Labour’s ‘motion for a return’: what and why?

Opposition days have become a source of controversy in the early months of the 2017 parliament, with government MPs repeatedly abstaining on Labour motions. Such motions are usually non-binding. However, last week Labour attempted a different approach, tabling what is called a ‘motion for a return’. Andrew Defty explains what happened.

An opposition day debate last Wednesday saw the Labour Party deploy an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure which may force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies. By means of a little-known procedure called a motion for a return, Labour transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House. Labour’s approach caused some confusion in the House of Commons and had parliamentary observers reaching for a copy of Erskine May in order to determine what exactly had happened and what it meant. This post examines the background to Labour’s parliamentary trap and the implications for the government.

The government’s approach to opposition days

The background to what happened on Wednesday lies in the government’s approach to opposition day debates in this parliament. Opposition days provide a rare opportunity for opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. There are 20 opposition days in each parliamentary session. These are usually divided between opposition parties, in the last session Labour had 17 of these while three were allocated to the SNP. Each day is then often divided in two to allow for more subjects to be debated. On Wednesday last week, Labour tabled two motions for discussion, one dealing with armed forces pay and the other on the release of the Brexit impact studies.

Opposition days provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion on a subject they consider to be important. Government ministers must come to the House and respond to the motion, speaking at the beginning and end of the debate. The government may also table an amendment in an attempt to overturn the motion, usually by changing its meaning. There is usually then a vote. Governments with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition day motion, but even if a government is defeated, opposition day motions are non-binding and the government is not required to respond or make any policy changes as a result.

In the current parliamentary session the government has decided to adopt a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. Although ministers come to the chamber to respond and Conservative MPs participate in opposition day debates, Conservative MPs, presumably under instruction from the Whips, have not been voting against the opposition motion. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but are almost certainly a consequence of governing without a majority. It certainly saves the government from going to the trouble of marshalling its MPs into the chamber for a non-binding vote which they are likely to lose anyway. It may also be designed to ensure that Labour’s victory in such votes is somewhat pyrrhic. This point was made by the Conservative MP, Peter Bone, following a government defeat on a recent opposition day motion in which Conservative MPs abstained, when he claimed that although the opposition had won the vote, the Conservatives could not be said to have lost.

This strategy of abstaining in votes on opposition day motions has, however, caused some consternation in the chamber of the House of Commons. Following a government defeat on an opposition day motion on universal credit on 18 October, there was criticism from both sides of the House at the government’s decision not to contest the vote in order to enable it to ignore the outcome. The Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, complained that the government’s approach risked reducing the chamber to the level of a ‘university debating society’, adding, ‘what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? Surely when we vote, it should have some effect.’ The Speaker was also particularly exercised by the government’s apparent neglect of Parliament, noting that, ‘it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion’ and that it would be ‘respectful to the House’ if a minister were to come to the House and explain the government’s thinking.

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A helping hand? Tracking changes in support to all-party parliamentary groups since 2001

There are now over 600 All-Party Parliamentary Groups in the UK parliament, with the number having more than doubled since 1997. In this post Paul Thomas discusses the monetary and in-kind support these informal groups receive, suggesting that most could not operate without it. He compares information about APPGs in 2001 and 2017, finding that the level of support from NGOs and charities has increased significantly. This may go someway to explaining the growth in APPG activity.

In addition to the formal system of cross-party select committees, Westminster is home to a vast number of informal bodies known as all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) that bring together MPs and peers from different parties to collaborate on issues of shared concern. APPGs have attracted increased media and political attention in recent years due to their explosive rate of growth, increasing policy advocacy, and concerns about the support they receive from external stakeholders. At present, this external assistance is estimated to be worth nearly £6 million per year, and critics are especially concerned about the potential influence of corporations or business groups on APPG activities.

As part of a broader research project comparing the growth and influence of APPGs in Canada and the UK, I examined whether these three trends are related – that is, whether the recent growth of British APPGs results from increased interest from external stakeholders who see the groups as vehicle to influence policy. My findings indicate that external support, and especially the rising support from charities and NGOs, has indeed contributed to the expansion of APGs in recent years. Moreover, much of the growth in support for APPGs has been through in-kind contributions, which often includes outside organizations managing group activities and writing their reports. These results suggest that concerns over corporate influence on APPGs may be somewhat misplaced, with NGOs and charities not only providing more funds that corporations or business associations, but doing so in a way that makes it easier for them to influence APG activities.

An introduction to all-party parliamentary groups

APPGs are divided into two main types: those focused on relations with other countries, and subject groups that deal with specific policy issues, regions of the UK, or stakeholder communities. The first APPG, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, was established in the 1930s. The number in operation then grew steadily over the following decades to reach 242 in 1996. However, following the 1997 election this growth accelerated, with the total hitting 592 prior to the 2010 election. While slowing, as shown in Figure 1, this expansion continues, especially among subject groups. There were 631 APPGs registered in May 2017: 132 country groups, 496 subject groups, and three sports clubs (for ease of analysis, these clubs are considered with the subject groups).

APPGs have no formal role in the parliamentary processes for either scrutiny or legislation. Many are largely passive, serving to facilitate the exchange of information between and among parliamentarians and stakeholders through e-mail lists or occasional receptions. Yet a growing number have distinct policy objectives or agendas. These groups employ a variety of tools to achieve their goals, with their members sponsoring parliamentary debates, conducting select committee-style inquiries, and introducing private members’ bills. While determining the exact reasons behind a government decision can be challenging, pressure from APPGs has contributed to policy changes in areas as diverse as cyclingtobacco control, fuel duty, and the prevention of anti-Semitism.

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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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