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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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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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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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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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.

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Elections and COVID-19: how can next May’s polls go ahead safely and democratically during a pandemic?

Elections set to take place across the UK in May 2020 were postponed for 12 months due to COVID-19. Election administrators and policymakers now have less than eight months to prepare for the possibility of holding polls during a pandemic. Sarah Birch, co-author of a recent British Academy briefing on holding safe and democratic elections during COVID-19, discusses the key obstacles to a successful poll and offers some recommendations for making sure the May elections are fair and safe.

An election requires the largest peace-time mobilisation that any state has to undertake. Even at the best of times, this is a major administrative feat. Conducting an election during a pandemic is far more daunting still, as electoral authorities have to consider the health of voters, polling and counting staff and campaign organisers, together with the health of democracy. 

If an election is to serve democratic aims, it is hugely important that it is both fair and seen to be fair. Those running elections while COVID-19 remains a problem must clearly safeguard the process in terms of the health of those involved; they will also need to ensure popular confidence in procedures that will in some ways be different from what voters are used to. 

Any change to normal practices is bound to attract attention, and potentially suspicion. The recent British Academy report, How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic’, indicates that there are several things that electoral authorities can do to make sure that COVID-specific measures work.

If the pandemic has not been vanquished by May 2021, these suggestions may be of use to elected representatives and administrators in Scotland, Wales, London and local authorities across England, all of whom will be making arrangements for polling. These recommendations are also relevant to countries around the world that are preparing elections over the coming months.

Firstly, it makes sense for electoral authorities to use strategies that are part of their existing toolkits, rather than trying out completely new ideas (such as internet voting) that cannot be tested properly in the time available. The UK has extensive experience of postal voting, so this is a tool that can be relied on and potentially promoted for wider use. 

It will not make sense to implement other changes to the electoral system at this point, such as the proposed introduction of ID at UK polling stations. Pandemic-related measures will be challenging enough to develop, introduce and communicate, without the government also trying to roll out a whole new way of voting.

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