When meeting a new woman MP was no longer a rarity! Recollections of the impact of the May 1997 election on parliament

The outcome of the 1997 general election, 20 years ago this month, saw the number of female MPs double overnight. The new intake of female MPs included many women who would go on to become senior figures in the Labour Party, as well as the current Prime Minister Theresa May. Oonagh Gay, a former senior official at the House of Commons Library, recalls the impact that this change, together with New Labour’s wider ‘modernisation’ agenda, had on parliament.

On 1 May 1997 120 women MPs were elected; exactly double the number elected in 1992 and representing 18.2 per cent of all MPs. 71 of these MPs were new. For House of Commons Library staff suddenly it was no longer a rarity to meet a woman MP. Previously, it was possible to recognise each woman MP and name their constituency without much difficulty. Suddenly there was a host of younger, unfamiliar, female faces to process. 101 of those 120 women elected were Labour, reflecting the landslide majority achieved by their party, and the positive action policies which it had developed in the 1990s. To Commons Library staff, women MPs were new and demanding customers, anxious to meet their constituency responsibilities and to research policy alternatives. Due to a delay in allocating offices to ,embers, the Library’s Oriel Room staff were really busy with tours of the Members’ Library, especially in the first couple of weeks or so after the election, and so got to know the new women members quite well.

Among that intake were some women who were to become major figures. Labour’s new members included Anne Begg, Hazel Blears, Yvette Cooper, Maria Eagle, Caroline Flint, Patricia Hewitt, Beverley Hughes, Oona King, Joan Ryan, Angela Smith, Jacqui Smith, Gisela Stuart and Rosie Winterton. The smaller intake of female Conservative MPs included Eleanor Laing, Caroline Spelman and … Theresa May. Some already had a public presence; others were less established in their careers and from a wide variety of backgrounds. The impression was that they tended to be slightly older than their male counterparts and to have had more experience of elected office (in local government) and the public and voluntary sector. Suddenly, the Commons appeared a more welcoming, more diverse space. This was the first change of government for 18 years, and long-serving MPs were replaced by new faces and new accents.

The unprecedented numbers of women MPs coincided with a major change in the provision of information to members. The internet and emails came into their own during the 1997-2001 parliament. So it can be difficult to disentangle the two developments. Inevitably, the culture of the Commons changed as the provision of information by electronic means became widespread, and debates in the Chamber could be watched in MPs’ offices. Portcullis House opened in February 2001, providing a significant increase in office and committee room space, and creating a lasting change in the day to day operation of MPs, as they interacted with each other, and with staff, in its sunlit atrium. The number of senior Commons staff who were female began to increase too, although the first woman Commons Librarian, Jennifer Tanfield, had already been appointed back in 1993.

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More female candidates have been selected but the gender balance of the House of Commons is likely to be little changed after June 8

In this post Agnes Magyar and Jennifer Hudson show that although the main parties have selected more female candidates for the June 8 election than in 2015, the proportion selected in non-held marginal seats is little changed. Drawing on Chris Hanretty’s election forecast they suggest that there may be little or no improvement in the gender balance of the House of Commons. If the result matched Hanretty’s forecast (as of 12 May) 194 female MPs would be elected, three more than in 2015 but two fewer than the number when parliament was dissolved.

At the 2015 general election 191 female MPs were elected, resulting in a more gender balanced House of Commons than ever before. Yet, despite significant progress, women comprised just 30% of all MPs at the time of dissolution. In a blog last week, we argued – as have others – that the snap election and the centralised selection processes that took place, provided parties with the opportunity to address to further address the imbalance, should they choose to do so. Maria Miller, Chair of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee – noted: ‘We heard a lot of encouraging promises when we took evidence on this last year from leadership figures in the Conservatives, Labour Party, SNP and the Liberal Democrats, but we expressed concern that warm words had not yet resulted in concrete strategies to deliver more women candidates, particularly in winnable seats.’

The concern that parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats is not new and was highlighted by Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs following the 2010 general election. With candidates now selected, we look to see whether parties took advantage of the opportunity, and whether women candidates were selected in parties’ winnable seats.

Selecting women candidates in the snap election

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have gone about increasing their numbers of female MPs in different ways. Labour introduced all-women shortlists (AWS) in 1997 – tripling their number of female MPs as a result and establishing a leading position among parties with respect to the number of female candidates elected to parliament. Gender quotas, highly controversial at that time, have not ceased to be subject to debate. Yet, by now all major parties have come to advocate, one way or another, a fairer balance between men and women in the Commons. Following years of reluctance the Liberal Democrats have now adopted AWS, following the return of an all-male group of MPs in 2015 after the loss of the majority of their seats. The Conservatives have rejected AWS, instead relying on Women2Win, an organisation founded by Theresa May and Baroness (Ann) Jenkin in 2005, to identify, motivate and train female parliamentary candidates.

One way to look at the parties’ progress in selecting women candidates is to look at new seats, i.e. seats they do not currently hold. As Table 1 shows, the number of female candidates nominated for new seats by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats has changed very little from 2015 to 2017. Women candidates make up between 28% and 37% of all new selections for each party across these two elections, but only the Lib Dems have increased the proportion of women selected, from 28% in 2015 to 30% in 2017. But with as many as 163 female incumbents re-standing between the three parties, the overall proportion of female candidates for Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems has risen from 29% to 33%.

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Select committees and the snap general election

In this post, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon discusses the impact of the snap general election on House of Commons select committees. He notes that although many committees produced several reports between the announcement of the election and dissolution, many inquiries were left unfinished. All evidence already collected will remain publicly available but there is no guarantee inquiries will be resumed, especially where a new chair is elected.

One feature of the announcement of a general election is always the loss of some legislation which had not completed its passage through parliament. But what of uncompleted select committee inquiries? Bills which did not through by cross-party agreement in the dying days of the parliament may well be revived in the new parliament, especially if the same party remains in government. The same does not apply to select committee inquiries.

Two years into a parliament, select committees will have up to a dozen inquiries, announced and at different stages, on their work programme. The snap election was announced on Tuesday 18 April and the House of Commons sat for the last time on Thursday 27 April – very little time in which committees could wrap up current inquiries. Only reports fully drafted and on the point of agreement can be finished. This leaves, for each of the 30 or so committees, several inquiries on which evidence has been taken and others which are just being started.

It is nonetheless impressive that several committees managed to agree and publish three or more reports in the dying days of the 2015–17 parliament. All credit to Defence, Education and Justice for producing three reports each but the prize must go to Work and Pensions, with five reports out in the last week – Frank Field was probably the outstanding chair of the 2015-17 parliament.

As a committee clerk, working with the chair to plan the committee programme, I often lived with the uncertainty in the fourth year of a parliament about when exactly an election would be called. The only other panic was in the autumn of 2007 when Gordon Brown had his Grand Old Duke of York moment about a sudden election.

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Is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act a dead letter?

The ease with which Theresa May was able to secure an early dissolution last week has led to suggestions that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 serves no useful purpose and should be scrapped. Drawing on wider evidence of how fixed-term parliaments legislation works in other countries, Robert Hazell argues that there is a danger that it is being judged prematurely, on the basis of a single episode. Future circumstances in which a Prime Minister seeks a dissolution may be different, and in these cases the Fixed-term Parliaments Act may serve as more of a constraint.

On 19 April the House of Commons voted by 533 votes to 13 to support the Prime Minister’s motion for an early general election, easily surpassing the two-thirds threshold required for dissolution under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. In the preceding debate Conservative MPs such as Sir Edward Leigh and Jacob Rees-Mogg argued that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act served no useful purpose, and should be scrapped; while others such as Peter Bone said that it demonstrated the Act was working. Which of them is right? Was this a vindication of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, in allowing a degree of flexibility, with the formal decision to hold an early election now being made by parliament, and not the executive? Or did it show that the Act is an emperor without clothes, as Sir Edward Leigh put it, because no opposition party can ever be seen to vote against the prospect of an early election?

There is a risk of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act being judged prematurely, on the basis of a single episode. This blog draws on a wider evidence base of how fixed term parliaments legislation works in other countries, set out in our 2010 report on fixed-term parliaments.  Almost all European countries have fixed terms, and in the Westminster world fixed-terms have recently been introduced in Canada, as well as most of the Canadian provinces, and most of the Australian states; only the Australian federal parliament, New Zealand and Ireland have no fixed-term laws, but in Australia and New Zealand the maximum term is three years. These countries show varying degrees of flexibility, with differing safety valves for extraordinary dissolution.

Mid-term dissolution is the most crucial aspect of any fixed term parliament law, balancing the need for government stability against democratic accountability. Key considerations are how and by whom dissolution may be initiated, what threshold must be reached, and any limitations on the process. The coalition government in 2010 initially proposed a 55 per cent threshold for dissolution, but that proposal was widely misunderstood to apply to no confidence motions as well. In introducing the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, Nick Clegg set the record straight, explaining that no confidence motions would still require a simple majority; but raised the bar for government initiated dissolutions to two thirds of all MPs, based on the two thirds requirement in the devolution legislation. The justification for a higher threshold for government-initiated dissolution is that it should make it impossible for governments to call an early election without significant cross-party support.

But such a dual threshold is rare in other parliaments. Figure 1 sets out the threshold requirements for dissolution and confidence motions elsewhere in Europe.  In all cases the threshold for a no confidence motion is a simple or absolute majority (an absolute majority being of the total number of MPs, rather than of those voting). In those cases where dissolution can be triggered by a parliamentary vote, the threshold is the same

Figure 1. Source: K. Strøm et al, Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Table 4.12.

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The government’s ‘English votes for English laws’ review: an assessment

Last Thursday the government published its technical review of the operation of the ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) procedures in the House of Commons. The review concluded against making ‘any substantive changes’. Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that this is a missed opportunity. The decision to close down this chance for parliament to engage in meaningful debate about the EVEL system is regrettable, and may prove to be short-sighted.

Last week the government published the conclusions of its long-awaited technical review of the operation of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). This system, designed by the government and introduced in the House of Commons in October 2015, provides English (and sometimes English and Welsh) MPs with a veto over certain legislation that applies only in that part of the UK. (For a reminder of how the EVEL process works, see here.) The government’s review is 12 pages in length, and provides a fairly perfunctory response to some of the main criticisms made of this system. Ultimately, however, it concludes against making ‘any substantive changes’ to the procedures.

That the government has decided to stick with this largely unloved set of procedures is no real surprise, given the defensive stance it has consistently taken on the matter. But the decision to publish its review findings on 30 March – the morning after the triggering of Article 50, the day of the publication of the Great Repeal Bill white paper, and on the final day of Commons business before recess – ensured that its appearance was barely noticed by media and political parties, and suggests a desire to avoid reopening political debate about EVEL. The government’s unwillingness to commit to making even small adjustments, including those recommended by the cross-party Commons Procedure Committee, is also regrettable, and will do little to reassure those already suspicious of the Conservative Party’s motives on this score.

Ever since the idea of introducing special procedures to deal with English-only legislation emerged on the political agenda, in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, it has been the source of extensive debate and some controversy. Unlike other critics, we have ourselves set out the case for attempting to introduce measures of this kind. As we put it in our recent report, Finding the Good in EVEL, ‘the system introduced by the government can be regarded as a positive innovation’. We have also argued that many of the criticisms commonly made of this scheme are less persuasive than they first appear, in large part due to the specific way in which the government has designed the new system.

However, we also highlighted several weaknesses in the current scheme, including its complexity, its failure to give England a meaningful ‘voice’, and its lack of legitimacy. And the research we have undertaken leads us to conclude that the government’s review has not succeeded in rectifying these problems.

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Taking back control? Initial thoughts on the Great Repeal Bill white paper

In the newly published Great Repeal Bill white paper, the government makes much of the theme ‘taking back control’. But the paper’s content does little to alleviate the fear that it is the executive, not parliament, that will benefit from the Great Repeal Bill process. The Hansard Society’s Ruth Fox has five initial questions raised by the white paper.

1/ When will the parliamentary votes on any Brexit deal be held?

The white paper seems to reveal confusion in the government’s position regarding the timing of the votes that it has promised both chambers of parliament on the Brexit deal. In the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech and at the start of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill second reading debate on 31 January the government said that the votes would be held before the deal ‘comes into force’. By the second day of the bill’s committee stage on 7 February, the government said that it would bring forward a motion to approve the deal ‘before it is concluded’. In the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday and her foreword to the white paper today, she reverted to the original ‘before it comes into force’ position. But paragraph 1.19 of the white paper reintroduces ‘before it is concluded’. This may be carelessness, but the two phrases could mean very different things. Parliament now needs urgently to clarify with the government when exactly in the process it plans to put any final Brexit deal to the vote.

2/ Is the government’s description of the delegated legislation process accurate?

On page 23 of the white paper, the government states that parliamentary procedures allow parliament to scrutinise as many or as few statutory instruments as it sees fit, and notes that parliament can and regularly does both debate and vote on secondary legislation.

What the white paper omits to mention, however, is that secondary legislation subject to the negative scrutiny procedure (the majority of this type of legislation) can only be debated if an MP ‘prays’ against it via an Early Day Motion (EDM). Even then, whether it is debated lies in the hands of the government, not parliament. Paragraph 3.21 states that under the negative procedure members of either chamber can ‘require’ a debate and if necessary a vote. In fact, they can ‘request’ these, but they cannot ‘require’ them. The government controls the parliamentary timetable in the House of Commons, and it must therefore agree to grant the time for any debate. In the last parliamentary session, MPs debated just 3 per cent of the 585 negative instruments laid before them. And although the Leader of the Opposition and his front bench colleagues tabled 12 prayer motions for a debate, just five were granted.

Sometimes the government doesn’t prevent a debate but runs down the clock and builds in delays that minimise the ability of MPs to revoke a regulation. In the last week alone, the opposition had to secure an emergency debate under Standing Order 24 in order to debate the new Personal Independence Payment Regulations. 179 MPs from eight different parties prayed against the SI via an EDM, but the government only scheduled a debate for 19 April, 16 days after the ‘praying against’ period would have expired. This makes revocation difficult. The emergency debate was a means to air the issues before the annulment period came to an end, but it had no force, as there was no substantive vote on the regulations.

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Brexit at Westminster: can parliament play a meaningful role?

On March 13 the Constitution Unit hosted a seminar on Brexit at Westminster, exploring the role parliament has played in the lead up to the triggering of Article 50 and that it might play in the forthcoming negotiations. The panel consisted of Hilary Benn, Chair of the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee; Arnold Ridout, Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons; and Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner, Liberal Democrat peer and Chair of the Financial Affairs Sub-Committee of the House of Lords EU Committee. Ascher Nathan reports.

Introducing this seminar on Brexit at Westminster, Constitution Unit Director Meg Russell remarked on the perfect timing: the Article 50 Bill would have its final votes that evening. Despite earlier concerns that parliament would be shut out from any influence over Brexit it has played a central role in the lead up to the triggering of Article 50 through debates, questions, the work of select committees and, following the judgement in the Miller case, the passage of the Article 50 Bill. The next big piece of legislation will be the ‘Great Repeal Bill’. Thus, the answer to the question of whether parliament can play a meaningful role in Brexit should be considered as a resounding ‘yes’ – it has already begun to do so. And yet if the Miller case and subsequent events have been a reminder about the role parliament can play, questions still remain about exactly how it will influence debates going forward.

The three speakers each brought a different perspective. Hilary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central, has served as a cabinet and shadow cabinet minister and is now Chair of the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee. Arnold Ridout is Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons, and legal adviser on EU matters to the Commons select committees. Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner, a Liberal Democrat peer, sits on the Lords EU Committee and chairs its Financial Affairs Sub-Committee.

Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn explained that the Exiting the EU Committee was a mixed group of Leavers and Remainers and thus his role as chair was to establish consensus and direct their work in a constructive manner. In what he described as the most complex trade negotiations since the end of World War II, with the Great Repeal Bill to be an ‘enormously daunting task for any government,’ Benn pledged that parliament would ‘not be a bystander’ and intended instead to be a key participant in the policy process. Fundamentally, he challenged the government claim that persistent parliamentary involvement in the negotiations would undermine ministers’ position and lead to bad deals, noting Nick Clegg’s comment that the government’s position implied that only dictatorships were in a position to make treaties.

For Benn, the complexity of Brexit was a great challenge. He talked at length of numerous examples of areas where exiting the EU would prove difficult: passporting for financial services; regulation of medicines (where pharmaceutical companies will seek approval in the largest markets first) resulting in UK patients accessing them later; the regulation of data handling between states. Whilst this is a huge challenge for government, it is equally difficult for the Brexit select committee to address in the limited time available, as well as challenging for the EU. Benn agreed with the government’s position in favouring parallel negotiations for the divorce settlement and the new framework because the eighteen-month window given by Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, is so tight. Benn thinks it will be ‘impossible’ to agree a comprehensive trade negotiation in the time available and so called for a transitional agreement to be drafted.

Finally, he discussed the Great Repeal Bill, and the nature of the detail that should be scrutinised. He called for openness by government on both the negotiations regarding transitional arrangements, and the divorce settlement itself (whilst anticipating that much of this information may be gleaned through the ‘leakiness’ of Brussels). He wanted to see a white paper on the Great Repeal Bill, and information on how subsequent legislation will be formulated: will it largely be secondary legislation, authorised by Henry VIII clauses? Benn was concerned by the fact that so far government had had to be ‘pushed and cajoled’ into understanding that parliament would not be bystander: ‘We are not a string, we are very attached to our democracy … and we intend to do our job.’

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