The Backbench Business Committee: an unfinished revolution?

2020 marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the House of Commons’ Backbench Business Committee – an event that marked the first major reversal of a century-long trend of the government taking increasing control of the agenda of the House. But the anniversary went largely unnoticed. Paul Evans, a former Clerk of the committee, asks whether this is because it has been outmanoeuvred by the usual channels, has lost its cutting edge, or because relative obscurity is what backbenchers really want.

The birth of the Backbench Business Committee

The background to how the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (commonly known, after its chair Dr Tony Wright, as the ‘Wright Committee’) was established can be found, for those interested, in the introduction to its first report. Amongst the matters the House instructed it to consider, when it was set up on 20 July 2009, was the ‘scheduling of business by the House’. It recommended the creation of a new category of ‘backbench business’, to be managed by a new committee of backbenchers, a new ‘House Business Committee’ to bring transparency to the way in which the House’s wider agenda was determined, and a system by which the House as a whole would be given the final say on its agenda. Many of these ideas had been foreshadowed in a Constitution Unit report published in 2007.

After an inconclusive debate on the proposals of the Wright Committee on 22 February 2010, on 4 March, amongst other reforms arising from the committee’s recommendations (most significantly on the election of chairs and members of select committees) the House agreed that a proposal for the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee should be brought to it by the government (emphasis very deliberately added) before the start of the next parliament, and that a House Business Committee should be established during the course of that new parliament. In fact, as everyone knew at the time, the timetable for doing so was well-nigh impossible. The parliament was dissolved on 12 April, just 20 sitting days after the 4 March debate. That could have been the last we heard of the recommendations on new ways to schedule the House’s business.

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Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

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The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

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The Constitution Unit blog in 2020: the year in review

As was the case last year, 2020 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them (more so than anyone could have predicted in January). As the year draws to a close, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the blog year just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2019 was a year of constitutional flux and tension, with a new Prime Minister, a new Brexit deal and a new parliament. As challenging as 2019 was, however, 2020 has proved no less of a test for the constitution, its institutions and actors. It was always likely that the Brexit talks would not prove easy, and that the government’s Commons majority would not mean the Johnson government would automatically be able to bend parliament to its will. The pandemic has, of course, magnified the complexity of the government’s pre-existing challenges and raised a whole new number of policy problems, creating constitutional flashpoints aplenty. 

Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my third year as blog editor.

Editor’s picks

The 2019 election campaign shows that abuse, harassment and intimidation of candidates is getting worse, especially for women, by Sofia Collignon.

It’s difficult to call this one of my ‘favourite’ blogs, but it’s definitely one of the most important that we produced this year. Women candidates continue to disproportionately experience intimidation and harassment during general election campaigns, and Sofia Collignon eloquently describes the specific problems they face. I have advised victims of harassment, discrimination and gender-based violence for most of my adult life, so this is a topic very close to my heart: sadly we still have a very long way to go.

The role of monarchy in modern democracy, by Robert Hazell and Bob Morris.

I studied history as an undergraduate and I always tended to focus on periods when the monarchy itself was in crisis and being challenged by other institutions. I therefore always enjoy editing Robert and Bob’s blogs on the subject. At the end of a busy year for the monarchy, which has had to adapt to both ‘Megxit’ and the pandemic, this blog stands out, summarising as it does the main conclusions of their new book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared. The book is fascinating, and I would also recommend viewing the launch event (chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby) on our YouTube page, where you can find video recordings of all our 2020 events. 

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100 years of the Government of Ireland Act: how it provided a model for Westminster-Edinburgh relations

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 is 100 years old tomorrow. David Torrance examines the legislation and its impact, arguing that a number of the constitutional conventions that regulate relations between Westminster and Holyrood have roots in those that applied to Stormont between 1920 and 1972.

Wednesday 23 December marks the centenary of royal assent for the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (the ‘1920 Act’). That this created the part of the UK known as ‘Northern Ireland’ and its border is well known, but its devolution settlement – a parliament, government, governor and prime minister – has largely faded from public consciousness.

As the historian Graham Walker has observed, Northern Ireland ‘serves as a reminder that devolution and constitutional change has a long, complex, and fascinating history, and did not just appear magically at the end of the twentieth century’ [1]. Indeed, this blog will argue that many of the constitutional conventions now associated with Holyrood-Westminster relations have antecedents in those which developed between Stormont and the UK parliament between 1921 and 1972. There was also one major difference, self-determination, analysis of which concludes this piece.

A ‘sound custom’ of non-interference

Speaking during Lords consideration of the Scotland Bill in 1998, Lord Sewel observed that ‘as happened in Northern Ireland earlier in the century’ the government would expect ‘a convention to be established that Westminster would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish parliament’. This would later come to be known as the Sewel convention.

The Northern Ireland precedent acknowledged by Lord Sewel was established in 1922 when Home Secretary Edward Shortt (who had responsibility for GB-NI relations at the time, as there was no Northern Ireland Office) advised withholding royal assent for a bill abolishing the Single Transferable Vote method for local government elections (a matter ‘transferred’ to Belfast). When Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Sir James Craig and his Cabinet threatened to resign, assent was granted.

By 1953, a Treasury document could state that:

In practice the United Kingdom Parliament refrains from legislating on matters with which the Northern Ireland Parliament can deal, except at the request and with the consent of Northern Ireland. It is recognised that any departure from this practice would be open to objection as impairing the responsibility which has been placed on the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government.

HM Treasury, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man: A Treasury Paper, December 1953, page 9
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Devolution and the Union: then and now

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the flaws of the UK’s uneven devolution arrangements, and the mixed success of intergovernmental forums. Charlotte Kincaid summarises discussions from a Unit webinar in which four experts from across the UK tracked the country’s bumpy journey of devolution, and where it might go in the future. The webinar was the final instalment of the Unit’s series of celebrations to mark its 25th anniversary.

The details and arrangements of devolution have been played out in the public sphere while the UK has attempted to grapple with a pandemic. The public has seen devolution very much in action, with each part of the UK implementing its own lockdown measures and support packages, demonstrating the autonomy and limitations of devolved governments. With devolution in the forefront of the public mind, it was the opportune moment to discuss the journey so far, and where devolution is headed. The summaries below are presented in the order of the speaker’s contributions.

Scotland

Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and former Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, described Scottish devolution as an ambivalent project, and noted that there have always been different understandings of what devolution means. For some, it is a modification of the unitary state of the UK, for others the UK is a union of self-governing nations which come together for common purposes, while another group view it as a project in the direction of federalisation. In recent years these foundational issues have grown in relevance due to a number of constitutional confrontations. 

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The 2020 US presidential election: nine lessons

As reported in the latest issue of Monitor, the US presidential election raised even more constitutional issues and questions about the US system of elections than many anticipated. Colin Provost and Nadia Hilliard of the UCL Centre for US Politics discuss how the election was administered, and the roles of the judiciary, Electoral College and social media in the process.

The US presidential election of 2020 has been perceived by many observers as one of the most important elections in American history. A highly polarised electorate turned out in record numbers in the middle of a pandemic and for the first time, the incumbent president refused to concede after a clear result, while pushing a steady, yet unsubstantiated series of claims about voter fraud and voting irregularities. Given the highly unusual set of circumstances surrounding this election, it is worth considering how well US institutions performed with respect to the conduct of a free and fair election, and what lessons should be learned for future electoral cycles.

1. States can run elections smoothly.

Although federal laws that are harmonised across the states might seem to make more sense for national elections, the US Constitution allows each state to set its own election laws, as long as they are in compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other relevant, federal legislation. Keeping that in mind, it is important not to understate the fact that, on average, the states performed well in terms of administration of this election. Despite the pandemic, millions of people were able to vote and perhaps more importantly, a large subset of those people were able to vote by mail, so that they would not have to put their health in jeopardy by waiting in long – and often cramped – queues. Ultimately, those votes were all counted, even if a victor could not be declared until 7 November —five days after election day.

2. US electoral institutions are resilient.

The institutions of election administration proved to be resilient in the face of baseless allegations of voter fraud and voting irregularities: those allegations were many, and continue to be made. In a normal election year, post-election lawsuits are practically non-existent, but in 2020, the Trump campaign filed dozens of lawsuits across several states, nearly all of which have been found to be lacking in merit, while tweeting inaccurate information about the election and its results. Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler suggested that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger – the state official in charge of overseeing elections and certifying the results – should resign after not finding evidence of electoral fraud in that state. Additionally, President Trump invited the leadership of the Michigan legislature to the White House, apparently with the goal of getting them to nominate different electors to the Electoral College that formally votes in the new president than those selected by the Michigan Democratic Party. The only legal basis for this occurring is if one believed that Joe Biden did not clearly or lawfully win the state, even though his margin of victory was in excess of 150,000 votes. Finally, a large number of Trump allies in Congress, the media and elsewhere supported these actions, implicitly or explicitly. Despite all these challenges, the votes were counted and certified by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act: should it be amended or repealed?

A parliamentary committee has been established to review the effectiveness of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Rather than wait for its conclusions, the government has published a draft bill designed to return control of the timing of general elections to the executive. Robert Hazell examines the issues the committee will have to consider, and proffers some possible improvements to the status quo.

On 1 December the government published its draft bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). This would implement the commitment in the Conservative 2019 manifesto, which pledged: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – it has led to paralysis when the country needed decisive action’. The bill would revert to the previous system, and restore the prerogative power of dissolution. As the government’s Foreword explains:

The Bill makes express provision to revive the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. This means once more Parliament will be dissolved by the Sovereign, on the advice of the Prime Minister. This will enable Governments, within the life of a Parliament, to call a general election at the time of their choosing.

The bill also contains an ouster clause to make sure that the exercise of the power of dissolution, and any decision relating to that power is non-justiciable and therefore not open to challenge in the courts. Alison Young and Mark Elliott have published detailed legal critiques of the bill which analyse the effectiveness of the ouster clause, and whether the power of dissolution that has been revived is now a statutory power, or a prerogative power. This blog does not go into the legal complexities, but focuses on the politics, and the possible outcomes from the review of the bill by the joint parliamentary committee established in November.

The joint parliamentary committee, and previous committees

The FTPA has all along contained a built-in mechanism for its own review, in a final section added during its parliamentary passage in 2011. Section 7 provides that between June and November 2020 the Prime Minister should arrange for a committee to review the operation of the Act. That committee was established last month, with 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords. The Committee held its first sitting on 26 November, when it elected former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin as its chair, and set a deadline of 4 January for the submission of evidence. The Committee held its first oral evidence session on 10 December, with Stephen Laws and Professor Alison Young; the next session is on 17 December, with former Commons clerks Lord Lisvane and Malcolm Jack.

But two parliamentary committees have already recently reviewed the operation of the FTPA: the Lords Constitution Committee, and the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). The Lords Committee held two evidence sessions, in autumn 2019 (including evidence from me); but it was a further year before the Committee published its report in September 2020, as summarised here by its chair Baroness (Ann) Taylor. The long delay suggested the Committee had difficulty agreeing its recommendations, and the report instead raised a series of basic questions about any legislation to replace the FTPA. 

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