Report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House of Lords: a real opportunity for progress on reform

Yesterday saw publication of the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords, which recommended moving to a chamber of no more than 600 members, appointed for 15-year terms. This follows years of controversy about the growing size of the Lords, which currently stands at over 800. Sir David Beamish, formerly the most senior official in the House of Lords, argues that the proposals offer the best opportunity for years for some small progress on the knotty issue of Lords reform.

The recommendations of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House of Lords, published yesterday, offer the best opportunity for many years to reform the membership of the House of Lords in a way that can – and should – achieve sufficient consensus across the political spectrum. The committee’s recommendations for reform without the need for legislation are both thoughtful and ingenious.

House of Lords reform has usually been stymied by lack of agreement on what should replace the existing second chamber. It has generally proved impossible to get a majority for any one proposed reform. The most striking exception was the removal of some 650 hereditary peers in 1999, thanks to the 1997 Labour manifesto having included a specific commitment. But that was billed as the first stage of a two-stage reform, and that second stage remains elusive.

The 1999 Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Wakeham, undertook what might be called a ‘zero-based review’ of the second chamber, looking at what functions were appropriate to a second chamber, what powers were needed to perform those functions, and only then how the second chamber should be constituted. It was affirming for the House of Lords that the recommendations on functions and powers were generally for little change – a proposal for a Constitution Committee was quickly implemented without awaiting wider reform – and ever since then the debate on Lords reform has focused primarily on composition. The issue of powers resurfaced briefly after the House upset the Conservative government in October 2015 by failing to approve the Tax Credits (Income Thresholds and Determination of Rates) (Amendment) Regulations, leading to a review by Lord Strathclyde of the Lords’ powers in relation to secondary legislation. However, the Brexit referendum led to a change of priorities, and Lord Strathclyde’s proposals were put on the back burner. With the government’s loss of its Commons majority in June 2017, it seems unlikely that those proposals could now be implemented even if the government wished.

Against a background of no likelihood of major Lords reform in the next few years, the impact on the House of large numbers of appointments of life peers by successive prime ministers (with the honourable exception of Gordon Brown) became a matter of serious concern to members. The increase in numbers led to increased costs, pressure on resources (including seating in the chamber – attendance at prayers boomed when members realised that that was the only way to be sure of a seat at question time), and a significant negative impact on the House’s reputation.

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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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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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Why democrats should welcome a hung parliament

Much commentary has presented the hung parliament that resulted from last week’s general election as a source of damaging instability. In this post Albert Weale argues that democrats should in fact welcome a hung parliament, where a parliamentary majority approves measures on the basis of the merits of the arguments rather than on the basis that they were included in the majority party’s manifesto.

The UK now has a hung parliament. Does that mean that British government is no longer strong and stable but weak and wobbly? To listen to much commentary, you would think so. But for democrats there are good reasons for welcoming a hung parliament.

The prevalent view of parliamentary democracy in Britain runs something like this. General elections are occasions of accountability of governments to the people. Parties stand on their manifestos, and if they secure a majority of seats, their democratic responsibility is to implement what they have promised. Through the Salisbury convention, the House of Lords will not frustrate measures promised in the manifesto. If the people do not like what the governing party has done, they have the opportunity to get rid of that party at the next election.

In this way of thinking, the first-past-the-post electoral system occupies a crucial role. It may not deliver a fair representation of political opinion, at least as judged by the test of proportionality, but it does secure stable government. It magnifies a simple plurality of the popular vote into a majority, often a large majority, of seats in the Commons. With such a majority, a government has no excuse for not implementing the programme for which it has received a mandate. That is simply democracy.

If politics were simply a matter of a contest between left and right, with the two major parties drawn towards the centre ground, this view of democracy might have something to be said for it. In the real world it has nothing to be said for it.

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Managing the new parliament: some challenges for Theresa May’s minority government

The unexpected election result leaves the Conservatives seeking to establish a minority government, with support from the Democratic Unionist Party’s ten MPs. With fewer than half the seats in the House of Commons, and barely more than half when adding the DUP, Theresa May’s new government will face many additional challenges in parliament. Meg Russell explores some of the clearest examples.

Following weeks of speculation about the general election result, few were contemplating the prospect of a minority government led by Theresa May. The Prime Minister proposed the election in the clear expectation of an increased House of Commons majority, citing (in a rather exaggerated manner) difficulties in parliament. Instead she now doesn’t have a majority at all. With one seat still to declare, the Conservatives are on 318 in a 650-number House. Combined others (excluding seven Sinn Féin, who do not take their seats), have 324. May’s government is hence liable to be outnumbered without relying on the support of the 10 DUP members, with whom she has opened talks.

The Prime Minister’s initial statement gave little detail of the form that the relationship with the DUP is likely to take, but it is assumed that she will seek a single-party minority government rather than a formal coalition. The Constitution Unit’s December 2009 report Making Minority Government Work suddenly looks like essential reading, for politicians and politics-watchers alike. As it sets out, there are various options in a situation where a government lacks a single-party majority. One is a formal ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, whereby another party (or parties) pledge to support the governing party (or parties) in confidence votes and on essential funding decisions; another is for the government to simply negotiate support for policies on a case-by-case basis. A coalition is the most formalised arrangement, with both parties signed up to a programme and liable to both have ministers in the government.

Our report emphasised (as repeated more recently on this blog by one of its authors) that minority governments are not unusual in other democracies, and can be relatively stable. Nonetheless, particularly in the UK context where majority governments are the norm, such an arrangement will present a number of fresh (or enhanced) challenges for the government in managing its relationship with parliament. These may affect all kinds of areas of policy; but the Prime Minister will be perhaps most troubled about their impact on the Brexit process.

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The 2017 election manifestos and the constitution

Over the past two weeks the political parties have published their manifestos for the snap general election. In this post Chris Caden and Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir summarise the constitutional content, covering proposals relating to Brexit, the possibility of a constitutional convention, devolution, House of Lords reform, electoral reform, human rights and freedom of information.

Theresa May’s surprise election announcement left the political parties with the challenge of putting together manifestos in a matter of weeks. The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru all published their manifestos in the week beginning 15 May. UKIP followed on 25 May and the SNP on 30 May. With much of the election debate centring on whom the public trust to lead the country through the biggest constitutional upheaval in recent history, Brexit is unsurprisingly covered by all the parties. Attention on other constitutional issues has wavered somewhat as a result, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats both propose a constitutional convention to review aspects of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The manifestos also lay out a variety of options in areas such as House of Lords reform, devolution, electoral reform and human rights.

Brexit

Negotiating Brexit is a major theme for all parties. The Conservative Brexit commitments include ending membership of the single market and customs union so that a greater distinction between ‘domestic and international affairs in matters of migration, national security and the economy’ can be made. This means negotiating a free trade and customs agreement between the UK and EU member states and securing new trade agreements with other countries. Theresa May’s party aims for a ‘deep and special partnership’ with member states. A successful Brexit deal would entail regaining control of borders, reducing and controlling net migration, but maintaining a ‘frictionless’ Common Travel Area for people, goods and services to pass between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The manifesto controversially maintains that ‘no deal’ is better than a bad deal for the UK.

Labour also accepts the referendum result, but rejects ‘no deal’ as a feasible option and envisages something more akin to a ‘soft Brexit’. The party would scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit white paper and replace it with an agreement maintaining the benefits of the single market and customs union; the government’s proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’ would be replaced with an EU Rights and Protections Bill to ensure no changes to workers’ and consumers’ rights, equality law or environmental protections. The party pledges to immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals in the UK and UK citizens in EU countries, and would also seek to remain part of various research and educational projects such as Horizon 2020, Erasmus and the European Medicines Agency. Additionally, membership of organisations like Eurojust and Europol would be retained. Labour commits to no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens pledge a second referendum after a Brexit agreement is concluded, which in each case would include an option on the ballot paper of staying in the EU. Preventing a hard Brexit is the first priority for the Lib Dems and as a result the party promises to fight for the continuation of UK membership of the single market and customs union. It also pledges to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens abroad, to maintain UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme and other EU-funded schemes, and to retain the European Health Insurance Card. The Greens set out a similar agenda.

The SNP wishes to mitigate what they see as the damage of Brexit with the proposal that Scotland should remain in the single market. The party seeks additional powers for the Scottish government including powers that will be repatriated from Brussels to the UK like agriculture, fisheries, environmental protection and employment law. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, pledges to make sure ‘every penny’ of European funding for Wales is replaced by the UK government and that the Welsh share of the money promised by the Leave campaign (referring to the £350 million for the NHS) is delivered. It also demands that the UK government seeks the endorsement of each UK devolved legislature before any trade deal can be signed.

UKIP supports leaving the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. The manifesto outlines that no ‘divorce’ bill should be paid to the EU and that Brexit negotiations will be complete by the end of 2019.

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