Effective and influential: where next for departmental select committees?

220px.Official_portrait_of_Dr_Sarah_Wollaston_crop_2Forty years after the creation of departmental select committees, it is beyond doubt that they have contributed significantly to the scrutiny of government. But could they be doing more? The House of Commons Liaison Committee has established an inquiry to answer this question. Dr Sarah Wollaston explains that this is a necessary task to ensure that committees continue to innovate and perform their crucial functions with the involvement of MPs, experts and the general public.

It is difficult to imagine a House of Commons without its select committees. They are places where MPs can come together and work across party divides, often showing parliament at its best. They are central to the scrutiny of government. They have the authority to question those with influence and power but are also forums where MPs engage with and listen to a range of voices, and provide a platform to those who might otherwise not be heard. Committee work provides an important focus for the working lives of many MPs, who can use them to develop and deploy their own expertise. But in fact this level and intensity of scrutiny of the government and other agencies of the state by parliament is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The departmental select committee system will celebrate its fortieth birthday in June this year. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of all the Chairs of the select committees, sees this anniversary as providing an unmissable opportunity to take stock and reflect on whether select committees are fulfilling their potential, and if not, to find what is stopping them. Do select committees do the right things, with the right people, resources, powers and outputs? What has worked well, and what could they do better?

The 1979 select committee reforms were heralded at the time as the start of a great new era. Norman St John Stevas, then Leader of the House, stated that the Commons was ‘embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important parliamentary reforms of the century’. Although select committees had a long parliamentary history, their use had declined through the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in 1970, Bernard Crick, the political philosopher, noted that the government had resisted establishing a select committee system:

For one thing, Select Committees on matters of public policy have been thoroughly distrusted and disliked by the Whips; despite government majorities on them, they have an awkward tendency to develop cross-bench sentiment, and a shocking habit of regarding the Executive as guilty until it is proved innocent. Continue reading

Election petitions remain important to the integrity of UK elections, but reforms are urgently needed

Wilks.HeegCaroline.Morris_webUntil recently, widespread confidence about the integrity of UK elections meant that almost no information was available about election petitions, the only legal mechanism through which a UK election result can be challenged. Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Caroline Morris present significant new data about elections petitions from 1900 to 2016. Their findings fill an important gap in our historical knowledge about electoral integrity and inform current debates about the need to reform the petition mechanism.

Beyond a few specialist election lawyers, knowledge of election petitions is rare. In its current form, as a private legal action heard by a special election court, the election petition was part of the Victorians’ efforts to tackle electoral corruption. As vote-buying and intimidation were eradicated, the mechanism was widely assumed to have become redundant. During the 20th century, the number of cases dwindled, and no systematic records were kept of legal challenges to election results. Among the few cases that attracted any attention, the best known related to the overturning of Tony Benn’s return at the 1961 Bristol South-East by-election, on the grounds that he was a member of the House of Lords.

However, since 2004, there has been a renewed interest in election petitions. The most obvious trigger was the re-emergence of petitions alleging large-scale corruption. Infamously, in election circles, Richard Mawrey QC’s (2005) judgment on the Aston and Bordesley Green election petitions referred to ‘evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic’. Petitions have also revealed failings in the running of elections. For instance, an election court voided a close result at the 2004 Hull City Council elections after finding that voters in Derringham ward had instead received postal ballots relating to the election in Marfleet ward. Continue reading

Leaving the European Union, leaving the Palace of Westminster: Brexit and the Restoration and Renewal Programme

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A year after the House of Lords backed a major refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, Alexandra Meakin discusses the relationship between the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU and the plans for MPs and peers to temporarily move out of their current home.

Anna Soubry: ‘We have to grasp this, do the right thing, and – I cannot believe I am going to say this – but in this instance, in supporting amendment (b), absolutely everybody vote leave.’

Over the past few months parliamentary proceedings have taken centre stage in our nation’s consciousness. The legislative and political machinations surrounding the UK’s planned exit from the European Union have turned the Palace of Westminster into a theatre offering endless drama and occasional farce. Indeed, the wider area around the Palace has been absorbed into the set: the pro and anti-Brexit protests in Parliament Square; the broadcasters’ gazebo village on College Green; and even the steps outside St Stephen’s entrance, which hosted an impromptu press conference. The audience following every scene, however, couldn’t fail to observe the scaffolding covering the set, the external sign of a dilapidated building, where the infrastructure is decades past its expected lifespan. Alongside the preparations for departing the EU, MPs and peers are also planning for a further departure: leaving the Palace of Westminster to enable a major refurbishment programme.

After decades of neglect, the scale of the problem inside Parliament was outlined in a 2012 report, which noted ‘if the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild’. On receipt of the report the governing bodies in the Commons and Lords agreed that ‘doing nothing was not an option’. They ruled out the construction of a new parliamentary building, and committed instead to further analysis of the options for repairs, and specifically whether the work could be carried out while both Houses continued to sit in the Palace. Continue reading

Unionism and the Conservative Brexit deal rebellion

jack_sheldon.1image_normalThis week, MPs voted in favour of renegotiating the parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that relate to the ‘backstop’. The backstop and the land border between the UK and Ireland has been one of the most divisive Brexit issues for the Conservatives. Jack Sheldon and Michael Kenny discuss what this tells us about the party’s attitude to the Union.

‘Something ghastly called UK(NI) has been created. Northern Ireland will be under a different regime. That is a breach of the Act of Union 1800’. Owen Paterson MP

I am concerned about the prospects of a Northern Ireland that risks being increasingly decoupled from the United Kingdom, and about how that could undermine the Union that is at the heart of the United Kingdom’. Justine Greening MP

‘I would really like to support the deal of this Prime Minister and this Government, but the issue for me is the backstop. I served in Northern Ireland and I lost good colleagues to protect the Union. I will not vote for anything that does not protect the Union’. Sir Mike Penning MP

Concerns about the implications of the Irish backstop for the integrity of the domestic Union contributed significantly to the scale of the 118-strong backbench rebellion that led to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement being defeated on 15 January, by the extraordinary margin of 432 to 202. Following a debate and vote on 29 January, the Prime Minister has now committed to seek legally binding changes to the backstop, in the hope that this might win over at least some of the rebels before the next vote.

What do the arguments that have been made about the backstop tell us about the nature of the ‘unionism’ that prevails in the contemporary Conservative Party? This is a pertinent question, given that the sincerity of professed support for the Union from Conservatives has regularly been called into question by academic and media commentators in recent years, with increasing numbers of critics suggesting that leading figures from the Tory Party have harvested ‘English nationalist’ sentiments and are willing to put the future of the Union at risk. Continue reading

What are coronations for?

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When the next monarch accedes to the throne, there will likely be a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Yet the UK is unique in western Europe in having a coronation. What purpose does such an event serve? Bob Morris looks back at past coronations to provide an answer to that question. 

Last summer the Constitution Unit published two reports: one on updating the Accession and Coronation oaths, and a second on Planning the next Coronation. In the course of our work we learned that the UK is alone amongst European monarchies in retaining a coronation. Belgium and the Netherlands have never held them; nor from the end of the medieval period has Spain. There have not been coronations in Denmark, Sweden and Norway since 1849, 1873 and 1906 respectively.

That prompted the question, what is the coronation for? It is a question also put to us by journalists when we launched our reports. This blog post attempts to address the question. At the outset, however, one point needs to be emphasised. In law the coronation does not ‘make’ the sovereign. The monarch succeeds to the throne automatically immediately on the decease of their predecessor. The courts affirmed this position as long ago as 1608 concerning King James I’s succession to Elizabeth I:

‘..the title is by descent; by Queen Elizabeth’s death the Crown and kingdom of England descended to His Majesty, and he was fully and absolutely King, without any essential ceremony or act to be done ex post facto, and that coronation was but a Royal ornament, and outward solemnization of the descent.’

The nature of the rite

The Westminster Abbey coronation is an Anglican religious service centred on the communion. At the same time, it is a great national pageant of costly display and celebration controlled by the government of the day. It is a political as well as a religious event. Not surprisingly, it has been imbued with different meanings by different participants and observers. Continue reading

Should we worry if MPs seize control of the parliamentary agenda?

download.001Ahead of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit, attention has focused on the rights and wrongs of the House of Commons seeking to ‘seize control’. Meg Russell argues that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.

With stalemate over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejected dramatically by the House of Commons on 15 January by 432 votes to 202, there is increasing talk of parliament ‘seizing control’. On Tuesday, following the Speaker’s controversial decision to allow a vote on Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve’s amendment speeding up the timetable, MPs will vote on a series of propositions about what should happen next. These include a further proposal by Grieve that the government’s usual control of the agenda should be set aside on specified days to allow MPs to make decisions on Brexit, and a proposal from Labour’s Yvette Cooper that such control be set aside to allow time to debate a private member’s bill demanding that ministers avoid a no deal Brexit by requesting an extension to Article 50.

Consequently, some inside government have expressed concerns that the Commons, with the Speaker’s assistance, is overreaching itself. It has been reported that an internal government document warns of MPs’ moves ‘represent[ing] a clear and present danger to all government business’, and even meaning that ‘the government would lose its ability to govern’. One senior legal figure (whose career was spent inside the government) has argued that changes of this kind could set dangerous precedents for the future, even potentially dragging the monarch into a constitutional crisis (though other legal experts have firmly rebutted such claims).

So are we entering dangerous constitutional territory? What is, after all, so odd about the idea of a democratically-elected chamber gaining greater control over its own time, and its own rules? Continue reading