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.
The Democracy Matters project, which ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year, launched its report at Westminster on 13 April. The launch was celebrated with a panel discussion featuring representatives of seven political parties. John-Paul Saleh reports on the event which saw all of the politicians present voice their support for the citizens’ assembly model.
Politicians, members of the public, academics and journalists gathered in the Palace of Westminster on 13 April for the launch of the report of Democracy Matters, a project that ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year. The report charts the project from its inception through to its completion and includes discussion of its findings and potential implications for constitutional reform. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in democracy in the United Kingdom, and participatory politics in general.
The pilot citizens’ assemblies took place last autumn in two locations: Assembly North in Sheffield and Assembly South in Southampton. The project sought to encourage public participation in a time of increasing democratic inequality, using current developments in devolution as a test case for discussion. It posited that, in order to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making, any new constitutional settlements or devolution proposals should build on deliberative discussions among citizens and between citizens and politicians based on information provided by devolution experts and advocates of different viewpoints.