more welcoming to the public

Within all this are various key benchmarks against which procedural reforms can, and should, be assessed, to ensure that reform proposals are ‘Strategy compliant’.

‘Speaker’s Advisory Panel on Strategy Compliance’

Just as the Speaker unilaterally set up his Advisory Council on Public Engagement in 2009-10, so he could establish something similar to assess procedural reform proposals.  I believe that the office of Speaker is a more appropriate sponsor for this body, rather than, say, the Commission or the Management Board, because the Speaker is, in the words of the parliamentary website, “chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons”, and is political impartial in office.

Membership of this body would be a matter for careful consideration.  Arguably its membership should not to be confined to MPs or Commons officials, but also contain appropriate ‘external’ representatives, including senior former members of Westminster Model parliaments/assemblies within and outwith the UK (a retired devolved Presiding Officer would be a good option as Chair), academics and members of civic society.

The remit of the Panel would be to review all proposals for Commons reform – from relevant committees, such as Procedure, PCRC, Liaison, Privileges and Standards, and from the Government (as set out in election manifestos, Queen’s speeches, Coalition agreements etc) – and to assess how well they match the principles, vision and goals set out in the current Strategy for the House Service.

Again its working process would be a matter for careful consideration – not least to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort – but should be open and transparent, and involve the public as well as the relevant officials, Members, and ministers. It would be required to make a public report to the Speaker setting out its conclusions on the extent to which the proposals are or are not compliant with the Strategy.  The Speaker would then certify these conclusions as ‘compliant’ (in whole or in part) or ‘not compliant’ and transmit them to the relevant initiating body, with the expectation that ‘not compliant’ proposals will not be proceeded with unless and until appropriately amended.

This would all be informal and indicative, as they are unlikely – at least initially – to be adopted in Standing Orders or the like, and would rely for their ‘enforcement’ on the prestige of the office of Speaker and the robustness of the work of the Panel.  However, if it became accepted as the norm, it would be a way for the House as a corporate institution to assert its autonomy and influence how it operates.

Over to the Speaker

Occupants of the Chair elsewhere can be proactive in matters of procedural reform – it was, for example, the Holyrood PO who triggered the review process which led to major changes in 2011-12 – and there is no reason why the Commons Speaker, who is at the centre of both the ‘parliamentary’ and ‘institutional’ Commons, should not be the catalyst for this proposed development in Commons reform.

The present Speaker came to the Chair as a ‘reformist’, and he has continued to express such sentiments, as in his recent speech in New Zealand.  He has been handed a rare opportunity now to give effect to his aspirations for a reformed House, by providing a coherent and public framework – however transitional – for ensuring that desired reforms are not obstructed or delayed by Ministers and that Government initiatives (such as the linkage of its e-petitions scheme to the backbench business innovation) are not unilaterally or inappropriately ‘imposed’ on the House.  Carpe diem!

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