Questioning Prime Ministers: a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies

Prime Ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there has been little comparative research on how they are held to account by parliaments. As part of her PhD research Ruxandra Serban is seeking to fill this gap. Here, she outlines initial findings from a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies.

Prime ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there is little understanding of how they are held accountable by parliaments. What are the mechanisms through which parliamentarians may question them and how do such mechanisms vary procedurally? The UK House of Commons famously provides a high-profile weekly session for questioning the head of government at Prime Minister’s Questions. How does PMQs compare with questioning mechanisms in other parliaments?

Drawing on my PhD research, this blog presents preliminary findings from a survey of procedural rules regarding such mechanisms in 32 parliamentary democracies, and illustrates the variety of procedures available in different countries.

How does questioning take place?

Collective and individualised

Whether prime ministers are questioned individually or together with other ministers is likely to be important in determining how they interact with parliamentarians. The nature of government in parliamentary democracies is collective. Prime ministers lead the government and are collectively responsible together with their cabinets; but in most countries they are not responsible for specific ministerial portfolios. Prime ministers are expected to account for their own actions and also to speak for the government. Consequently, whether or not they are questioned individually or together with ministers is likely to have an important effect on the types of questions they are asked.

Plenary and committee

An additional dimension concerns the distinction between plenary and committee mechanisms. The setting of the procedure creates different types of questioning environments. For example, the Liaison Committee in the UK House of Commons was introduced to complement the main plenary mechanism (PMQs), specifically in order to configure a more focused forum of scrutiny.

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The size of the House of Lords: what next?

This week two developments have revived controversies about the size of the House of Lords. On Tuesday peers debated the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, indicating strong support for its proposals. But there were also rumours that Theresa May will appoint new peers in the New Year. Meg Russell reflects on these developments and how they can, and should, fit together.

The growing size of the House of Lords, and particularly the volume of prime ministerial appointments, has been highly controversial in recent years – as set out in a Constitution Unit report in 2015, and frequently highlighted on this blog (e.g. here). This time last year the chamber took matters into its own hands, agreeing a motion that ‘this House believes that its size should be reduced’, which was rapidly followed by the announcement of a new Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, chaired by Crossbencher Lord Burns. The Burns report was published in October, and was debated in the Lords on Tuesday.

Source: Report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, Figure 1

The core proposals in the report (previously summarised on this blog by Sir David Beamish) are to bring the size of the chamber down to a ‘steady state’ of no more than 600 members, appointed for fixed 15 year terms. Appointments would continue to be made by the party leaders, but would respect a proportionality formula based on previous general election results. In the steady state the number of appointments would match retirements, but until then a ‘two out one in’ principle would apply. The report estimated that the target of 600 members would be achieved in around 11 years. All of this would be achieved by negotiation, backed up by changes to House of Lords rules and procedures, without the need for legislation.

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Why it’s time to reduce the voting age to 16 in Wales

Last week an expert panel published recommendations for reform of elections to the National Assembly for Wales. Among its recommendations was that the minimum voting age should be reduced from 18 to 16. Panel member Alan Renwick makes the case for this, citing evidence that suggests that voters are more likely to turn out when they first get the vote if that happens when they are 16 or 17 than if they are 18 or 19.

The Expert Panel on Welsh Assembly Electoral Reform reported last week. Besides the size of the Assembly and its electoral system, the Panel was asked also to examine the franchise for Assembly elections. Our clear recommendation is that the minimum voting age should be reduced to 16 with effect from the 2021 election.

As a member of the Panel, I found it fascinating to examine the debates over the best voting age. The evidence for reducing the minimum age to 16 is very strong. But the arguments of both proponents and opponents of this change often fail to hit the mark. I hope our report may help to reset the terms of debate in Wales and across the UK.

The commonest argument offered by advocates of votes at 16 is that a later voting age is inconsistent with the rights and responsibilities that young people gain earlier in their lives. They point out that we can marry, join the army, or change our names at 16. The principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ is often invoked: 16 and 17-year-olds are liable to pay tax, so should not be denied the vote.

When we delved into the evidence, however, we found such arguments to be inconclusive. Young people acquire different rights and responsibilities at all sorts of ages. They are liable for some taxes – such as VAT and inheritance tax – from birth. At 16, they can marry or join the army only with parental consent. Only from 18 can they enter a legally binding contract, buy tobacco, or get a tattoo. There is no one age when we are recognised in law as adults.

Arguments about the compatibility of different rights and responsibilities therefore cannot ground a decision on the voting age. Rather, what matters is how the voting age affects the level and quality of participation in electoral politics. Everyone wants to boost democratic engagement. If lowering the voting age would help with that, it is worth doing.

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Harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates at the 2017 general election: findings from the Representative Audit of Britain

The Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report into harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates on Wednesday. The report was informed by evidence from the 2017 Representative Audit of Britain survey, which is being administered by researchers from the Constitution Unit, Strathclyde and Birkbeck. Sofia Collignon Delmar and Jennifer Hudson summarise the evidence.

On Wednesday the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its report into harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates, in response to claims of a frequently toxic and intimidating campaign environment during the 2017 general election. Claims of harassment have important consequences for democratic life in the UK and for the representativeness of parliament. Drawing on recent data from the Representative Audit of Britain’s survey of 2017 candidates, researchers from the UCL Constitution Unit, Strathclyde and Birkbeck provided evidence to the committee that shows the scale of the problem and the importance of the issue. They also put forward a host of potential recommendations to tackle intimidation and abuse.

In this blog post, we summarise the key findings which informed our evidence to the committee. Drawing on survey responses from Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and Green candidates, we show who is more likely to suffer abuse, the most common forms of harassment, who candidates think is responsible for abuse and what can be done to prevent harassment and inappropriate behaviour during elections in the future. The total sample size is 964. This a response rate of 34% and can be considered representative of the party composition of the true population of candidates. The survey is still ongoing, but we do not expect the trends to change significantly.

Results show that 32% of the candidates who answered the survey suffered from some form of inappropriate behaviour during the 2017 general election campaign. The survey revealed significant differences between parties, with Conservative candidates statistically more likely to report having experienced abuse. Female candidates of all ages are also significantly more likely to report having experienced abuse than male candidates.

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Reforming the Welsh Assembly: how do you choose an electoral system?

A nine-month inquiry by a specially convened expert panel has culminated today in the publication of a report that sets out the case for a substantial increase in the size of the Welsh Assembly. In this post, Constitution Unit Deputy Director and panel member Alan Renwick offers a personal reflection on the inquiry and its findings. He focuses particularly on the aspect of the Panel’s remit that is closest to his own research: the appropriate electoral system for an enlarged chamber.

The Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform has today published its report. Set up last February by the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly, the Panel was charged with investigating and making recommendations on three issues: the number of members that the Assembly needs to perform its role effectively; the electoral system through which it is elected; and the minimum voting age for Assembly elections. The Panel’s work fits into a wider agenda of Assembly reform – including a proposal to rename it the Welsh Parliament – to ensure it can exercise effectively its increasing powers and responsibilities.

Core recommendations

The Panel’s main recommendation is that the number of Assembly members should rise from the present 60 at least to 80, and preferably closer to 90. We examined compelling evidence that this change is essential – however difficult it may be politically – if the Assembly is to remain able to perform its functions properly.

Increasing the size of the Assembly in this way inevitably requires some change in the electoral system. We concluded that the simplest possible change – retaining the existing Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system (also somewhat misleadingly known as the Additional Member System, or AMS) and increasing the number of list seats – would be defensible, but not optimal. Most crucially, it would make any increase in the size of the Assembly beyond 80 members – the very bottom of the range that we think necessary – unfeasible in 2021. Rather, the Panel recommends that, if the Assembly adopts gender quotas, the optimal system would be the Single Transferable Vote (STV). If the Assembly does not accept gender quotas (or concludes that it lacks the power to enact them – there is some legal uncertainty in this area), the best option would be a Flexible List system of proportional representation.

Regarding the voting age, meanwhile, the Panel comes down firmly in favour of a reduction to 16, accompanied by measures to ensure that young people are properly taught in schools and other places of learning about politics, including about the choices available at elections and beyond.

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Australia’s postal survey on same-sex marriage: a flawed process that should not be repeated

Legislation legalising same-sex marriage completed its passage through the Australian parliament last week. This followed a strong vote in favour of the change in a postal survey, held from September to November. Paul Kildea argues that, while the survey proved effective in bringing about marriage equality, the process was deeply flawed and should not be repeated.

Australia’s political year ended on a high with the legalisation of same-sex marriage. There were jubilant scenes in the House of Representatives as it approved a change to the legal definition of marriage from ‘the union of a man and a woman’ to ‘the union of 2 people’. The first weddings will take place on 9 January.

The road to marriage equality was convoluted and messy. For many years politicians resisted growing community calls for change, and in the end opted to hold a national poll as a precursor to legislative action. This was constitutionally unnecessary and expensive, but the resounding result – 61.6% of respondents supported same-sex marriage – provided a clear endorsement that parliament could not ignore.

What is particularly noteworthy about this national poll is the form that it took: it was not a referendum or a plebiscite, but rather a public opinion survey run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It was non-binding, voluntary (voting in elections is compulsory in Australia), and conducted entirely by post over an eight-week period from September to November this year. The postal survey was, in design and execution, unlike any previous direct democracy exercise in Australia. Now that it is behind us, a full appraisal is necessary. This post will argue that, while the survey proved effective in clearing the political path to marriage equality, it was deeply flawed as a process and should not be repeated.

The long, winding road to same-sex marriage

It has been known for some time that the path to marriage equality in Australia runs through the legislature. In the past there had been doubts about the national parliament’s ability to legislate for same-sex marriage, but these were dismissed by the High Court in a 2013 ruling. Since then, reform has been in the hands of politicians. Advocates called on them to amend the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) which expressly defined ‘marriage’ as ‘the union of a man and a woman’.

Yet, in August 2015, the conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, resisted calls to legislate and instead announced that his government would hold a non-binding plebiscite on the matter. This was highly unusual. While Australian governments hold referendums on constitutional amendments from time to time (44 such votes have been held since 1901), they only rarely conduct plebiscites on other matters. In fact, history yields just three precedents: two votes on compulsory military service in 1916 and 1917, and one on the national song in 1977. This is consistent with Australia’s tradition of parliamentary democracy in which elected representatives are entrusted to make decisions on most issues. In line with this, Australia’s parliament has a long history of legislating on matters of marriage and divorce.

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Where would an English Parliament be located?

Ongoing Constitution Unit research is exploring options for an English Parliament. The choice of location would have major practical implications, as well as being of high symbolic importance. Jack Sheldon sets out the factors that would need to be considered. He suggests that while a ‘dual mandate’ English Parliament would almost certainly meet at Westminster, a separately-elected body would most likely be located outside London.

Since last autumn Professor Meg Russell and I have been working on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. Although there have been various calls over the last 20 years to establish such a body, how might it actually be designed in practice? Unlike other issues relating to powers, functions, structure and composition, the decision on where to locate an English Parliament would not fundamentally affect constitutional arrangements. However, it would have major practical implications and be of high symbolic importance. This blog post focuses on the issues that would need to be considered in selecting a location and suggests how a decision might be reached.

The size of an English Parliament

Decisions on location would need to be made in light of the number of members an English Parliament would have. Our research has identified two competing models supported by proponents of an English Parliament, which point to different conclusions on this.

Under the ‘dual mandate’ model the English Parliament would be composed of members of the UK House of Commons that sit for English constituencies. The number of members would therefore be equal to the number of English Westminster MPs – currently 533, reducing to 501 if the proposed boundary changes are implemented.

Under the ‘separately-elected’ model a new directly-elected institution would be created. Considerations of cost-saving and consistency with the UK’s existing devolved legislatures mean that it would be likely to be a unicameral body of approximately 300 members. This would be sufficient to provide enough members to serve on committees and perform other parliamentary roles. If combined with a reduction in the size of the UK parliament, perhaps to around 350 members, an increase in the overall number of elected politicians could be avoided.

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