MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined

Backbench rebellion over parliament’s sidelining during the COVID-19 pandemic seems set to reach a critical point this week. Meg Russell and Lisa James argue that parliament’s crisis-era marginalisation is real, and part of a longer-running trend. So while government concessions now look likely, MPs should accept them only if they are genuine and comprehensive.

Backbench unease over the government’s treatment of parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to a head. On Wednesday, MPs will debate a motion to renew the government’s powers under the Coronavirus Act. But Conservative MPs’ frustration over the government’s handling of the crisis, and particularly its tendency to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, is increasingly evident. 

Earlier this month Charles Walker, joint Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee and former Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, accused the government of treating its backbenchers like dogs. Similar concerns have appeared in the Telegraph and the Times. Now more than 40 Tory MPs have signed an amendment proposed by 1922 Committee Chair Graham Brady to Wednesday’s motion. This would make continuation of ministerial powers conditional on MPs getting a vote on any future coronavirus-related restrictions – whether made under the Coronavirus Act itself or other legislation (such as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984). The amendment may have no formal legal force, and for procedural reasons might ultimately not be voted upon; but its political significance is clear.

Parliament has been sidelined

MPs have genuine cause for complaint: parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic. The most frequent criticism is over the government’s use of delegated legislation. Numerous coronavirus restrictions have been imposed through regulations subject to limited parliamentary oversight, with debate often scheduled long after the restrictions themselves were announced or came into force. A critical report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) noted how the requirement to wear masks on public transport was announced in a Downing Street press conference on 4 June, coming into force 11 days later; yet it wasn’t debated in the Commons until 6 July. Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings 8 days previously, these were not debated in parliament. Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law points out, the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.

Continue reading

Requiring MPs to vote in person during coronavirus places the institution of parliament at risk. It’s time to bring remote divisions back and to plan for continued restrictions

Today, the House of Commons will decide whether or not MPs should be allowed to continue to vote by proxy. Karen Bradley, Chair of the Commons Procedure Commmittee, sets out her views on how voting should take place, calling on MPs to support her amendment, which would require the government to bring alternative proposals for conducting divisions to the House for debate and decision. Those proposals, she argues, ought to include the reinstatement of remote divisions. 

Shortly after the Commons summer recess the Procedure Committee published the report of its review of pilot arrangements for proxy voting in the House.

Our work fell into two distinct sections – an evaluation of the pilot of proxy voting for baby leave, and consideration of the use of proxies to manage absences arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consensus on the first was easily found; the second raises more challenging issues. Today the House will take a decision on each.

Proxy voting for parental absence: a successful pilot

In the first, we evaluated how proxy voting for parental absence had worked in practice. This initiative, started by Harriet Harman, Maria Miller and others and brought to the Commons by Andrea Leadsom as Leader of the House, has been piloted over the last 20 months. It has been so successful that many have not realised that it is still in the pilot stage. 

Pairing arrangements for colleagues on parental absence did not work badly, in the main, but they deprived new mothers in the House of the opportunity to record their votes on key issues. In the 2017 parliament, when voting records were scrutinised as never before and voting behaviour increasingly analysed and presented to the public via algorithm, this put those MPs at a huge disadvantage. Breaches of pairing arrangements, however inadvertent, did the House’s reputation no good. 

Continue reading

Boris Johnson and parliament: an unhappy tale in 13 acts

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament returns from its summer break today. During Boris Johnson’s 13 months in office as Prime Minister his relationship with parliament has often been rocky. In this post, Unit Director Meg Russell reviews 13 episodes during these 13 months which illustrate Johnson’s difficult relationship with parliament. His Number 10 has often resisted parliamentary oversight, and faced down significant parliamentary opposition – including from his own backbenchers. With growing indications of backbench discontent, she explores the dangers of this situation.

As the Commons reassembles today, it’s a good moment to reflect on the relationship between Boris Johnson’s government and parliament so far. Johnson has now held office for just over a year, and rumours are emerging of significant discontent on the Conservative backbenches. From the outset, Johnson’s relationship with parliament has been beset with controversy. As he enters his second parliamentary year, what have been the key flashpoints, and what do they add up to collectively?

This post looks back at 13 episodes in the past 13 months, before reflecting on what they teach us, and what the future may hold. It suggests that while existing flashpoints have resulted from Number 10’s bold assertions of executive power, there are risks for Johnson that the tables could soon start to be turned.

1. The first day: two hours of scrutiny before recess

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the afternoon of 24 July 2019, following his victory in the Conservative leadership contest. On that day, Theresa May took her final Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson thus had just one day to face parliament, which was about to break for its summer recess. The hot topic was Brexit; May had been forced out after failing to gain adequate support from her own MPs for her Brexit deal, which was defeated three times in the Commons between January and March. Johnson had been among those voting against it. The big question was how he could succeed where Theresa May had failed. On 25 July there was a brief potential window for MPs to quiz him on his Brexit strategy. But he chose instead to make a far more general statement on ‘priorities for government’. After two hours of questions ranging across all policy topics, the Commons moved to adjourn until September. An attempt by MPs to delay adjournment had failed, as did a later attempt to recall parliament over the summer to discuss progress on Brexit. Recall is impossible without the agreement of the government. Continue reading

Proxy voting in the House of Commons: how could it work in practice?

andrewkennon.crop_0

In February, the House of Commons passed by acclamation a motion to permit a system of voting by proxy for Members of Parliament who have recently adopted or given birth to a child. Ahead of the Procedure Committee’s report on the matter, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon offers his view on how a system of proxy voting might work, and some of the problems its designers will have to consider.

On 1 February 2018 the House of Commons debated and passed this motion moved by Harriet Harman MP:

That this House believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy (emphasis added).

The Procedure Committee has conducted a short inquiry into this matter and is expected to report in May. 

Close votes

This would be less of an issue if the government had a clear majority. Normally, pairing arrangements between the whips of the main parties accommodate absences due to illness, family responsibilities, or other duties. Such understandings cannot always bear the pressure of really close votes in a hung parliament.

On such occasions, the reputation of the House is not enhanced by mothers of very small babies having to carry them through the division lobbies. Nor was it improved by very sick Members being brought by ambulance onto the precincts so their vote could be counted by being ‘nodding through’ the lobby by a whip. I remember it well from my early days as a clerk in the late 1970s. Continue reading

Brexit and the sovereignty of parliament: a backbencher’s view

220px.Official_portrait_of_Mr_Dominic_Grieve_crop_2 (1)

Brexit is a constitutional, legal, and political challenge of a size the UK has not seen in decades and will have consequences that are both uncertain and long-lasting. In this post, Dominic Grieve offers his distinctive perspective on Brexit, discussing the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, the role of international courts in UK law, and the more troubling aspects of the Withdrawal Bill itself. 

The EU and the sovereignty of parliament

My Brexiter colleagues have in varying degrees signed up to the view that EU membership undermines the sovereignty of parliament in a manner which is damaging to our independence and our parliamentary democracy. This certainly fits in with a national (if principally English) narrative that can be traced back past the Bill of Rights 1688 to Magna Carta in 1215.  This narrative has proved very enduring; it places parliament as the central bastion of our liberties.

But it can also be used merely as an assertion of power, particularly when the executive has effective control over parliament. It is with that power that parliament enacted the European Communities Act 1972, which gave primacy to EU law in our country. It was parliament that chose to allow what is now the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to override UK statute law, so as to ensure our conformity with EU law in all areas in which it has competence.

The justification for requiring that supremacy was that without it, achieving adherence to the treaties and convergence between member states in implementing EU law would be very difficult. This was not an unreasonable argument; but it is hard to avoid concluding that the supremacy of EU law lies at the root of the feeling of powerlessness felt by sections of the electorate and reflected in the referendum result. This feeling has been encouraged by the habit of successive UK governments to hide behind decisions of the EU as a justification for being unwilling to address problems raised by its own electors. But where the lawyer and politician in me parts company with the views of my Brexiter colleagues is in the extent to which they appear oblivious to the extent to which parliamentary sovereignty is not – and never has been – unfettered. Continue reading

The Lords and the EU Withdrawal Bill: 10 predictions

meg_russell (1)

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has completed its bumpy passage through the Commons and now moves to the Lords, where the government falls well short of a majority. In this post Meg Russell explores what the Lords is likely to do with the bill, making 10 predictions and, in doing so, busting some common myths. She concludes that the bill will be heavily amended, but any suggestion that the Lords will ‘block Brexit’ is misconceived. 

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons last week. During its two-day second reading, eight days in committee on the floor of the House and two-day report stage, it got a pretty bumpy ride. In a fascinating test for a minority Conservative government, amendments were fended off on a range of issues, but various concessions were also given, and the government suffered one defeat. Now the bill passes to the House of Lords, where the numbers are far more stacked against the government. As of today, the Conservatives held just 248 out of a total 794 Lords seats, with Labour on 197, the Liberal Democrats 100 and independent Crossbenchers 183. In recent years this kind of party constellation has meant that even governments with comfortable Commons majorities have been frequently defeated in the Lords. So what can we expect from the second chamber on this highly sensitive bill? Here are 10 broad predictions:

Amendments are likely, right from the outset

1. There is little doubt that the bill will be significantly amended in the Lords. Even on relatively uncontroversial bills, scrutiny by peers frequently results in changes. But this is precisely the kind of bill that peers get most exercised about. The legal arrangements that it seeks to put in place for Brexit are highly technical and complex. The bill’s central purpose is to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, but at the same time to maintain legal continuity by creating a new body of ‘retained EU law’. This process in itself raises many difficult constitutional points (as indicated further below). In addition, the bill includes extensive ‘delegated powers’, allowing ministers to amend retained EU law with limited parliamentary oversight. This combination of a constitutional focus plus sweeping delegated powers, even leaving aside the disputed context of Brexit, guarantees that Lords scrutiny will be intense. It will almost certainly result in changes.  Continue reading

Amendments are needed to strengthen the Withdrawal Bill’s provisions for scrutiny of Statutory Instruments

5GMFtvPS_reasonably_smallToday saw the start of two days of report stage debate in the House of Commons on the content of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. At committee stage, amendments were made that created a new sifting committee for statutory instruments related to Brexit. Joel Blackwell, of The Hansard Society, argues below that the current proposals are insufficient to guarantee proper scrutiny and makes several recommendations for changes that can be made before the bill passes to the House of Lords.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which returned to the House of Commons for its report stage today, was successfully amended at committee stage in December 2017 to create a mechanism which will allow MPs, via a new European Statutory Instruments sifting committee, to consider statutory instruments (SIs) made under the Bill’s widest delegated powers and recommend an upgrade in the level of scrutiny of those about which they have most concern.

This new scrutiny mechanism, incorporated through a series of amendments tabled by Procedure Committee Chair Charles Walker, is intended to constrain the wide Henry VIII powers the government will use to make changes to retained EU law via SIs (under clauses 7, 8 and 9 of the Bill).

But if MPs are serious about scrutinising the changes arising from Brexit, these amendments, and the related proposals to amend Standing Orders will, as currently drafted, offer only limited help. If MPs are not happy with what the government wants to do, they will still be unable to exercise any real influence on the substance of a Brexit SI.

Continue reading

Reform is needed to restore public and parliamentary confidence in the private members’ bill process

Last month the House of Commons Procedure Committee published a report on the private members’ bill process in which a number of proposals for reform were put forward. The committee’s chair, Charles Walker, offers an overview and argues that the alternative to reform is that more members will abandon the existing process and backbench legislation, as we know it, will cease.

Procedure Committees past and present have examined the private members’ bill (PMB) process and found it gravely wanting. It is becoming more and more evident that parliamentary and public confidence in the process is waning. The current process misleads the general public, often falsely raises expectations about legislative action, and operates under procedures which are too easily gamed to prevent genuine legislative proposals from proceeding. The Procedure Committee undertook its latest inquiry into PMBs in light of experience of the process in this session and increasing dissatisfaction with the House’s procedures for PMBs, building on the work of the predecessor committee in the last parliament.

We identified two fundamental problems with the present process. Our chief concern is the lack of transparency: the process is impenetrable to the general public and too often brings parliament into disrepute. Our second concern is that it is now extremely difficult for a genuine PMB to reach the statute book—increasingly, not because the House as a whole has decided that a bill should not progress, but because a small number of members opposed to a measure can effectively veto it.

Evidence we heard suggests that the public is baffled by the process. Colleagues are frequently lobbied by constituents and others with requests to be present at Westminster on a sitting Friday to support a bill which has little (if any) chance of being debated, let alone reaching the statute book.

Continue reading