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.

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Labour’s unavoidable English question

In 2015, the Conservative government implemented ‘English votes for English laws’ (or EVEL) in the House of Commons as a way of responding to the ‘English question’. Labour, by contrast, has had relatively little to say in this area – but were the party to form a government in the near future, it would be required to take some tough decisions. In this post, Michael Kenny assesses the possible routes forward for how Labour might respond to EVEL, in particular, and broader questions about English governance and devolution across the UK.

Brexit and its potential implications saturate British politics. But attention has lately shifted away from some of the complex constitutional questions which were aired in the days and months before the UK’s negotiations with the EU began. These include the thorny issue of how the UK government will handle the very different perspectives on Brexit which are held by the governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – which will move back to the foreground when the government formally requests the consent of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill currently passing through the Westminster parliament. Whether Labour in Wales and Scotland opt to oppose Brexit will be of particular importance in political terms.

A related, but distinct, issue which all of the main parties will have to consider soon is how those parts of the complex body of coming legislation which affect England in distinct ways, will fare. And this in a context where it is still taken as given, in Westminster at least, that the UK government can represent the interests of the entire UK and England at the same time, even when the current administration depends for its survival upon a small party that is based in Northern Ireland only.

The previous Conservative government introduced a complex and convoluted system – known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) – to handle such legislation, and sought to make political capital out of its ability to answer the English question – one of the great Cinderella issues of British politics.

Whether these opaque rules will be enough to deal with the increasingly political character of English national identity is a moot point. But in EVEL and the patchwork model of metro mayors and newly created combined authorities it has created, the government at least has something to say on the subject of English devolution (even if what Theresa May herself thinks about these changes remains a well-kept secret).

Labour, in contrast, seems to have little to say in this area – aside from promising a constitutional convention which feels like a fig leaf, rather than a signal of intent.

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Why do government MPs rebel more? Strategic party disloyalty in the House of Commons

Despite high overall levels of party cohesion, rebellions occur relatively frequently in the House of Commons. In a new paper Jonathan Slapin, Justin Kirkland, Joseph Lazarro, Patrick Leslie and Tom O’Grady examine rebellions in the period from 1992 to 2015. They find that rebellion is much more common among government than opposition MPs and suggest that this is because disobeying the party whip is a strategic act, used by MPs to differentiate themselves from their party when this is most electorally useful. Tom O’Grady summarises here.

The history of the Westminster parliament is full of colourful rogues whose independence from party leaders seems to endear them to the public. MPs like Dennis Skinner, who have often rebelled against their party leaders – and use parliamentary speeches to emphasise their independence – seem to have a special place in British voters’ hearts. This is increasingly backed up by academic evidence. When survey respondents are asked to pick between potential MPs, they tend to opt for candidates who won’t just slavishly toe the party line. The public seems to likes independence in it MPs, and wants to see more of it. This begs the question of why MPs choose to rebel, and how constitutional features encourage or discourage MPs from going alone. Our new paper sheds new light on this question by examining rebellions and speeches in the House of Commons from 1992 to 2015, encompassing Conservative, Labour and coalition governments. The key pattern that we highlight is that opposition parties experience far fewer rebellions than governing parties.

This isn’t driven by what might seem, at first glance, like the most obvious explanation: perhaps governments experience rebellion simply because governing parties are larger and more ideologically diverse. Instead, we compare rebellious behaviour amongst individual MPs when they are in government to rebellions by the very same MP when they are in opposition. In fact, the same MPs rebel much more often when in government. We measure MPs’ ideological positions, too, and demonstrate that these patterns are driven by the most ideologically extreme MPs, whose behaviour changes the most from government to opposition (the recent period under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party is an important exception – which I return to below). Moreover, when rebellious MPs dissent, they do it loudly and publicly when in government, but quietly and privately when in opposition. We find that the most rebellious MPs devote nearly three times as many parliamentary speeches to explaining their rebellious votes in government than they do when in opposition.

Take Phillip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering. During the 2010-15 coalition government, he was the most rebellious MP in the House of Commons, rebelling on 19.9% of total votes, a remarkable figure in Westminster where party cohesion is typically very high. He rebelled despite the fact that the vast majority of the government’s agenda moved policies in his preferred ideological direction. He was even willing to rebel against his party on votes containing core conservative principles, saying that they did not go far enough. In 2013, he went so far as to vote against the Queen’s speech. It was the first rebellion by government MPs against their own agenda since 1946. Hollobone, along with three other Conservative MPs, instead put forward an ‘alternative Queen’s speech’ outlining policies such as bringing back the death penalty, privatising the BBC, and banning the Burqa. But when the Conservatives were in opposition facing a Labour government, he rebelled against his own party leadership almost five times less, just 4.3% of the time. Why is this the case?

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Legislation at Westminster – and how parliament matters more than many people think

The Westminster parliament is famous throughout the world, but often presented as relatively non-influential when it comes to making the law. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover‘s new book Legislation at Westminster is the most detailed study of the British legislative process for over 40 years, and challenges these assumptions. Here the authors summarise their findings on how different groups of actors at Westminster exercise subtle and interconnected influence, contributing to what they dub ‘six faces of parliamentary power’.

The Westminster parliament inhabits one of the most famous buildings in the world – emblematic both of Britain and of stable democracy. Yet when it comes to policy-making, and particularly to making the law, many see Westminster as relatively non-influential. In the popular media, parliament is frequently portrayed as a mere ‘rubber stamp’, where a docile Commons majority approves what government puts before it. Among academic authors views are generally more nuanced, but a mainstream public policy textbook nonetheless claims that ‘parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’, while a recent British politics textbook suggests that ‘the House of Commons is misunderstood if viewed as a legislator’. Even scholars who celebrate parliament present the early stages of initiating and formulating legislation as ‘overwhelmingly a government-centred activity’. Despite the ostensibly central role of the ‘legislature’ in the legislative process, these specialists instead emphasise parliament’s other crucial functions, such as representation, scrutiny and legitimation.

Perhaps because it is thought likely to be fruitless, but also due to the painstaking work involved, until recently no large-scale study had been conducted on influence in the Westminster legislative process since Griffith’s classic 1974 Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills. Griffith’s key finding was that many government amendments proposed to bills in parliament in fact responded to earlier proposals from non-government parliamentarians – showing that influence was more complex than it seemed. A major Constitution Unit project, funded by the Nuffield foundation, sought to explore how these dynamics may have changed, and specifically whether the ‘rubber stamp’ claim is correct. Our early quantitative results, based on study of over 4000 amendments to 12 case study bills passing through parliament during the period 2005-12, showed that it was not. The majority of government amendments with substance were traceable to parliamentary pressure, while the ‘failure’ of non-government amendments could not be taken at face value. Our newly-published book, Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law, tells a fuller story, drawing not only on amendment analysis, but also wider documentary analysis, and over 100 interviews with those closely involved in the passage of the 12 bills.

Part of the difficulty in assessing parliamentary influence is common perceptions of power. Looking for on-the-record changes wrought by parliament provides only a very narrow view. But it is often acknowledged in the politics and international relations literature that power takes many forms. One classic account suggests that it has three distinct faces, others that it has four or more; there are notions of hard and soft power, persuasive versus coercive power, and the ability to exercise power both positively and negatively. Such alternative conceptions have rarely been teased apart when discussing the power of parliaments.

Our study is organised by the various ‘actors’ in the policy process at Westminster, each of whom has a dedicated chapter. After introducing the basics of the legislative process and the case study bills, we go on to describe, using numerous quotations and examples, the diverse contributions that these actors make. This post provides a very short summary of our findings.

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Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings: parliament’s bark delivers a stronger bite than MPs realise

For the past decade House of Commons select committees have held pre-appointment scrutiny hearings with preferred candidates for some of the most senior public appointments. Many select committee chairs and members consider these to be a waste of time because there is no power of veto. However, research published in a new Constitution Unit report suggests that they have much more influence than committees realise. Robert Hazell outlines these findings.

Although little remarked upon at the time, one of Gordon Brown’s more significant constitutional reforms was the introduction of pre-appointment scrutiny hearings. Following his 2007 White Paper The Governance of Britain, the government agreed that candidates for 50 of the most senior public appointments would be scrutinised by the relevant select committee before the government confirmed their appointment. Some select committee chairs and members consider such hearings a waste of time, because they have no power of veto; but Constitution Unit research has shown that they have more influence than select committees realise.

In the last ten years select committees have conducted just over 90 pre-appointment hearings (for a full list see here). The Constitution Unit has conducted two evaluations of their effectiveness: first in 2009, studying the first 20 hearings; and second in 2016-17, when we looked at the next 71. We found three cases where the candidate withdrew following a critical hearing; and two instances where statements or disclosures at a hearing subsequently triggered a resignation. So pre-appointment scrutiny undoubtedly has an impact, even though committees have no formal power of veto: they are an important check on the integrity and effectiveness of senior public appointments, and a curb against ministers abusing their powers of patronage. And their effectiveness cannot be measured solely by the number of negative reports – the select committee hearings also help to deter ministers from putting forward candidates who would not survive this additional public scrutiny.

The puzzle remains that select committee chairs do not recognise how much influence they wield. There are two reasons for this. First, the baleful example of Washington: when pre-appointment scrutiny was introduced, many MPs anticipated that the hearings would be like confirmation hearings in the US Senate, which does have a power of veto. Second, although pre-appointment scrutiny does provide an important check, it is rare for an individual committee or chair to have experience of thwarting an appointment: there have only been five such cases in the last ten years. So for most committees, most of the time, pre-appointment scrutiny can feel like a bit of a chore.

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2017 select committee chair elections: a short guide

The new parliament is the third in which chairs will be elected by the whole House. These elections take place on Wednesday, with 28 chairs to be elected (though only 11 are being contested). Andrew Kennon discusses these elections and some of the trends that have developed over the seven years the system has been in operation.

Wednesday 12 July could prove to be the next best indicator (after the votes on the Queen’s speech) of how effective the new House of Commons will be at performing its constitutional role. It is the day when 28 people will be elected by their fellow MPs to chair select committees in these tumultuous times. No other parliament in the world has yet entrusted the choice of committee chairs to a secret ballot of all MPs. The system was the unexpected outcome of the expenses scandal and the imagination of the resulting reform committee, chaired by Tony Wright MP, to find ways of rebuilding the reputation of the House of Commons.

Direct elections

Chairs of select committees were first elected by the whole House in 2010 and then again in 2015, so the system is still fairly new. But members have quickly learnt how to get the best out of the system. Notably members of newer intakes have used the elections to ensure that their generation does not have to wait decades for their share of the spoils. Chair by-elections in 2014 saw two of the 2010 intake, Sarah Wollaston and Rory Stewart, securing the chairs of the Health and Defence committees, and other members of the 2010 intake were elected to chairs in 2015. It would be good to see more of the 2010 MPs taking the helm of committees now and some of the more recent arrivals staking a strong claim. The last thing we need is an American approach of longevity as the determinant of chairmanships

The distribution of chairs between parties in 2017, based on their strengths in the House, is only slightly changed since that of 2015 – the Conservatives have given up the chair of the Science and Technology Committee to the Liberal Democrats. It would have been possible, within the same number, for a more imaginative re-distribution of committees between parties to have taken place. This would certainly have occurred if there had been a change of party in government.

Term limits

There are term limits for select committee chairs and this rule will bite unexpectedly as a result of the early general election. Several chairs first elected in 2010 will – if re-elected again now – have to stand down in mid-2018 under the current rule, causing by-elections for those chairs. Some that this would have applied to are not running again but Clive Betts (Communities and Local Government), David TC Davies (Welsh Affairs), Sir Kevin Barron (Standards) and Bernard Jenkin (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs) are offering themselves for re-election. Three of these have now been re-elected unopposed but Clive Betts faces a challenge – with the exception of Ian Mearns, on the Backbench Business Committee, all other Labour incumbents are elected unopposed.

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