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

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

Here we go again, the parliamentary petitions site has re-opened – what roles can it play?

The House of Commons and government collaborative e-petitions site re-opened on 11 September, following an extended break during the general election and the early months of the new parliament. In this post Cristina Leston-Bandeira reflects on the experience of the e-petitions system during the 2015–17 parliament, the first following its establishment. She identifies four types of role performed by petitions to parliaments and provides evidence that the UK system has performed important roles in all of these areas.

Closed since early May, the House of Commons and government collaborative e-petitions site re-opened on 11 September, as its committee was finally re-established. By the end of its first day, 11 petitions had been added to the site, collecting over 11,000 signatures. As the Petitions Committee re-starts its work, it is worth reflecting on its experience during its first parliament and its potential role.

The system was launched in 2015 and saw extraordinary volumes of usage in the 2015-17 parliament, with 31,731 e-petitions submitted in less than two years and 14 million unique e-mail addresses used to sign petitions. This corresponds to an average of 1,480 e-petitions submitted per month, which is considerably higher than equivalent petitions system in other legislatures; for instance, the monthly average number of petitions submitted in 2015 to the German Bundestag was 1,186 (despite Germany having a larger population).

There is no doubt that the new e-petitions system has caught people’s imagination and has been heavily used since it was introduced. But has it achieved much, other than a lot of activity and noise? Out of those submitted, 10,950 were accepted and 471 got a government response, having reached the required threshold of 10,000 signatures. Besides this, 39 parliamentary debates were held on e-petitions that reached 100,000 signatures (with some debates encompassing more than one petition). Assessing the contribution of petitions is not always straightforward though, for a variety of reasons explored in a previous blog post such as the difficulty in identifying causal relationships between petitions and outputs. In order to evaluate a petitions system, it is more helpful to think in terms of the roles it performs.

Continue reading

The Wright Way to Infantilise the Commons

The short Commons debate on Monday 12 March on procedural changes to the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC) provided further proof that Government (and front benches generally) has no intention of ceding its dominance over the parliamentary agenda in any fundamental way, and will permit ‘reform’ only on its own terms and in its own good time.

What a pity that the vast legions of the ‘conventional wisdom’ – in academe, media and inside Westminster itself – will no doubt ignore this, as they have all clear signs in the last few years that the alleged empowering of Parliament, through the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee, is being skewed and diluted by ministers and their allies. The Backbench Business Committee is hailed as the battering ram which is breaching Government control of Commons business (what is discussed and when etc.), leading to the ultimate prize of a ‘full’ House Business Committee in the coming year.

I have blogged on all this, both in this Blog and elsewhere (eg here, and here), arguing for genuine Commons control (on behalf of the public they represent) of their own House and its operation, especially in respect of its business.  Monday’s debate is a good example of a government (any government) unilaterally deciding to propose its own changes to a select committee – and the one which is supposed to determine Backbench business! – at a time of its own choosing, and, according the BBBC’s chair and others, not only without consulting that committee in advance but also in the middle of a Procedure Committee review of the BBBC.  Because Ministers control time, all backbenchers can do is complain about it, or try to prevent it through amendments, when surely in any mature parliament worthy of the name, the timing of such a debate and the content of any proposed motions would be a matter for the House itself – through some form of genuine Business Committee.

The standard ministerial excuse is that all Government is doing is ‘providing an opportunity’ for debate and ‘facilitating’ discussion through its agenda-setting.  Note, in passing, that this debate was held alongside ‘sexier’ ones on MPs standards, guaranteed to monolopolise the limited available political and media interest.  Even worse, the minister putting all this through was  David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House (and my local MP) – the same David Heath who, when in opposition, demanded “An Everest of reform … to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose” and declared that “It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business.” Oh, I forgot, he’s now only ‘providing opportunities for debate and decision ….

Mr Heath is learning all the front bench business manager tricks. For example, he said on Monday that “Wright is not holy writ and should not be treated as such, not least because there are internal contradictions in the Wright report, just as there are sometimes in holy writ.”  In other words, we in Government can cherry-pick what we want out of the Wright reform blueprint, and ignore or change what we dont like.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the best – indeed, only – sensible strategy for acheiving reform is to go along with the Government (as has been done over the Government’s own unilateral e-petitions system being dropped into the BBBC mix) and to try and ‘save’ as much of the Wright blueprint as possible.  We can argue how radical Wright really was, in that glorious window of opportunity provided fleetingly by the expenses scandal of 2009.  What the incrementalists and trimmers have to demonstrate now is that when (perhaps, if) they actually can claim success over a full House Business Committee, it will be one worth having, and that the arrangement of Commons business will have really shifted decisively from the Government (and front benches more generally) to the House collectively on behalf of the people.

Monday’s debate confirms that the omens are not good.  But there may just be time for those who profess to seek genuine radical reform to act before it is too late, and try to overcome the House’s self-defeating acquiescence to government initiative over parliamentary reform.  After all, it was the Wright Committee itself which rightly asserted, in unequivocal terms, that “Time in the House belongs to the House,” and warned that  Government control of parliamentary time “infantilises Members.”  Time to grow up!