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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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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Parliaments and COVID-19: principles and practice; challenges and opportunities

Unit Director Meg Russell analyses the challenges and opportunities for reform facing parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised complex questions about how to balance the different functions of parliaments and their need to operate effectively.

In the UK and around the world parliaments have had to adjust their practices to the unexpected new environment of COVID-19. This has brought major challenges but, some suggest, also opportunities in terms of suggesting future means for parliaments to adapt. This post starts from the core principles of parliamentary functioning, briefly reviews practice under COVID-19, and considers the primary opportunities and challenges presented. It concludes that the future lessons from this unique period reinforce some familiar themes; but they also raise significant conundrums and trade-offs between the different essential principles of what parliaments are there to do.

Principles

Stripping back to the basics, what are parliaments for? Legislative studies scholars have suggested various overlapping lists of functions. For example in the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies, Amie Kreppel provides a list of four, which I will boil down to three: 

  • Representation takes many forms, often including – as is central to the UK House of Commons – geographic representation. Numerous, diverse, individuals participate in the legislature, underpinned by a crucial democratic principle of equality, where each ultimately has an equal vote.
  • Linkage is closely connected to this – as parliamentarians provide a voice in parliament to their voters, and remain accountable to them.
  • Policy-making – for example through approving bills – is perhaps what parliaments are best known for. Connectedly, they have a control function in holding executives to account. For simplicity, I treat these two functions together.

Other terms often mentioned in such classifications include deliberation –much of which takes place publicly – and legitimation, meaning all of parliaments’ functions help them generate broad public support for policy.

Practice

It is easy to see how the circumstances of COVID-19 have challenged some of these principles.

The threats to representation were pretty immediate and obvious. With limits on travel, requirements for social distancing, and heightened risks for people with certain health conditions, parliamentarians gathering from all over the country immediately became a problem. Some legislatures responded by limiting the number who could participate – with those decisions often taken by leaders and whips. Others moved their proceedings online. The UK House of Commons initially did the latter, but then rolled this back in a quite problematic way which breached principles of equal participation.

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Five years of ‘EVEL’

In the wake of the devolution settlements of the Blair years, political pressure to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ persisted. In 2015, the proposed answer was ‘English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL). Today, on its fifth anniversary, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny assess how EVEL has worked, during one of the most volatile political periods in living memory.

On 23rd October 2015, the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) procedures came into force in the House of Commons. Introduced by David Cameron in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, these new rules were designed as an answer to the notorious ‘West Lothian Question’ – the late Tam Dalyell’s resonant enquiry about why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should continue to be able to vote on matters that only affected England after devolution, while MPs in England were not able to reciprocate in devolved areas.

When EVEL was introduced, the procedures were sharply criticised by opponents. For some, the reform would not only be logistically difficult to implement – likely to be ‘incomprehensible’ to MPs and the public alike – but would also threaten the UK’s constitutional makeup. In particular, it was argued that EVEL would establish ‘two classes of MP’ at Westminster, undermining the ability of non-English MPs to represent their constituents’ interests. Others, meanwhile, criticised the procedures as too tame, and falling short of providing adequate representation to England.

The five-year anniversary provides an opportune moment to review how this contentious reform has fared in practice. Yet the wider territorial politics of the UK have also undergone significant changes in the intervening period. The questions to which these complicated rules were a response have become ever more pressing, but whether EVEL can provide a sustainable response to the increasingly fraught question of English devolution is increasingly doubtful.

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Braking the law: is there, and should there be, an executive veto over laws made by parliament?

During the Brexit crises of 2019, something exceptionally rare happened twice in less than six months: parliament passed legislation without the government’s consent. But are there constitutional veto mechanisms that governments can use to prevent this? In a new Unit report, Paul Evans explores this question in detail. He summarises his conclusions here.

What do executive vetoes look like? 

Many constitutional democracies include mechanisms whereby a head of state can veto a law made by the legislature, but few of these are absolute vetoes. Most are suspensory, inviting the legislature to think again, but giving it the last word. The US Constitution is the most obvious example of such an arrangement. France has a broadly similar system but, as with many if not most such vetoes, it isn’t used. Some states (for example Iceland) enable the president to put a law to a referendum. Others (such as Ireland) leave the last word with a constitutional court, but only on matters of constitutionality, not on grounds of political disagreement.

In the UK (and most of the old dominions which retain the Queen as head of state) such an arrangement looks impossible. The executive and the legislature are fused – they can’t have different views. The executive as a lawmaker in the UK only exists as an element of the sovereign parliament (the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Crown-in-Parliament’). The sovereign has no personal stake in the making of law. They must do as parliament decides. As long ago as 1867, Walter Bagehot expressed this constitutional fact with typical rhetorical brio:

The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the Sovereign. First, in its oldest form at least, it considers him as an ‘Estate of the Realm’, a separate co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the Sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills, if not as the House of Commons rejects them, at least as the House of Peers rejects them. But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any.

Withholding of royal assent

Nonetheless, when the first stirrings of what was to become the Cooper-Letwin Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019) began in the Commons in early 2019, it was suggested in some quarters that ministers could advise the sovereign to refuse royal assent to an Act agreed upon by parliament. The same argument re-emerged six months later in relation to the Benn-Burt Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (No. 2) 2019), which Boris Johnson insisted on referring to repeatedly as the ‘Surrender Act’. But, despite these theoretical arguments, subsequent events appear to have confirmed that this concept of a royal veto is definitely a dead letter. Queen Anne was the last sovereign to decline the royal assent to an Act passed by parliament – in 1707 (or 1708 if you prefer to apply retrospectively the change of the new year from 25 March to 1 January in 1752). 

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Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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