Dramas at Westminster: select committees and the quest for accountability

iOpQqpWl_400x400.jpgNow that the government has a secure majority in the Commons, the role of select committees in scrutinising its work will be crucial. But how do select committees operate, what makes them tick and how effective are they? Drawing on the findings of his new book, Marc Geddes argues that if we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

How do MPs make sense of their scrutiny work? Accountability is one of three core functions of legislatures (the other two being law-making and representation), yet we know remarkably little about how MPs interpret, or seek to carry out, scrutiny work. Those MPs that do take it seriously often join select committees. They are seen as the main vehicles of accountability in the House of Commons, made up of a small group of MPs to consider policy questions. Traditionally, there is one committee per ministerial department, as well as additional cross-cutting ones (such as on public administration and constitutional affairs). Committees normally consider policy issues through an evidence gathering process that may include written, as well as oral, evidence, before then publishing a report with recommendations for action (very often these reports are published consensually, with agreement from all the committee’s MPs). Select committees are seen to be influential and have been widely celebrated, especially in 2019, which marked the 40th anniversary since their present-day incarnation. While they are seen as fundamental to good scrutiny and we know that they can be influential, I wanted to examine select committees from a different vantage point, asking why MPs join committees and how they make sense of their role. This culminated in a book, Dramas at Westminster. What did I find? 

The core argument of my book is that there is no easy answer or unifying theme to understand what ‘scrutiny’ actually means. Rather, MPs’ interpretations of the concept are wide-ranging and, while MPs’ beliefs often blend well together to create effective means to hold the executive to account, their ideas about select committee work can also contrast and diverge from what others might consider to be ‘good scrutiny’ – or, in fact, ‘scrutiny’ at all. For example, for some, scrutiny is about holding the government’s feet to the fire and they would only regard scrutiny as being successful if they have blown a minister off-course; for others, scrutiny is about transparency, i.e. better understanding why a minister might have taken a particular decision. I argue that these different interpretations create different ‘performance styles’; behaviours that MPs can adopt when they enact their scrutiny role – much like in a theatre or play. To illustrate this point, I identify six styles: specialists, who often form the core of committee business and attempt to analyse aspects of the policy area; lone wolves, who take their passions so far that they make their case irrespective of other committee members or the committee’s remit; constituency champions, who look at scrutiny through the prism of how it can benefit local causes; party helpers, who seek to protect their party interests on the committee; learners, who use their membership to better understand a policy issue; and absentees, who – as their name suggests – are largely absent from substantive committee work.

These styles are not fixed, with many MPs changing the role they adopt based on particular circumstances. For example, it might be the case that an MP is a specialist in one aspect of a committee’s work but not another, and so acts as specialist or learner accordingly; in other areas of a committee’s work, it might directly touch on their constituency while in a hearing with the secretary of state, or they cannot help themselves and use their party allegiance to poke fun at the government. It is worth thinking about performance styles to understand the wider dynamics of committee hearings and evidence processes. Doing this detailed analysis will help us to better understand why a committee will come to certain conclusions but might avoid other recommendations. Most importantly, the performance styles that I have identified here are designed to be illustrative rather than definitive, drawing on the most recurring themes and behaviours that I found during my fieldwork. 

The diversity of priorities for MPs affects scrutiny in different ways. Most notably, MPs’ styles of scrutiny push accountability in particular directions and may mean that the focus of reports could be skewed. Committees therefore depend on MPs knowing which style to adopt – acting as specialist, for example, when holding civil servants to account, but as learners when they want to gain information about a topic from academic witnesses. In my book, I particularly draw attention to two ways in which the beliefs and practices of MPs (and officials) affect committee work: evidence gathering and consensus building.

First, the book looks at how committees seek to gather evidence. Continuing the metaphor of a play, gathering evidence is a political performance in which committee members have their time in the limelight to promote their stylised versions of scrutiny. They work alongside committee officials, who become stage directors and production managers; who write briefing papers that act as loose scripts for MPs; and who ensure that witnesses – the perceived stars of the show – are willing to attend a committee hearing in the first place. Indeed, the work of officials, predominantly conducted backstage, can be just as important in making scrutiny happen as the MPs themselves, with most committee members relying on the deftness and skills of committee staff to keep the show running. 

Second, I also look at how MPs seek to build effective relationships. This is important because, traditionally, committees seek to publish reports with the agreement of all members of the committee. How do they do this? One interviewee spoke to me about ‘norms of civility’ that sustain partnership and collaboration across parliament. Effective relationships are key to good scrutiny because they ensure that MPs are able to respect and trust each other, without fear that one or another will undermine them. These everyday behaviours are often overlooked because they seem mundane, routine and inconsequential. However, they add up. And it is through their daily negotiations with each other that MPs are bound together and work with each other in good faith.

While I draw attention to evidence gathering and relationship building, the intention of Dramas at Westminster is to highlight the power of ideas, beliefs and the ‘everyday’ in affecting select committees more broadly. The book demonstrates the multi-purpose role of select committees in structuring parliamentary life, in which I find that committees allow MPs to learn about policy, act as information gathering tools for Parliament, help to socialise MPs into the conventions and procedures of the House, can allow for opportunities for MPs to test lines of inquiry to use elsewhere, and so on. While committees serve different roles, they are also under pressure from the multiple demands of work placed on MPs, from the short timeframes and reactive nature of much scrutiny work, and from changing membership of committees. 

Ultimately, the aim of this book is to provoke a debate about how we study parliaments. I use the metaphor of theatre to highlight that, very often, scrutiny becomes a spectacle or drama (think of the headlines from hearings with Sir Philip Green, for example). If we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

If you enjoy the Constitution Unit blog, sign up for updates in the left sidebar, join our mailing list for news of our events and research, and support us through a one-off or regular donation. Donations are crucial to funding the blog, and the Unit’s research.

About the author

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. He uses an interpretive approach to study legislatures, with his most recent book, Dramas at Westminster, now available. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: why half in, half out just isn’t an option for royals

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgbob_morris_163x122.jpg

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from royal duties has been described as a crisis for the monarchy, but they are the ones who are most likely to suffer the damage, as Robert Hazell and Bob Morris explain.

Members of the royal family are in a conflicted position. They lead lives of great privilege, but they also lack fundamental freedoms. They aren’t free to choose a career, they cannot speak freely and they have limited freedom to privacy and family life, which the rest of us take for granted.

Harry and Meghan are not alone in finding that frustrating, Prince Laurent of Belgium is another who is visibly unhappy in the role.

The harsh reality is that younger sons are spares who are ultimately dispensable from a hereditary monarchy: it is only those in direct line of succession who count. As spares they are subject to the same personal restrictions as the immediate heirs, without either the prospect of succession or the freedom to develop truly independent careers of their own.

Other European monarchies (encouraged by parsimonious governments and legislatures) have learned to keep the core team as small as possible. It can be just four people – in Norway and Spain it is the king and queen, the heir and their spouse. In 2019, the King of Sweden removed five grandchildren from the royal family, under parliamentary pressure to reduce its size and its cost.

The UK has a larger population – over ten times the size of Norway – and it could therefore be contended that it makes sense for its royal family to be larger to carry out necessary duties. A bigger team is also required given the realms: the queen is head of state of 15 countries other than the UK, and Prince Charles and his sons make regular visits to countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In total, 15 members of the British royal family conducted almost 4,000 royal engagements in 2019 alone.

Cutting the spares

Prince Charles is said to want a smaller, streamlined monarchy, perhaps just the core team of the queen, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate: but with a smaller team they could accept fewer royal patronages and fulfil far fewer engagements. It is not clear how far Prince Charles has thought through such consequences any more than Harry and Meghan have thought through the consequences for others of what they want. Continue reading

Do we need a written constitution?

image1.000.jpgPrior to the general election, several of the parties’ manifestos called for the creation of a codified constitution for the UK. In December, the Constitution Unit hosted an event to debate the merits and downsides of such an exercise. Harrison Shaylor summarises the discussion.

What did the 2019 Liberal Democrat election manifesto and the Brexit Party’s ‘Contract with the People’ (from the same election) have in common? Both advocate the need for a written constitution in the UK. So too did the Green Party manifesto, and that of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Meg Russell took part in a discussion on a written constitution in The Briefing Room on Radio 4 in September, and on 28 November, the Constitution Unit held its own event entitled ‘Do we need a written constitution?’. Two distinguished law professors – Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Queen Mary University of London and Nicholas Barber of the University of Oxford – set out the case for and against a written constitution, in a debate chaired by a former Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell. What follows is a summary of the presentations made by each participant. 

The argument for a written constitution: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

‘Someone, I haven’t been able to trace whom, once said: Constitution building is a bit like dentistry: there’s never a good time for it; no one does it for fun; but it’s sometimes necessary and, when it’s done right, it prevents greater pain in the future.’

Professor Douglas-Scott explained that a constitution delineates the relationships between the major institutions of state, such as the executive and the legislature, as well as between the state and its citizens. More abstractly, a constitution says something about legitimacy and power. How does the state exercise power? And when is it legitimate for it do so?

The UK is unusual in not having a written constitution, in the sense of not having the fundamental rules of the constitution codified in a single document. It is one of only a few democracies in the world which lacks one, alongside Israel and New Zealand. The reason for this is historical. Since 1688, Britain has not experienced a revolution or regime change – a ‘constitutional moment’ – like the American or the French Revolution, or the withdrawal of colonial rule. Rather, Britain’s constitution has evolved slowly over time under relative stability; it has never been deemed necessary to list the fundamental laws and principles underpinning the country’s polity. As the Constitution Unit website states: ‘What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution.’

This arrangement, Professor Douglas-Scott argued, is no longer adequate. The current constitution is deficient for three reasons: its lack of clarity; its failure to properly protect fundamental rights; and the inadequacy of the current devolution settlement. Continue reading

Election replay with the experts: looking back at the 2019 general election

luke_moore1_500x625_0.jpgThe 2019 general election is now complete, but there is still plenty to say about the campaign, the rules that governed it, and the new parliament it has produced. Luke Moore summarises the contributions at our final seminar of 2019, where Unit staff were joined by other experts to dicuss the lessons of the election.

On Monday 16 December the Constitution United hosted an event entitled Election Replay with the Experts, at which four leading political scientists, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, looked back on the 2019 general election. The issues discussed included polling, women’s representation, the rules of the electoral game, and the effect of the election on the new parliament. The event was chaired by Unit Research Associate Lisa James

Ben Lauderdale – polling 

Ben Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at UCL, started the evening by discussing the performance of polling at the election. During the election campaign Lauderdale had been involved in producing the much-discussed ‘MRP’ (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling used to predict constituency results. His central message was that after two general elections — in 2015 and 2017 — in which some of the polls proved to be significantly out of step with the results, polling for the 2019 election is largely a non-story, as most pollsters were on target in their predictions. Further, the accuracy of the polls meant that the media was (in retrospect and in Lauderdale’s view) discussing the right topics during the election campaign. The most important of these was the prospect of a Conservative majority, but also the specific demographic and geographic weaknesses of the 2017 Labour coalition. While the terminology was a bit reductive and silly, it was not wrong to have focused on the vulnerability of Labour’s ‘red wall’ and Conservative appeals to ‘Workington man’.  Continue reading

What does the election result mean for territorial representation in the House of Commons?

jack_sheldon.1We have a new parliament, a new majority government and a significant number of new MPs. As Jack Sheldon explains, the distribution of MPs by party is not even across the UK, which could have a significant impact on how the Commons handles key matters related to Brexit and the devolved administrations. 

The general election result has underlined that there are substantially different patterns of electoral competition in each of the four territories that comprise the United Kingdom. For the third consecutive election, a different party secured the most seats and votes in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the large majority secured by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives relied overwhelmingly on an exceptionally strong performance in England – of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, 345 are in England.

Screenshot_20191220-170327_Word

The territorial divergence that the UK’s politics has experienced over recent decades has important implications not just for election outcomes, but for the substantive activity of representation performed by MPs in the House of Commons. MPs often seek to act as ‘territorial representatives’, focusing on the specific concerns of their nation or region. This has not so far received much attention from academics, a gap which my PhD project is seeking to fill by examining the parliamentary behaviour of MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and two English counties, Cornwall and Yorkshire, between 1992 and 2019. Early findings suggest that substantive territorial representation is particularly prevalent among members of nationalist parties and other parties that run candidates only in one territory, but that it is also a relatively common feature of the parliamentary contributions of many members of the UK-wide parties, at least in more recent parliaments. It can take various forms including representation of the material interests, public opinion and culture and/or identity of the territory in question, or of sub-state political institutions. With crucial questions pertaining to the future of the Union set to be up for discussion, how can we expect MPs from the different parts of the UK to go about representing their territories in the new parliament?

England 

Despite being drawn so overwhelmingly from English constituencies, there are few indications that the enlarged group of Conservative MPs will explicitly focus on England as a unit. While the Conservatives introduced English votes for English laws in 2015 and some prominent Conservative MPs have called for an English Parliament in the past, the ‘West Lothian question’ has slipped down the political agenda over the past few years as Brexit has emerged as the dominant issue for the right. That seems unlikely to change now, despite some interest from external commentators such as Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser. Conservative interest in the constitutional English question was always motivatived to a significant extent by concern that a Labour-led government might be able to force through policies applying only to England even though a majority of English MPs were opposed, as happened on a few occasions in the New Labour years. With the Conservatives now having a large majority overall, the political incentive to focus on the English question just isn’t there at the moment. Continue reading

The rules of the election campaign: problems and potential solutions

alan.jfif (1)The election campaign that concluded last week was often a depressing sight for democrats, with rampant misinformation and occasional threats against institutions that try to foster better debate. In this post Alan Renwick identifies key problems and assesses four possible solutions. Given the prevailing political environment, he concludes, a concerted effort from parliamentarians, broadcasters, and others will be needed to carry the case for positive reforms forward. 

Electoral law in the UK urgently requires reform. This has been the unanimous conclusion of a slew of recent reports from respected organisations – including the Electoral Commission, Association of Electoral Administrators, and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committees in the House of Commons. Michela Palese and I also argued the case in a report earlier this year. Many aspects need attention. Some are drily technical: our complex and often opaque election rules badly need basic consolidation, simplification, and clarification. Others get to the heart of the kind of democracy we want to live in. Campaigning has been transformed by the digital communications revolution, but the rules have utterly failed to catch up.

This post focuses on campaign conduct. It begins by briefly reviewing problems during the 2019 election before focusing on four possible solutions. Finally, it considers the prospects for serious reform.

The conduct of the campaign

The shift to online campaigning continued apace. According to Facebook’s data, the three main parties’ central organisations alone spent £3.5 million on advertising on the site in the 12 months preceding the election, the great bulk of it coming during the campaign period. Each party posted thousands of separate ads, often targeted at very small numbers of voters. Local parties and other campaign groups also weighed in strongly. It will take considerable time for detailed analysis of all this material to be completed.

Misinformation was rampant throughout the campaign, from all sides. Boris Johnson’s core promise to ‘get Brexit done’ by 31 January 2020 was well known to be a gross simplification, while Conservative promises on new hospitals and extra nurses were found wanting. So were Labour’s claims that 95% of people would pay no extra tax under its plans and that the average family would save over £6,000. The Liberal Democrats were criticised most for misleading bar charts and sometimes manifestly false claims about their own electoral prospects.  Continue reading