MPs’ PAY: THE IPSA ALBATROSS AROUND PARLIAMENT’S NECK

1st July 2013

Remember the ‘good old days’ – I refer to 2009-10 – when transferring control of MPs’ pay and expenses from the Commons to an independent body, IPSA, was supposed to lance the boil of public outrage and usher in an era of smooth, rational and crisis-free regulation? Oh happy day!

As we begin the latest round of this sorry tale, perhaps some who supported the back-of-the-envelope ‘solution’ – of ceding parliamentary self-regulation as the perceived inevitable price of stemming the tsunami of the media/public frenzy over the expenses scandal that finally exploded in 2009 – will reflect a little. Not just on the practical need to reform a fundamentally flawed and unpopular system, but, as important, on the continuing harm it is doing to the Westminster Parliament’s reputation and standing with its public, and, thereby, its ability to operate effectively on their behalf.

Yet again, Parliament is seen to be on the sidelines when crucial issues affecting it are being discussed. As usual, the pundits’ first resort is not to ask ‘What can Parliament itself do to resolve this problem?’ but what can the PM and Government do about it! Just listen to Nick Robinson on BBC R4 this morning, for example. The culture of Executive dominance and initiative is so inbred that it does not seem to occur to the pundits – and sadly, not to many MPs themselves – that perhaps it is up to Parliament to try to reform itself (as part of an engagement with the public it serves), not to look always by default to Ministers for answers and action.

This is another ‘perfect storm’ of negativity for Parliament. Most of the blame, with (this time, self-imposed) none of the scope to defend itself. Many parliamentarians prefer this sort of political irresponsibility, leaving it to others to do their work for them. It’s what the Commons has been doing for decades. And this time, they have a cast-iron alibi, especially if and when they are ‘forced’ to take a large pay rise or whatever – ‘We cant do anything about it. IPSA has imposed it on us’.

As always, I doubt that the relevant internal authorities, from the Speaker, Chief Executive and HC Commission to the byzantine network of relevant committees within the Commons – such as the Speaker’s Committee on IPSA and the Members Expenses Committee – will have much of an input in all this, bar some reactive statements and maybe an ad hoc inquiry or two.

In written and oral evidence to the 2009 (Kelly) Committee on Standards in Public Life inquiry on the then system and its proposed reform, and in a couple of postings in late 2011 (here and here), I argued that what was needed was a modern form of parliamentary self-regulation, buttressed where necessary with appropriate external, independent elements, within a new culture of robust openness, transparency and public accountability. It was the ancient – and, in many respects, still flourishing – corrosive culture of privacy, entitlement and privilege that enabled the abuses to survive, and which made ‘old-style’ self-regulation both a political and practical no-no.

If out of this current mess, some form of genuine evidence-led and publicly inclusive review can propose a stable and acceptable system for regulating and operating the democratically crucial issue of effective and efficient parliamentary resourcing, then perhaps these 4 years of muddle will have been worthwhile.

MAKING TIME TO REFORM PARLIAMENTARY TIME

14th May 2013

All this talk of draft bills and Loyal Address amendments about an EU referendum raises several vital democratic issues of parliamentary process, not least that of the ways in which MPs, individually or collectively, can initiate debate or legislation on important topics of the moment.  At its heart, as always, lurks the core problem of Government control of House of Commons business and time.

Supporters of the ‘conventional wisdom’ parliamentary reform agenda over the last half century have justified the pace and route of reform as being incremental, evolutionary and practical, being the only way to achieve change in the face of the Government’s dominant position in the House of Commons.  Those more sceptical may choose to describe it more negatively, as being ad hoc, piecemeal, reactive, incoherent and devoid of any consistent guiding principle.

Some changes come not directly from demands from MPs or even the public, but from the initiative of the Government itself, and these, though dressed up as parliamentary reform to strengthen Parliament, often result in making life easier for Ministers.  Richard Crossman in the 1960s said there was a difference between parliamentary reform and modernisation, when he was distinguishing practical updating in infrastructure and facilities from procedural changes.  In the modern context, too often ‘modernisation’ has been the catchword for changes which assist the Government, or which can be absorbed by Ministers without serious inconvenience, whereas genuine ‘reform’, to make Parliament itself more powerful and effective, especially in relation to the Executive, has to take a back seat, awaiting Government permission and, worse, facilitation.

So it is with ‘parliamentary time’ and the control and order of business.  There have been some changes, especially to the scope for debate not initiated by Ministers, such as Westminster Hall.  There has been the innovation of the Backbench Business Committee, but that has been hobbled by the albatross of the Government’s e-petition wheeze around its shoulders.  Some ever-optimistic souls are still waiting in hope for the emergence of Government proposals for a ‘House Business Committee’ of some sort, originally promised for this year.

But we also wait in vain for fundamental change to issues like the current antiquated arrangements for backbench legislative initiative.  How different would the current ‘discussions’ of EU referendum legislation opportunities be if we didn’t have to rely on the various existing ‘private members bill’ processes, with its random ballot and limited scope for genuine progress of controversial bills, but if there were clear and efficient arrangements for the allocation of time for all types of parliamentary business, including scope for debates and legislative initiative by non-Governmental sources, such as backbenchers – getting rid of the unhelpful term ‘private member’ would be a small but symbolic reform – and committees.

The current confused mess – which may, in many ways, be helpful to Ministers – further undermines the Commons’ reputation with the public as an effective, responsive and accountable representative assembly, able to address coherently important issues of public interest.  Time for real, principled and all-embracing reform!

TIME TO RECALL A SHELVED PARLIAMENTARY REFORM

The UK Parliament was recalled on 10 April to mark the death of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. This post does not discuss whether recall was an appropriate response – personally, I do think it was – but considers how Parliament, especially the House of Commons, was recalled, as it is a good example of the wider, and fundamentally important, issue of the autonomy of Parliament, and its relationship with the Executive.

Parliament’s website announced the recall of both Houses. In respect of the Commons, it stated that “Standing Order 13 gives the Speaker the authority to recall the House of Commons when it stands adjourned, if he is satisfied it is within the public interest.” That sounds fair enough, in keeping with this core democratic body’s standing as the main representative forum of the people. But wait, what it didn’t say was that such a recall by the Speaker can only be done if triggered by the initiative of the Government. What the Standing Order actually says is:

“Whenever the House stands adjourned and it is represented to the Speaker by Her Majesty’s Ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet at a time earlier than that to which the House stands adjourned, the Speaker, if he is satisfied that the public interest does so require, may give notice that, being so satisfied, he appoints a time for the House to meet, and the House shall accordingly meet at the time stated in such notice.” [S.O.no 13(1), emphasis added].

So, at least as regards initiating recall of the Commons, the Daily Telegraph headline “Margaret Thatcher: David Cameron recalls Parliament for ‘remarkable’ former British leader” was probably a more accurate statement. A report in the Guardian suggested that the recall “was the idea of the prime minister and involved him in a lengthy wrangle with the Speaker’s Office. John Bercow felt there was no need to recall parliament, and was taken aback by the request. His office thought the tributes could be paid next Monday in line with precedent for previous deaths of party leaders. At one point, Cameron had to enlist the support of Miliband to overcome the opposition, and Labour sources said they felt faced with a fait accompli and did not want to risk being seen as failing to show Thatcher due respect.”

A useful Parliamentary briefing paper issued on 9 April, discusses the procedural and practical aspects of the Commons recall process; looks at how it is handled (generally differently) in the Lords and in the devolved parliament/assemblies, and proposals for its reform, within and outwith Parliament, especially to make it a procedure in the hands of the House and its Speaker rather than subject to the instigation of Ministers.

In particular, it records such a proposal by the previous Labour Government, in its 2007 green paper, The governance of Britain, and the announcement of an inquiry into this and related issues by the then Modernisation Committee. Despite much trumpeting at the time that the Modernisation Committee was an effective way to get Parliamentary reform – especially because it was chaired by a Government minister, the Leader of the House (!!!) – the Committee never completed its inquiry or took oral evidence, though some of its written evidence was published.

It should also be noted that the 2009-2010 ‘Wright Committee’ on the reform of the Commons – whose work is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – did not address various  “contentious issues” on the House’s sitting patterns, and had “no collective view” on recall, but it did make a more general point very strongly (para 101): ”But we do recommend that the House should at least decide for itself when it sits and does not sit.” [bold in original].

What a refreshingly democratic notion! How about doing something about it, dear representatives of the people?

McKay Commission Report: Parliament on the Sidelines … Again

28th March 2013

In a couple of earlier posts (here and here), I looked at the creation and operation of the McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question, criticising the fact that it was set up unilaterally by the Government, despite dealing with a core issue of parliamentary procedure.

Sadly, its newly-published report confirms this executive-centred approach to parliamentary reform.  The key section entitled ‘next steps’ (paras 248-9) contains phrases like “We envisage that the Government would first make an assessment of our proposals and put before the House..” and “When the House has expressed its views, we suggest that the Government should move for a select committee to advise the House on the details..”

Announcing publication of the report on 25 March, ministers said: “We will consider seriously and constructively this report and provide a substantive response to it in due course.”

The initial response from parliamentary officers and committees was ….. [fill in the blank].

Presumably Parliament is expected, as usual, to sit back quietly and wait for its executive masters to work out how it should operate.  The idea that one of the Commons’ select committees dealing with House matters (given the current Political & Constitutional Reform Committee’s inquiry into the ‘Wright Committee reforms’, we currently have 2 of them, ie it and Procedure Committee) should do a brisk inquiry into the subject of WLQ and the McKay Report, independently of Government’s own deliberations, is presumably far too revolutionary for the current House.  Ditto for some sort of initiative of this sort by the Speaker.

Or perhaps they will surprise us all?