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. 

The diversity of priorities for MPs affects scrutiny in different ways. Most notably, MPs’ styles of scrutiny push accountability in particular directions and may mean that the focus of reports could be skewed. Committees therefore depend on MPs knowing which style to adopt – acting as specialist, for example, when holding civil servants to account, but as learners when they want to gain information about a topic from academic witnesses. In my book, I particularly draw attention to two ways in which the beliefs and practices of MPs (and officials) affect committee work: evidence gathering and consensus building.

First, the book looks at how committees seek to gather evidence. Continuing the metaphor of a play, gathering evidence is a political performance in which committee members have their time in the limelight to promote their stylised versions of scrutiny. They work alongside committee officials, who become stage directors and production managers; who write briefing papers that act as loose scripts for MPs; and who ensure that witnesses – the perceived stars of the show – are willing to attend a committee hearing in the first place. Indeed, the work of officials, predominantly conducted backstage, can be just as important in making scrutiny happen as the MPs themselves, with most committee members relying on the deftness and skills of committee staff to keep the show running. 

Second, I also look at how MPs seek to build effective relationships. This is important because, traditionally, committees seek to publish reports with the agreement of all members of the committee. How do they do this? One interviewee spoke to me about ‘norms of civility’ that sustain partnership and collaboration across parliament. Effective relationships are key to good scrutiny because they ensure that MPs are able to respect and trust each other, without fear that one or another will undermine them. These everyday behaviours are often overlooked because they seem mundane, routine and inconsequential. However, they add up. And it is through their daily negotiations with each other that MPs are bound together and work with each other in good faith.

While I draw attention to evidence gathering and relationship building, the intention of Dramas at Westminster is to highlight the power of ideas, beliefs and the ‘everyday’ in affecting select committees more broadly. The book demonstrates the multi-purpose role of select committees in structuring parliamentary life, in which I find that committees allow MPs to learn about policy, act as information gathering tools for Parliament, help to socialise MPs into the conventions and procedures of the House, can allow for opportunities for MPs to test lines of inquiry to use elsewhere, and so on. While committees serve different roles, they are also under pressure from the multiple demands of work placed on MPs, from the short timeframes and reactive nature of much scrutiny work, and from changing membership of committees. 

Ultimately, the aim of this book is to provoke a debate about how we study parliaments. I use the metaphor of theatre to highlight that, very often, scrutiny becomes a spectacle or drama (think of the headlines from hearings with Sir Philip Green, for example). If we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

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About the author

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. He uses an interpretive approach to study legislatures, with his most recent book, Dramas at Westminster, now available. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes

Election replay with the experts: looking back at the 2019 general election

luke_moore1_500x625_0.jpgThe 2019 general election is now complete, but there is still plenty to say about the campaign, the rules that governed it, and the new parliament it has produced. Luke Moore summarises the contributions at our final seminar of 2019, where Unit staff were joined by other experts to dicuss the lessons of the election.

On Monday 16 December the Constitution United hosted an event entitled Election Replay with the Experts, at which four leading political scientists, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, looked back on the 2019 general election. The issues discussed included polling, women’s representation, the rules of the electoral game, and the effect of the election on the new parliament. The event was chaired by Unit Research Associate Lisa James

Ben Lauderdale – polling 

Ben Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at UCL, started the evening by discussing the performance of polling at the election. During the election campaign Lauderdale had been involved in producing the much-discussed ‘MRP’ (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling used to predict constituency results. His central message was that after two general elections — in 2015 and 2017 — in which some of the polls proved to be significantly out of step with the results, polling for the 2019 election is largely a non-story, as most pollsters were on target in their predictions. Further, the accuracy of the polls meant that the media was (in retrospect and in Lauderdale’s view) discussing the right topics during the election campaign. The most important of these was the prospect of a Conservative majority, but also the specific demographic and geographic weaknesses of the 2017 Labour coalition. While the terminology was a bit reductive and silly, it was not wrong to have focused on the vulnerability of Labour’s ‘red wall’ and Conservative appeals to ‘Workington man’.  Continue reading

What does the election result mean for territorial representation in the House of Commons?

jack_sheldon.1We have a new parliament, a new majority government and a significant number of new MPs. As Jack Sheldon explains, the distribution of MPs by party is not even across the UK, which could have a significant impact on how the Commons handles key matters related to Brexit and the devolved administrations. 

The general election result has underlined that there are substantially different patterns of electoral competition in each of the four territories that comprise the United Kingdom. For the third consecutive election, a different party secured the most seats and votes in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the large majority secured by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives relied overwhelmingly on an exceptionally strong performance in England – of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, 345 are in England.

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The territorial divergence that the UK’s politics has experienced over recent decades has important implications not just for election outcomes, but for the substantive activity of representation performed by MPs in the House of Commons. MPs often seek to act as ‘territorial representatives’, focusing on the specific concerns of their nation or region. This has not so far received much attention from academics, a gap which my PhD project is seeking to fill by examining the parliamentary behaviour of MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and two English counties, Cornwall and Yorkshire, between 1992 and 2019. Early findings suggest that substantive territorial representation is particularly prevalent among members of nationalist parties and other parties that run candidates only in one territory, but that it is also a relatively common feature of the parliamentary contributions of many members of the UK-wide parties, at least in more recent parliaments. It can take various forms including representation of the material interests, public opinion and culture and/or identity of the territory in question, or of sub-state political institutions. With crucial questions pertaining to the future of the Union set to be up for discussion, how can we expect MPs from the different parts of the UK to go about representing their territories in the new parliament?

England 

Despite being drawn so overwhelmingly from English constituencies, there are few indications that the enlarged group of Conservative MPs will explicitly focus on England as a unit. While the Conservatives introduced English votes for English laws in 2015 and some prominent Conservative MPs have called for an English Parliament in the past, the ‘West Lothian question’ has slipped down the political agenda over the past few years as Brexit has emerged as the dominant issue for the right. That seems unlikely to change now, despite some interest from external commentators such as Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser. Conservative interest in the constitutional English question was always motivatived to a significant extent by concern that a Labour-led government might be able to force through policies applying only to England even though a majority of English MPs were opposed, as happened on a few occasions in the New Labour years. With the Conservatives now having a large majority overall, the political incentive to focus on the English question just isn’t there at the moment. Continue reading

Getting a new parliament up and running: what happens after the election?

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgbeamish.jpg (1)We may not yet know the result of the election, but we do know that we will have a new parliament. David Natzler and David Beamish explain what will happen when the new parliament commences next week. No matter the outcome of today’s vote, certain processes will need to be followed: parliament will need to be officially opened, MPs will need to be sworn in, and committees will need to be re-established — and their members and chairs must be elected.

The dates

The first days of a new parliament follow a well-trodden path, and the surest guide to what will happen is usually to look up what happened last time, in June 2017. However, much depends on the political context. And we will not know that context until the early hours of Friday 13 December at the earliest. All we know for sure is that the new parliament will meet on Tuesday 17 December, and that if the current Prime Minister returns, the State Opening – the start of the new session – will be only two days later, on Thursday 19 December. If there is a hung parliament, the State Opening could be delayed. Continue reading

Enacting the manifesto? Labour’s pledges and the reality of a hung parliament

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgMedia coverage in this election has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour, and their competing policy plans. But a key difference between the parties is that, while a Conservative majority government is clearly possible based on the polls, a Labour majority government is not. Hence a Labour-led government would need to negotiate its policy with other parties, which would soften its stance. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell reflect on the lack of coverage of these questions, and what a Labour-led government would actually look like – in terms of personalities, policies and style.

Consistent opinion poll evidence during the general election campaign suggests that there are two possible outcomes: a majority Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, or a hung parliament. In the event of the latter, Johnson might still remain Prime Minister, but he has few allies – even having alienated Northern Ireland’s DUP. So a hung parliament might well result in a government led by Labour, even if the Conservatives are the largest party. But one thing is clear: nobody is really expecting a Labour majority government. 

Consequently, particularly as the polls have failed to shift into majority Labour government territory during the campaign, it is strange that so little attention has been given to the question of what a Labour-led government might actually deliver in policy terms. To navigate policy through a hung parliament this would need to be accepted by other parties. In some areas – notably the commitment to a referendum on Brexit – the parties agree; but in other areas there may be less agreement. So whilst significant attention has been paid to the radicalism of Labour’s manifesto, a hung parliament – which might lead to a minority Labour government, or less likely (given statements from the Liberal Democrats and SNP) a formal coalition – would inevitably result in some dilution. As noted in the Constitution Unit’s 2009 report on minority government, hung parliaments ‘[entail] a greater degree of compromise and concession than leaders of governments at Westminster are used to’.

Thus focus on Labour’s economic policy – such as its tax or nationalisation plans – might usefully have been tempered by journalists asking questions of the other parties about the extent to which they would accept such plans, or how they might be softened as a result of negotiation. In a country where hung parliaments are more frequent, debate about the likely compromises between parties would be far more upfront during the campaign. Instead, the UK’s legacy of single-party majority government (notwithstanding the fact that this situation has applied for just two of the last nine years) has led to parties and journalists alike avoiding such questions. This, in turn, risks leaving the public ill-informed about the real prospects post-election. Continue reading

The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit Revisited: Questions for the New Parliament

A further referendum on Brexit is central to many parties’ general election pledges. Today, the Constitution Unit launches a new report examining how such a vote might come about and what form it might take. This updates previous work conducted last year. In this post, adapted from the report’s final chapter, Alan Renwick, Meg Russell, Lisa James and Jess Sargeant sum up the key conclusions. They find that, though it would not be without difficulties, a vote on Johnson’s deal may be the quickest option and the one most likely to command public legitimacy. 

The Constitution Unit’s latest report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit Revisited: Questions for the New Parliament, is published today. It significantly updates our previous analysis of the mechanics of a further Brexit referendum, exploring the circumstances that might lead to a further referendum on Brexit, and the form that such a referendum might take. The report does not advocate for or against a referendum, or assess the broader impact that such a vote might have. Rather, it explores the practical implications of the different options: in terms of the processes to bring a referendum about, the standards that it should meet, the options for reforming regulation, and, crucially, the timetable.

The minimum timetable from the point at which parliament decides in principle to hold a referendum to the date on which that referendum is held is roughly 22 weeks – or five months. Claims that organising a referendum would take a year or more are therefore overstated. However, very clearly, a decision to proceed with a referendum would require a further extension to the Article 50 period, which currently expires on 31 January 2020. And there are various factors that could put pressure on the minimum timetable, requiring a somewhat longer period of planning and preparation. This post (adapted from the report’s final chapter) considers how the pieces fit together, and what the overall timetable would likely be. The most obvious implication of this is for the length of Article 50 extension which a future government should request if seeking to hold a referendum.

The report considers the factors which could impinge on the timetable in detail, but in brief they include the following:

  • Is the referendum to be held on a pre-existing Brexit deal, or is time required (as Labour’s policy implies) for further renegotiation before proceeding to a referendum?
  • How contentious would the referendum bill be in parliament? This depends partly on the constellation of parties and groups in the House of Commons after the general election, and also on the content of the bill.
  • What form would the referendum question take? This may be one of the points of contention in parliament. We conclude that a three-option referendum is unlikely. Moving to such a format would slow down the process.
  • To what extent would campaign regulation be tightened up and updated via the referendum bill? Some updating is essential, and could be incorporated within the 22-week timetable. Other more major changes might be desirable, but in the interests of speed would likely be set aside.
  • Would the referendum result be made legally binding? This is not essential, but would be beneficial to provide clarity and certainty for voters. Preparing for a fully legally binding referendum would be likely to take slightly more time.

Continue reading