The Queen’s speech, the Johnson government, and the constitution – lessons from the 2021-22 session

As a new session of parliament commences, Lisa James discusses what constitutional lessons can be learned from its predecessor. She argues that the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms are fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership.

A new parliamentary session began last week, with a Queen’s speech that laid out a highly ambitious volume of new bills. Many of these are likely to prove controversial – including planned constitutional measures.

To assess how the government might proceed, and how this might play out in parliament, it is useful to look back at the 2021-22 session. This was the first of Boris Johnson’s premiership not wholly dominated by Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic – offering insight into both the government’s constitutional agenda, and its broader legislative approach. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has been accused of a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms. In earlier sessions, his supporters could blame the exigencies of Brexit and the pandemic – citing the need for rapid action in the face of fast-moving situations. But the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that these are more fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership. And whilst Johnson has thus far been successful in passing his constitutional legislation, his rocky relationships with both MPs and peers mean that he may face greater difficulties in the future.

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Improving standards of conduct in public life

In November, the Constitution Unit hosted Lord (Jonathan) Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to discuss its new report, ‘Upholding Standards in Public Life’. Lisa James summarises the discussion.

In November, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its report Upholding Standards in Public Life, the result of a year-long review of the system of standards bodies regulating the UK government. Following the report’s publication, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with CSPL’s Chair, Lord (Jonathan) Evans, to discuss the findings. The event also followed closely behind the parliamentary standards scandal over then-MP Owen Paterson, in which the government was forced to U-turn after trying to overturn the House of Commons Standards Committee’s findings against Paterson on allegations of inappropriate lobbying.

The summary below reflects Lord Evans’ remarks and conversation with the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell. A full video of the event, including the audience Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Lord Evans began by introducing CSPL and the reasoning behind the Standards Matter 2 inquiry. CSPL is an independent advisory body, with an independent majority and a minority of party-political members. Established by then Prime Minister John Major in the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal, it was originally conceived as an ‘ethical workshop’ for the public sector. Continuing the metaphor, Lord Evans suggested that CSPL’s recent inquiry might be seen as an ‘MOT’ of the regulatory system for government: a wide-ranging review of the whole system, in an attempt to identify problems and suggest improvements. Focusing on ethical standards, the committee did not recommend radical change, but identified a number of moderate, ‘common-sense’ reforms to strengthen the system. These fell into three broad categories: stronger rules; greater independence for regulators; and a stronger compliance culture within government.

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The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

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MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined

Backbench rebellion over parliament’s sidelining during the COVID-19 pandemic seems set to reach a critical point this week. Meg Russell and Lisa James argue that parliament’s crisis-era marginalisation is real, and part of a longer-running trend. So while government concessions now look likely, MPs should accept them only if they are genuine and comprehensive.

Backbench unease over the government’s treatment of parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to a head. On Wednesday, MPs will debate a motion to renew the government’s powers under the Coronavirus Act. But Conservative MPs’ frustration over the government’s handling of the crisis, and particularly its tendency to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, is increasingly evident. 

Earlier this month Charles Walker, joint Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee and former Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, accused the government of treating its backbenchers like dogs. Similar concerns have appeared in the Telegraph and the Times. Now more than 40 Tory MPs have signed an amendment proposed by 1922 Committee Chair Graham Brady to Wednesday’s motion. This would make continuation of ministerial powers conditional on MPs getting a vote on any future coronavirus-related restrictions – whether made under the Coronavirus Act itself or other legislation (such as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984). The amendment may have no formal legal force, and for procedural reasons might ultimately not be voted upon; but its political significance is clear.

Parliament has been sidelined

MPs have genuine cause for complaint: parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic. The most frequent criticism is over the government’s use of delegated legislation. Numerous coronavirus restrictions have been imposed through regulations subject to limited parliamentary oversight, with debate often scheduled long after the restrictions themselves were announced or came into force. A critical report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) noted how the requirement to wear masks on public transport was announced in a Downing Street press conference on 4 June, coming into force 11 days later; yet it wasn’t debated in the Commons until 6 July. Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings 8 days previously, these were not debated in parliament. Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law points out, the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.

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Has parliament just got boring? Five conclusions from the passage of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act

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The 2019 parliament has passed its first statute: the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Unusually for a major constitutional bill it was approved unamended. Does this demonstrate the shape of things to come, with an enfeebled parliament under Johnson’s majority government? Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that the WAB was not a typical bill, and the circumstances were far from normal. Even under majority government parliament is far from powerless, and the full dynamics of the new situation may take some time to play out.

1. The Act passed easily – but the circumstances were unusual

The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 (the WAA or – before it gained Royal Assent – the WAB) passed with remarkable ease and speed. A 100-page bill implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, it was packed with detailed provisions on everything from citizens’ rights to the operation of the Joint Committee. Nonetheless, following just 11 days’ scrutiny, it passed wholly unamended: five government defeats in the Lords were swiftly overturned when the Bill returned to the Commons.

Comparison with a key previous piece of Brexit legislation – illustrated in the table below – shows how uneventful the WAB’s passage was in relative terms. The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was similar in scope and complexity, but had a far rockier passage. During 36 days’ scrutiny the government was defeated 16 times, including a rare defeat in the Commons. By the time it passed, it had been so heavily amended – by backbenchers, opposition parliamentarians and ministers themselves – that it was 63% longer than when first introduced.

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