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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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

Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?

RuthFox.084_square.1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary scrutiny is essential to checking and legitimising government decisions. But the coronavirus crisis, during which government has been granted unprecedented powers, creates obvious challenges for parliament. Ruth Fox and Meg Russell argue that parliamentary change during the crisis must follow three core principles: first, parliament should go virtual insofar as possible; second, it should adapt its procedures accordingly, prioritising the most critical business; third, decisions about these changes should be open and consultative — to avoid the risk of a government power grab — should be strictly time-limited, and be kept under regular review.

Parliament has an essential role as the guardian of our democracy. But the coronavirus pandemic poses a huge and unprecedented challenge: how can parliamentarians conduct their core constitutional duties of holding the government to account, assenting to finance, passing legislation, and representing their constituents, when we are all required to adopt rigorous social distancing and, wherever possible, work from home? 

At a time when the government has been granted emergency powers of a kind unparalleled in peacetime, and ministers are taking rapid decisions that could shape our economy and society for a generation, democratic oversight is vital. Adversarial party politics take a back seat in a time of national crisis, but parliament’s collective responsibility to hold the executive to account remains. Hence the many calls – from both within and without parliament – for a ‘virtual’ legislature to ensure adequate scrutiny of the government’s decisions, and to maintain other essential time-sensitive work, while complying with public health requirements. 

As yet, however, there has been little detailed debate about how a ‘virtual parliament’ should operate. Parliament cannot work as normal, so what broad issues must it address in deciding how to work differently? 

This post identifies and argues for three core principles:

  • In the interests of safety, and to set a national example, parliament should operate as far as possible virtually, rather than accommodating continued physical presence at Westminster.
  • Parliament should not pursue ‘business as usual’ but should make more radical changes, identifying and prioritising essential business. 
  • Parliament’s crisis arrangements should be based on wide and transparent consultation with members to maximise support. ‘Sunsetting’ should be used to make clear that they are temporary and create no automatic precedent for the post-crisis era. 

In the UK, the government already has much greater control of the way parliament – particularly the House of Commons – operates than in many other countries. Any crisis arrangements must ensure fair representation for all members and parties; and the crisis and parliament’s response to it should not become a pretext to shift power further towards the executive and party managers.   Continue reading

The EU Withdrawal Bill: parliamentary prospects

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons by a relatively comfortable margin in the early hours of Tuesday morning. During the remainder of its parliamentary passage the government is likely to come under greater pressure, particularly on the issue of the delegated powers in the bill. On 13 September the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy and the Hansard Society’s Ruth Fox spoke about the prospects at the Constitution Unit. Alex Diggens and Jack Sheldon summarise what was said.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill looks set to be one of the most significant and controversial pieces of legislation to pass through parliament in recent memory. Ostensibly a bill to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and manage the process of converting EU law into domestic law, the bill has far greater scope. It hands significant delegated powers to ministers, allowing them to make changes to remedy supposed ‘deficiencies’ in both secondary and primary legislation through statutory instruments (SIs) and to implement the eventual withdrawal agreement. It also has major implications for the devolution settlements, as outlined in a previous blog post.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning the bill received its second reading in the Commons by the relatively comfortable margin of 326 votes to 290. However, the upcoming Commons committee and report stages, as well as the bill’s passage through the House of Lords, are likely to pose much greater difficulty for the government. On 13 September the Constitution Unit held a seminar to discuss the prospects. Chaired by the Unit’s Dr Alan Renwick, the panel comprised two experts on the dynamics at play: Mark D’Arcy, the BBC’s Parliamentary Correspondent, and Dr Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society.

Dr Alan Renwick introduces the seminar

Mark D’Arcy

Mark D’Arcy focused his remarks on the party-political landscape in relation to the bill and the key types of amendments that are being brought forward.

On the party-political landscape, D’Arcy argued that the bill’s passage will be a drawn-out battle, but one that the government go into reasonably confidently. He said that 10 Downing Street is working hard to keep open links with all of the Conservative factions, and that none of them is seeking to kill the bill. The Tory ‘Remain’ contingent in the Commons is small, and they recall the infighting during the Major years; they therefore recognise that actively fighting Brexit would be ‘career death’. D’Arcy suggested that ‘Bregretters’ might be a more accurate term for this group as they do not actually seek to prevent Brexit. The House of Lords have expressed significant reservations about the bill, notably through the influential Constitution Committee, but D’Arcy predicted that they will be constrained by not wanting to be seen fighting against ‘the people’.

As soon as the second reading vote went through the Commons, queues were forming to put amendments forward. The ‘Bregretters’ put down several, led by the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve. The focus of their amendments was on overseeing the technical operation of the bill, particularly on identifying which SIs require thorough parliamentary scrutiny. Another group of amendments comes from the Labour ‘Remain’ group. These tend to be more ambitious – they keep open options for the future, for instance the option to remain in the Customs Union, or perhaps even the European Economic Area. Other groups have more niche concerns – for example, some MPs are pushing to entrench specific rights provided by EU law.

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