“A good place to work?” What Commons staff think of House governance

05 bw0001 smaller

Barry K Winetrobe examines one aspect of the current committee inquiry into House of Commons governance following the Clerk appointment fiasco. Evidence submitted by House staff reveals much which may be unsettling for House managers and MPs, but is ultimately good for the House itself.

‘We seek to ensure that the House of Commons is a good place to work’ (House of Commons Staff Handbook, para 3.2, Core Values of the House of Commons Service)

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for this Blog on the botched efforts of the House of Commons in appointing a new Clerk/Chief Executive, and the harmful impact this would have on the House and its public reputation. On 1 September the Speaker announced ‘a modest pause in the recruitment process’, and, following a Backbench debate on 10 September, a Select Committee on House Governance chaired by Jack Straw was appointed. Its terms of reference are ‘to consider the governance of the House of Commons, including the future allocation of the responsibilities for House services currently exercised by the Clerk of the House and Chief Executive.’

The Committee is due to report to the House by 12 January. Given this tight deadline, it has been active since its full membership was agreed on 16 October. It has received and published on its website a large amount written and oral evidence, and on 20 November it helpfully produced an update on its work to date.

Continue reading

Regulating the permanent campaign

05 bw0001 smaller

Barry K Winetrobe suggests that some modern electioneering practices, especially when well before the formal election campaign begins, could confuse and mislead voters and should be regulated.

A few weeks ago, my local paper ran a classified ad for a meeting with ‘your local parliamentary candidate’. The ad had the promoter/printer imprint on it. I was a little surprised by the absence of any political party name, and the subliminal implication that this person was somehow the only candidate for the local constituency in next May’s UK general election. Intrigued by this self-description, I went to his website, helpfully listed in the advert, and there on its content-rich home page was the phrase: ‘PPC for [the constituency]’. Looking further into the website, I finally found a very tangential reference to his political party. He also appears in the party’s website list of PPCs (prospective parliamentary candidates).

Some days later, I received in the post a communication from that person about a major local issue, containing a multiple-choice survey covering not just that specific issue but also questions relating to national politics and the 2015 general election (e.g. ‘To help make the survey results representative, please let us know how you voted in the General Election in May 2010?’ and ‘Thinking ahead to the next General Election, as things stand today, what are the chances of you voting for each of the following parties…?’). Its ‘small print’ seems to contain the only references to the relevant political party, apparently more to fulfil data protection requirements than to inform the reader of which party is involved.

There is also the growth of the term ‘Prospective MP’ by PPCs, parties and by the media. Again this term can impart the not-too-subliminal message that the candidate concerned is not merely fighting as a ‘candidate’ to be elected but is, in some senses, the winner-designate.

All this seems to be part of a growing trend (drawn from the USA?) of stressing the personal aspect of candidates rather than their party affiliation – perhaps especially so in marginal seats (like the one I am in). While this may well be accepted as a fact of electoral life, in an era of public distrust of political parties and politicians, it does seem to add up to a situation which could, whether by accident or design, confuse, influence or mislead the electorate.

Continue reading

“The precious centre of our Parliamentary democracy”: Commons governance after the Clerk appointment affair

05 bw0001 smaller

Barry K Winetrobe examines the current controversy over the appointment of a new Clerk of the House of Commons, and the lessons it has for the better management and governance of the House.

It is exactly a year since I posted a piece on this blog on how the Commons could use the Government defeat on the 29 August 2013 Syria vote as a catalyst for greater Commons institutional autonomy and procedural reform, driven by itself rather than by the Executive.  This was to be led by the Speaker.  Given the current controversy over the appointment of a new Clerk of the House, the Speaker may not now be seen by everyone in such a role.  However, this sorry episode does raise important questions about the governance of what the outgoing Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, rightly described in his farewell letter as the ‘central institution in our democracy’ and ‘the precious centre of our Parliamentary democracy’.

By the time this piece is posted, the immediate crisis may be in the early stages of resolution, with time-honoured Westminster ad hoc compromises, promises of root and branch governance reviews etc..  However, that the process of appointing the most senior House official has been, for whatever reasons, so controversial is seriously damaging to the House’s reputation. We know from the House Service’s own Strategy for 2013-17 that its vision is that the House be seen as ‘a model of good practice and innovation’ and that ‘the House Service will have the respect of Members of Parliament and of the public for our independence, integrity and professionalism… We will be seen as efficient, responsive, diverse and inclusive.

Of course, this affair is as much a proxy war about the performance of the present Speaker as it is about getting the best Clerk/Chief Executive or deciding what the proper role and functions of the Head of the House Service should be.  In this long recess period, where the usual dearth of official in-House response and rebuttal is even more acute, the anti-Bercow forces have been able to make the running in attacking the Speaker for his handling of the recruitment process and for his apparent favoured candidate.  Their views are set out in their memorandum, which was leaked on the Guido Fawkes blog a few days ago. This document, which is riddled with factual errors and patronising and one-sided arguments, can be basically summed up as:

the top job in the House Service of Clerk/Chief Executive can only be filled, as now, by a ‘real’ Clerk, because the proceduralist side of the role is more extensive and more important than the relatively mundane ‘chief executive’ side, which the Clerk can also do as he/she has been trained to do it on the job.

Continue reading

Will the Scottish referendum produce ‘a decisive and respected outcome’?

05 bw0001 smaller

With exactly one month to go until the referendum in Scotland, Barry K Winetrobe challenges the assumption that the outcome will resolve the independence debate. He explores scenarios where even a Yes vote might not (or perhaps even should not) produce an independent state.

As the Scottish independence referendum campaign reaches its final days, it may be worth highlighting a little-discussed aspect which may become very relevant immediately after 18 September – the assumption that the referendum will resolve the matter, either by a Yes vote inevitably leading to independence, or a No vote leading to the continuation of the present UK, probably with more devolution.

Is this assumption valid, especially if there is a Yes vote? Will any Yes outcome inevitably and irrevocably lead, in some to-be-determined process over the coming months, to the creation of an independent Scotland outside the UK?

This assumption seems to derive from the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments, certainly in the view of the Lords Constitution Committee in its recent inquiry on the constitutional implications of the referendum. Its May 2014 report stated that

the UK Government…in the ‘Edinburgh agreement’ of October 2012, agreed to accept as binding the result of a referendum held before the end of 2014 (para 3) and the Edinburgh agreement was for a ‘decisive’ referendum whose outcome will be respected on both sides (para 67).

Continue reading

ON THE WRONG WAY TO ‘WRIGHT’ THE COMMONS – AND A SUGGESTED ‘WRIGHT’ WAY

The PCRC Report

Surprise, surprise.  The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s review of the 2009 ‘Wright Committee’ package of parliamentary reforms, published on July 18, endorses and continues the traditional incremental, pragmatic ad hoc approach to ‘strengthening’ the House of Commons.  It welcomes the various ‘Wright reforms’ that have been implemented in some form, and calls for the implementation of those which are still outstanding.  These include old favourites of the ‘Mark 2’ conventional parliamentary reform agenda, like select committee elections, business committees (backbench and wider), petitions and better legislative scrutiny.  As has now become almost a parliamentary convention, the report concludes with a call for its proposals to be implemented quickly to, in the words of the Committee’s press release, “maintain the momentum for reform.”  This was reinforced during the PCRC Chair’s statement to the House that day (immediately after the usual weekly ‘Business Questions’ farce where our representatives beg the Government to allow them to debate various important issues, including procedural changes discussed in the PCRC Report!)

Need for a broader approach to reform

All well and good, and no doubt the coterie of reform-minded parliamentarians, academics and commentators will welcome this further predictable reinforcement of their broad consensus.  But the report does nothing to tackle the fundamentals of radical change in the Commons, especially the need to provide a comprehensive principled framework for the operation of an effective and autonomous parliamentary body, one that can set its own parameters for doing its core democratic tasks, such as scrutinising government, and representing the public who elected it.

Ad hoc reform – whether at the initiative of ministers, academics or parliamentary committees – will do no more than, at best, improve matters at the margins.  Ministers, with the power of initiative over parliamentary business and time in the House, remain in overall control of any such change process.  Just look at the early paragraphs of the Wright Report itself on the delays by the Government in allowing it to be set up; what that report called ”the impotence of the House to find time to debate and decide its own internal affairs.”  When changes are made, the Executive can nobble them to suit its own interests – as with the disruption to the Backbench Business Committee and petitions proposals by unilaterally inserting its own e-petitions system into the mix.

A narrow focus on piecemeal procedural reform misses the two main areas of change required – the institutional and the cultural.  Both reports talk the talk on these essential aspects, but focus on procedural/structural changes, which, in the Wright Report’s own words, “we hope … will lead gradually to a change of culture.” The new report worries away at the conflicting evidence from its witnesses about whether Reform A or Reform B has ‘changed the culture’ or not.

When will it be realised at Westminster that this is the wrong way to go about meaningful and beneficial change?  Piecemeal reform cannot fundamentally change the culture of the Commons or sufficiently rebalance the Executive-Parliamentary relationship.  There needs to be a serious examination of what a modern parliament is for and about, and how – as the central democratic institution – it can be designed to operate effectively as the unique forum where the various actors like the Executive, the public and others come together in our governance.  The trend towards more ‘direct democracy’ via technological innovations and rise in public expectations makes this all the more urgent.  Without needing to resort to a US-style ‘separation of powers’ model, the ‘Westminster Model’ has the potential to provide a framework for democratic, accountable and effective governance, which appropriately involves the public as well as politicians and officials.  There are variants of the traditional Model around the world – even within the UK! – which deserve more than cursory examination (of the ‘having popped up to Holyrood for a day or so, I can say that procedure X or process Y does/does not work, and would/would not work at Westminster’ variety).

If the Commons developed a culture of institutional autonomy and a strong corporate identity that could, to some degree, challenge the dominance of party and of the closed Government-Opposition battle, and if this were based on coherent, comprehensive and robust principles against which any reform proposal or parliamentary action or conduct could be measured, then particular processes, rules and procedural reforms could be developed to flesh out that framework in a logical, consistent way, able to withstand knee-jerk ‘something must be done’ ministerial reactions or hysterical moralising from the media and others.

Remember the Wright Committee was set up in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal – a perfect example of the wrong sort of culture – not because of any particularly compelling demands for procedural change.  Similarly, this new report comes out a time when the focus is not on procedural change but on ethical issues like lobbying or ‘ethicalised’ issues like MPs’ pay and expenses.  Reforming select or legislative committees or the like will not be seen as obvious ways of addressing these supposedly priority issues.  Only changing the culture and the constitutional ‘place’ of the Commons can do both that and the necessary process stuff.

A ‘Wright way forward?

How would such a comprehensive examination of parliamentary reform – encompassing the institutional, the procedural and the cultural – be constructed?  Well, how about starting with the Commons setting up some mechanism itself to monitor and, where appropriate, champion reform?  Rather than the usual impotent promises from select committees that they will revisit progress, or that they hope their successors will, what is stopping the House authorities, especially the Speaker and/or the HC Commission, setting something up themselves, distinct from conventional select committees, to test and contextualise reform proposals?

A cursory look at the Westminster website reveals an explosion in the number of bodies and groups established (by SOs, statute, Speaker or Commission etc.) to deal with particular aspects of House administration and activity.  Some even have non-MPs as members.  Indeed one of the problems with the current arrangements is that, not only do many of these important committees operate in virtual practical anonymity (despite varying degrees of online transparency), they also appear to exist within a rather byzantine governance ‘system’, (see the House ‘organogram’). What, if any, is the relationship between, say, the Speaker’s Advisory Council on Public Engagement (SACPE, with no current MPs on its membership);  Management Board (with 2 external members as well as the departmental heads); Administration Estimate Audit Committee (with 3 MPs and 3 external members); Finance & Services Committee; Administration Committee; HC Commission; Office of the Chief Executive; Speaker’s Office (interestingly, of these last three, only the Speaker’s Office appears to have no direct public contact details, with a request that enquirers contact the HC Information Office) etc etc?

Whatever impact this governance structure may have on the normal institutional running of the House, it seems hardly likely to foster a comprehensive, holistic approach to monitoring and responding to – never mind, initiating or evaluating – parliamentary reform policies or proposals, whether they come from the Government, external academics and organisations or internally via the Procedure Committee, Liaison Committee, PCRC etc (including those in the Lords, especially where there are, as is often the case, cross-House or Parliament-wide aspects)?  For example, is any procedural reform routinely ‘public engagement assessed’, eg by SACPE? Which of these bodies have an input into the work of IPSA (either directly or via yet another internal body, the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA, with a mixed membership of MPs and lay people) whose resourcing powers and functions are so crucial to the working of the House and its members, not least in relation to the public?

All this suggests that there is a need for some House-owned group to monitor ‘parliamentary reform’ in all its procedural, institutional and other aspects, with a broad overview remit to consider the wider implications of particular changes, or proposals for change, of procedure, policy, structure or operation, including any unintended or unexpected consequences for, as appropriate, public engagement, procedural effectiveness and efficiency and so on.  There is sufficient precedent for such a body to be set up internally, especially by or on behalf of the Speaker, and for its membership not to be confined to MPs or Commons officials. 

It would need some set of principles and objectives to measure any proposals against, similar in function and purpose to, say, the Scottish Parliament’s ‘founding principles’.  Whether this was, for example a variant of the existing published Strategy for the House of Commons Service – probably the nearest thing the House has to such a set of overarching principles of its role and purpose – or something newly drafted in some way, would be a matter for consideration.

If all the self-proclaimed reformers around, including the Speaker and the Chair of the PCRC, really want to ensure continuing meaningful improvement for the Commons, in line with the ambitious rhetoric of the Strategy, then this proposal for a dedicated group within the House may be something they should think about – and quickly.

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.

Commons reform: are legislation committees the next frontier?

4th June 2013

With this week’s lobbying allegations, attention is again turning to parliamentary reform. As Barry Winetrobe noted in this blog yesterday, politicians are inclined to reach for easy solutions, not all of which may deal with the problem at hand. But the more that can be done to improve both the effectiveness and the image of parliament, the better.

As I noted in an article in Parliamentary Affairs two years ago, Rahm Emanuel’s dictum of ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ fitted the MPs’ expenses crisis nicely. While the crisis did terrible damage to parliament’s reputation, something good did come out of the ashes. Realising that ‘something must be done’, Gordon Brown set up the ‘Wright Committee’ (formally Reform of the House of Commons Selection committee) to bring forward proposals for reform. This led to the election of select committee chairs and members, and creation of the Backbench Business Committee – both very important and welcome developments.

Since then, progress has slowed. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is currently conducting an inquiry assessing the impact of the Wright reforms, and areas of unfinished business. Two weeks ago Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley announced to the committee that the coalition’s promised establishment of a House Business Committee is on hold until further notice. Although I personally always had doubts that this reform would a) happen and b) be effective if it did, this news will disappoint many reformers.

So perhaps the Constitution Unit’s publication of a new report next week on reform of Commons legislation committees is timely. Reformers have double reason to be looking for proposals to strengthen parliament that they can rally around. Ministers may also see the benefits of a new set of moderate and sensible reform proposals that can help enhance parliament’s reputation. This report – Fitting the Bill: Bringing Commons Legislation Committees into Line with Best Practice – suggests that reform of public bill committees is the next urgent priority. With reform having been achieved in other areas, they could be seen as the Commons’ weakest link.

The report reviews complaints about Commons legislation committees, and previous calls for reform. While a major change took place in 2007 (when Jack Straw was Leader of the House), to introduce evidence taking on bills, this only partly dealt with the committees’ weaknesses. They remain temporary, nonspecialist, and selected by the whips. The report also reviews practice in other parliaments, showing that the public bill committees are out of step with international best practice, as well as with the Commons’ own select committees. Indeed, reforming these committees’ membership is a genuine piece of ‘unfinished business’ from the Wright Committee, which recommended (paragraph 60) that the way public bill committee members are chosen should be reviewed. It hasn’t been yet.

The report will be launched next Monday 10 June in the House of Commons (Wilson Room, Portcullis House) at 5pm, when the former Commons leader Jack Straw (Labour) and Chair of the Procedure Committee Charles Walker (Conservative) will give their responses. Free copies will be available, and it will also be published on our website soon.

If you would like to book a place at the launch, contact the Constitution Unit administrator Ben Webb.