Should we worry if MPs seize control of the parliamentary agenda?

download.001Ahead of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit, attention has focused on the rights and wrongs of the House of Commons seeking to ‘seize control’. Meg Russell argues that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.

With stalemate over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejected dramatically by the House of Commons on 15 January by 432 votes to 202, there is increasing talk of parliament ‘seizing control’. On Tuesday, following the Speaker’s controversial decision to allow a vote on Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve’s amendment speeding up the timetable, MPs will vote on a series of propositions about what should happen next. These include a further proposal by Grieve that the government’s usual control of the agenda should be set aside on specified days to allow MPs to make decisions on Brexit, and a proposal from Labour’s Yvette Cooper that such control be set aside to allow time to debate a private member’s bill demanding that ministers avoid a no deal Brexit by requesting an extension to Article 50.

Consequently, some inside government have expressed concerns that the Commons, with the Speaker’s assistance, is overreaching itself. It has been reported that an internal government document warns of MPs’ moves ‘represent[ing] a clear and present danger to all government business’, and even meaning that ‘the government would lose its ability to govern’. One senior legal figure (whose career was spent inside the government) has argued that changes of this kind could set dangerous precedents for the future, even potentially dragging the monarch into a constitutional crisis (though other legal experts have firmly rebutted such claims).

So are we entering dangerous constitutional territory? What is, after all, so odd about the idea of a democratically-elected chamber gaining greater control over its own time, and its own rules? Continue reading

The Business of the House: the role of the clerks in the Speaker’s decision on the Grieve amendment

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214As tensions rise in parliament over Brexit, the role of the Commons clerks has been much discussed. Here, former Clerk of the Committees Andrew Kennon offers a personal insight into how the clerks operate, within the context of  the recent decision of the Speaker on the 9 January Grieve amendment.

In his memoirs, Speaker George Thomas recalled a Member of Parliament in the 1970s who ‘had been told by the clerks that something he wanted to do was out of order because of a private ruling given by Mr Speaker Fitzroy years before the war’. When the Member asked to see the ruling, he was told it had been lost and that the only proof of it was a footnote in Erskine May, which is the official guide to parliamentary practice and procedure.

I recognise this clerkly approach from when I started in the House of Commons in 1977. This incident led Speaker Thomas to decide that all private rulings by the Speaker should be published. For a while, small green volumes of these rulings were produced, but the whole practice has now fallen into disuse.

There was nothing private or secret about Speaker Bercow’s decision on 9 January to select the Grieve amendment requiring the government to come back to the House within three days of any defeat on the Brexit deal (such a defeat came to pass on 15 January). The Speaker’s decision immediately resulted in an hour-long viva on parliamentary procedure in the form of points of order.

It remains to be seen how significant this decision will turn out to be in political terms. The procedural issue at stake is small. But it is when a government does not command a majority in the House that immense political pressure comes to bear on weak links in procedure; sometimes they break. Continue reading

The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)The EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Theresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the ‘Official’ Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the use of the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the ‘Official Opposition’. Hence, the guarantee of questions at PMQs.

Continue reading

What is the Salisbury convention, and have the Lords broken it over Brexit?

downloadThe European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the Commons today for consideration of the numerous amendments made during its eventful passage though the Lords. Some commentators have accused the Lords of exceeding their constitutional authority, with the Salisbury convention being cited in defence of this position. David Beamish discusses how the convention operates and argues that the Lords have not breached it so far.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has prompted much discussion of the role of the House of Lords in passing legislation, including references such as this to the Salisbury convention:

‘ …the Lords has effectively torn up the Salisbury convention: that manifesto promises by the governing party should not be blocked by an unrepresentative upper house’.

That passage, from an article in The Times by Matt Ridley, who sits in parliament as an elected hereditary peer, relates to the amendments made by the Lords to the Withdrawal Bill and in relation to the proposal for a ‘Leveson Two’ inquiry. A day later, Iain Martin wrote in The Times:

‘This week there was the worst illustration of the problem yet. The Commons thought that it had settled the question of press freedom, when it voted against moves to hold yet another inquiry into the press. But the Lords had another go on voting down the government, in breach of the convention that bills which enact manifesto commitments should be passed by the Lords.’

It is perhaps ironic that this ‘convention’ is now being cited in relation to the difficulties which the House is making for a Conservative government. It was originally introduced by a Conservative opposition which dominated the House of Lords following the election in 1945 of a Labour government with a large Commons majority but only a small representation in the Lords, which then consisted entirely of hereditary peers.  Continue reading

Lords Brexit defeats are forcing MPs to face crucial choices

meg-russellOne part of the government’s flagship Brexit legislation is now nearing its parliamentary endpoint after the EU (Withdrawal) Bill completed its report stage in the House of Lords in early May. The UK parliament’s second chamber inflicted 14 government defeats on the bill, which sets out arrangements to facilitate Brexit. It will soon return to the House of Commons for these various issues to be considered. Meg Russell examines some of the issues this may cause for the House of Commons and parliament as a whole.

The Lords’ interventions have led some to claim that this is a “peers versus the people power grab”, or even that the chamber is behaving in an “unconstitutional” manner. But while the current situation may be unusual, it’s not for the reasons many commentators claim.

There have been many past standoffs between governments and the House of Lords, some far more serious than this one. The most famous clashes occurred a century or more ago under Liberal governments, including over the 1832 Great Reform Act and Lloyd George’s 1909 “people’s budget”. The largest recorded annual number of Lords defeats– 126 – occurred under Labour in 1975-76. Defeats under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were commonplace – for example there were 12 on the 2005-6 Identity Cards Bill. Continue reading

Divided but influential? The Exiting the European Union select committee


9caa65f1.ccfa.41f1.b3a9.c215903163f256529dfd.b7ad.416a.959b.ac44a05e40ceThe Select Committee on Exiting the European Union was formed in 2016 following the outcome of the EU referendum. Chaired by former International Development Secretary Hilary Benn, it is in many ways an outlier in the world of Commons committees. Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker discuss what makes it so unusual and analyse how it has operated since its inception.

The Select Committee on Exiting the European Union (the DExEU committee, or Brexit committee) is one of the most divided since the creation of departmental select committees. Select Committees usually operate on a consensual basis, and unanimous reports are regarded as carrying more weight. Most reports are agreed without divisions. But the DExEU committee has seen divisions – formal votes on reports or amendments – on each of its reports, and eurosceptic members produced an alternative draft report in March 2018.

Of the committee’s 21 members, 14 campaigned for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum: six Labour, four Conservative, two SNP, one Liberal Democrat and one Plaid Cymru (see Table 1 below). Seven voted Leave: six Conservatives and one DUP.

Voting on DExEU committee reports

The DExEU and the Northern Ireland select committees are the only ones in which the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) together have a majority. However, they have rarely been able to take advantage of this, because the DExEU committee is not divided primarily along party lines. Continue reading