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. 

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Coronavirus and the hybrid parliament: how the government moved the Commons backwards on remote participation

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Image Credit: Return of the House of Commons rehearsal (CC BY 3.0) by UK Parliament

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn recent weeks, the government has taken the Commons from an acceptable hybrid system to the current confused regime of limited virtual participation and proxy voting. As David Natzler has outlined in previous posts, during the coronavirus lockdown the Commons moved with surprising speed and unity to create a hybrid parliament in which MPs could participate remotely, with the same speaking and voting rights as members present in the chamber. Here David outlines how the Commons moved so fast and so far backwards on virtual involvement for MPs. 

In this blog I intend to summarise the confusing developments in the past three weeks in the regime for doing parliamentary business in the House of Commons, and to analyse some of the reasons for the almost daily change of regime and the emergence of a new temporary hybrid regime. 

The first regime of virtual participation: 21 April to 20 May

On 21 and 22 April, on its return from the Easter recess, the House agreed to several government motions which established a temporary regime allowing for virtual participation by members in hybrid scrutiny and substantive proceedings, and for remote voting, to endure until 12 May. The regime was founded on a resolution of general principles also agreed on 21 April, including a requirement for parity of treatment between members participating virtually and those participating in person. Virtual select committee proceedings had already been established under a separate and longer-lasting order. On 12 May the House agreed to extend the debating and voting regimes until 20 May. 

Non-renewal of the regime

This regime operated successfully for the best part of a month, until the House rose on 20 May for the Whitsun recess, at which point the detailed operative Orders agreed on 21 and 22 April, but not the resolution setting out the founding principles, lapsed. It became known on 11 and 12 May through the government strategy statement and remarks by the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that the government had no intention of renewing the regime of virtual participation, on the grounds that it was time for parliament to ‘get back to business’. But the government offered no opportunity over the next few days, before the House rose on 20 May, for the Commons to give its positive assent for letting the regime lapse. Continue reading

Dramas at Westminster: select committees and the quest for accountability

iOpQqpWl_400x400.jpgNow that the government has a secure majority in the Commons, the role of select committees in scrutinising its work will be crucial. But how do select committees operate, what makes them tick and how effective are they? Drawing on the findings of his new book, Marc Geddes argues that if we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

How do MPs make sense of their scrutiny work? Accountability is one of three core functions of legislatures (the other two being law-making and representation), yet we know remarkably little about how MPs interpret, or seek to carry out, scrutiny work. Those MPs that do take it seriously often join select committees. They are seen as the main vehicles of accountability in the House of Commons, made up of a small group of MPs to consider policy questions. Traditionally, there is one committee per ministerial department, as well as additional cross-cutting ones (such as on public administration and constitutional affairs). Committees normally consider policy issues through an evidence gathering process that may include written, as well as oral, evidence, before then publishing a report with recommendations for action (very often these reports are published consensually, with agreement from all the committee’s MPs). Select committees are seen to be influential and have been widely celebrated, especially in 2019, which marked the 40th anniversary since their present-day incarnation. While they are seen as fundamental to good scrutiny and we know that they can be influential, I wanted to examine select committees from a different vantage point, asking why MPs join committees and how they make sense of their role. This culminated in a book, Dramas at Westminster. What did I find? 

The core argument of my book is that there is no easy answer or unifying theme to understand what ‘scrutiny’ actually means. Rather, MPs’ interpretations of the concept are wide-ranging and, while MPs’ beliefs often blend well together to create effective means to hold the executive to account, their ideas about select committee work can also contrast and diverge from what others might consider to be ‘good scrutiny’ – or, in fact, ‘scrutiny’ at all. For example, for some, scrutiny is about holding the government’s feet to the fire and they would only regard scrutiny as being successful if they have blown a minister off-course; for others, scrutiny is about transparency, i.e. better understanding why a minister might have taken a particular decision. I argue that these different interpretations create different ‘performance styles’; behaviours that MPs can adopt when they enact their scrutiny role – much like in a theatre or play. To illustrate this point, I identify six styles: specialists, who often form the core of committee business and attempt to analyse aspects of the policy area; lone wolves, who take their passions so far that they make their case irrespective of other committee members or the committee’s remit; constituency champions, who look at scrutiny through the prism of how it can benefit local causes; party helpers, who seek to protect their party interests on the committee; learners, who use their membership to better understand a policy issue; and absentees, who – as their name suggests – are largely absent from substantive committee work.

These styles are not fixed, with many MPs changing the role they adopt based on particular circumstances. For example, it might be the case that an MP is a specialist in one aspect of a committee’s work but not another, and so acts as specialist or learner accordingly; in other areas of a committee’s work, it might directly touch on their constituency while in a hearing with the secretary of state, or they cannot help themselves and use their party allegiance to poke fun at the government. It is worth thinking about performance styles to understand the wider dynamics of committee hearings and evidence processes. Doing this detailed analysis will help us to better understand why a committee will come to certain conclusions but might avoid other recommendations. Most importantly, the performance styles that I have identified here are designed to be illustrative rather than definitive, drawing on the most recurring themes and behaviours that I found during my fieldwork.  Continue reading

From candidate to elected member: will new MPs face a trial by fire after the 2019 Canadian federal election?

Louise.CockramNews.jpgCanadian voters will today cast their votes in a tight federal election, after  which a large number of first-time MPs are expected to take their seats. Following interviews she conducted with sitting MPs and parliamentary staff, Louise Cockram argues that new members are currently forced to rely on their parties to acclimatise to the House of Commons, and that the official House induction has limited impact.

While the UK waits for a possible snap election, Canadians have been in election mode for months in advance of the federal election that will take place today (21 October). Public opinion polls and the backlash to recent controversies suggest that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may lose some seats, while a third of New Democratic Party MPs plan to leave politics altogether. This means that a fresh crop of MPs will arrive in Ottawa in late October. These rookie MPs will have spent the past few months knocking on the doors of potential voters, attending community events and coordinating campaigns for party members in their constituency. Once elected they will have to adapt to the procedural rules of the House, as well as answer demands from their constituents and party whips. What will it take for these new MPs to transition from being a party candidate to an elected member? 

A joint project between Carleton University and the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield attempts to answer this very question. As part of the project we have spoken to 26 Canadian MPs who were elected following the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, as well as seven House of Commons staff who are responsible for facilitating the induction of MPs. The purpose of these interviews is to find out how newly elected MPs learn to do the job of an elected representative once they enter the House. The MPs interviewed for the project were from all the major parties in Canada (the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP) and were from different parts of the country. Indeed, due to Canada’s vast geography, many MPs face challenges balancing their constituency and parliamentary duties. It takes a full day for an MP who represents a riding (electoral district) in Northern British Columbia to travel to their constituency from Ottawa. This presents difficulties for the MP not only in terms of their ability to represent constituents but also puts a strain on family life. Continue reading

175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. Continue reading

The politics of publishing select committee legal advice

f9pJoDDq_400x400 (1)picture.1257.1530012142Cristina.Leston.Bandeira1Parliamentary select committees at Westminster are assisted in their work by teams of impartial parliamentary staff who fulfil a variety of functions. This can include the provision of legal advice by parliamentary lawyers. In recent years, some committees have chosen to publish that legal advice. Drawing on their ongoing research, Ben Yong, Greg Davies and Cristina Leston-Bandeira examine the practice of publishing legal advice, the reasons behind it and the potential implications for the work of committees and their advisers.

In 2017, the House of Lords European Union Subcommittee on Financial Affairs took a highly unusual step. It published the advice provided by the then EU Committee legal adviser, Paul Hardy, as part of its inquiry on Brexit and the EU Budget. Hardy argued Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union allowed the UK ‘to leave the EU without being liable for outstanding financial obligations under the EU budget’ (p.63). The implications of such advice were politically controversial.

But the act of publishing in its entirety the in-house legal advice provided to the committee, and the legal adviser named, also merits serious attention. There is a small but growing trend of select committees at Westminster publishing the legal advice provided to them by the in-house lawyers of parliament (‘parliamentary lawyers’). The trend raises a number of questions: why are Westminster select committees publishing in-house legal advice; what does this tell us about the internal dynamics of select committees; and what are the implications of publishing internal advice for the House and parliament? This is the focus of our latest article, ‘Tacticians, Stewards and Professionals: The Politics of Publishing Select Committee Legal Advice’ (open access from the Journal of Law and Society).

We have been carrying out a bigger project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, looking at the provision and reception of legal advice to the four legislatures of the UK. We have now interviewed about 75 individuals, of whom approximately 30 work or worked in Westminster.

Why is this happening?

Select committees will sometimes receive legal advice from the in-house legal services of parliament. In the House of Commons, for instance, much of this comes from the Office of Speaker’s Counsel: a small group of lawyers who are permanent, impartial House staff, employed to provide legal support and advice to the Houses of Parliament. ‘Legal advice’ can cover explanation and information to the application of relevant law to a specific set of facts, and any of the various stages in between. We focus on the more formal side of the spectrum. Continue reading

Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

The Business of the House: the role of the clerks in the Speaker’s decision on the Grieve amendment

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214As tensions rise in parliament over Brexit, the role of the Commons clerks has been much discussed. Here, former Clerk of the Committees Andrew Kennon offers a personal insight into how the clerks operate, within the context of  the recent decision of the Speaker on the 9 January Grieve amendment.

In his memoirs, Speaker George Thomas recalled a Member of Parliament in the 1970s who ‘had been told by the clerks that something he wanted to do was out of order because of a private ruling given by Mr Speaker Fitzroy years before the war’. When the Member asked to see the ruling, he was told it had been lost and that the only proof of it was a footnote in Erskine May, which is the official guide to parliamentary practice and procedure.

I recognise this clerkly approach from when I started in the House of Commons in 1977. This incident led Speaker Thomas to decide that all private rulings by the Speaker should be published. For a while, small green volumes of these rulings were produced, but the whole practice has now fallen into disuse.

There was nothing private or secret about Speaker Bercow’s decision on 9 January to select the Grieve amendment requiring the government to come back to the House within three days of any defeat on the Brexit deal (such a defeat came to pass on 15 January). The Speaker’s decision immediately resulted in an hour-long viva on parliamentary procedure in the form of points of order.

It remains to be seen how significant this decision will turn out to be in political terms. The procedural issue at stake is small. But it is when a government does not command a majority in the House that immense political pressure comes to bear on weak links in procedure; sometimes they break. Continue reading