Parliament and COVID-19: the Coronavirus Bill and beyond

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgThe Coronavirus Bill introduced by the government last week will be debated by parliament in circumstances where it is harder for both Houses to meet, scrutinise and vote than at any time in recent memory. How should parliament respond to both the legislation and the crisis that prompted it? Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler outlines the key issues facing MPs and peers as they consider how parliament should function in the coming months.

Just as the dust is settling on the first phase of the Brexit marathon, and the Constitution Unit and others are examining the role played by Parliament over the past three years, COVID-19 presents itself wholly unexpectedly as a challenge to all the nation’s institutions. Parliament was settling in for five years of single-party majority government and it looked as if, Brexit deal aside, it would be relatively smooth sailing. Now parliament faces the challenge of fulfilling its role in a COVID-19 environment.

The Coronavirus Bill

The government published its Coronavirus Bill on Thursday 19 March, having already revealed the policy proposals to which it gives effect in its Action Plan (published on 3 March) and a more detailed prospectus (published on 17 March). The bill has 87 clauses and 27 Schedules, totalling 321 pages of legislative text. The Explanatory Notes run to 73 pages, and there is a 31-page long memorandum on the implications for human rights.

Commons scrutiny

The bill is to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March for a maximum of six hours: up to four hours on second reading and two hours for committee of the whole House and remaining stages. The House decided on 18 March to disapply the EVEL Standing Orders in relation to the bill, so it will be spared the rigmarole of forming a Legislative Grand Committee.

It has been possible to table amendments since the bill was introduced. Four amendments and four new clauses were tabled on the day of its publication, and more may be expected in so-called ‘manuscript’ form on the day. They mainly address the issue of for how long the Act will be in force. The bill establishes that its provisions will apply for two years, with provisions for individual powers to be ‘sunsetted’ earlier or indeed revived if it falls due to a sunset clause. It also provides for a general debate in both Houses after one year. Both the official opposition and a cross-party group are proposing systems of six-monthly debate and renewal only if the House so decides. It is perhaps significant that the Irish parliament last week passed a similar bill and as a result of amendment decided that it should last for one year. This is an area where some change is likely; both the Scottish Government, and independent human rights organisations such as Liberty, have expressed concerns about the sunset and scrutiny provisions as currently drafted. Continue reading

Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since. Continue reading

Dramas at Westminster: select committees and the quest for accountability

iOpQqpWl_400x400.jpgNow that the government has a secure majority in the Commons, the role of select committees in scrutinising its work will be crucial. But how do select committees operate, what makes them tick and how effective are they? Drawing on the findings of his new book, Marc Geddes argues that if we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

How do MPs make sense of their scrutiny work? Accountability is one of three core functions of legislatures (the other two being law-making and representation), yet we know remarkably little about how MPs interpret, or seek to carry out, scrutiny work. Those MPs that do take it seriously often join select committees. They are seen as the main vehicles of accountability in the House of Commons, made up of a small group of MPs to consider policy questions. Traditionally, there is one committee per ministerial department, as well as additional cross-cutting ones (such as on public administration and constitutional affairs). Committees normally consider policy issues through an evidence gathering process that may include written, as well as oral, evidence, before then publishing a report with recommendations for action (very often these reports are published consensually, with agreement from all the committee’s MPs). Select committees are seen to be influential and have been widely celebrated, especially in 2019, which marked the 40th anniversary since their present-day incarnation. While they are seen as fundamental to good scrutiny and we know that they can be influential, I wanted to examine select committees from a different vantage point, asking why MPs join committees and how they make sense of their role. This culminated in a book, Dramas at Westminster. What did I find? 

The core argument of my book is that there is no easy answer or unifying theme to understand what ‘scrutiny’ actually means. Rather, MPs’ interpretations of the concept are wide-ranging and, while MPs’ beliefs often blend well together to create effective means to hold the executive to account, their ideas about select committee work can also contrast and diverge from what others might consider to be ‘good scrutiny’ – or, in fact, ‘scrutiny’ at all. For example, for some, scrutiny is about holding the government’s feet to the fire and they would only regard scrutiny as being successful if they have blown a minister off-course; for others, scrutiny is about transparency, i.e. better understanding why a minister might have taken a particular decision. I argue that these different interpretations create different ‘performance styles’; behaviours that MPs can adopt when they enact their scrutiny role – much like in a theatre or play. To illustrate this point, I identify six styles: specialists, who often form the core of committee business and attempt to analyse aspects of the policy area; lone wolves, who take their passions so far that they make their case irrespective of other committee members or the committee’s remit; constituency champions, who look at scrutiny through the prism of how it can benefit local causes; party helpers, who seek to protect their party interests on the committee; learners, who use their membership to better understand a policy issue; and absentees, who – as their name suggests – are largely absent from substantive committee work.

These styles are not fixed, with many MPs changing the role they adopt based on particular circumstances. For example, it might be the case that an MP is a specialist in one aspect of a committee’s work but not another, and so acts as specialist or learner accordingly; in other areas of a committee’s work, it might directly touch on their constituency while in a hearing with the secretary of state, or they cannot help themselves and use their party allegiance to poke fun at the government. It is worth thinking about performance styles to understand the wider dynamics of committee hearings and evidence processes. Doing this detailed analysis will help us to better understand why a committee will come to certain conclusions but might avoid other recommendations. Most importantly, the performance styles that I have identified here are designed to be illustrative rather than definitive, drawing on the most recurring themes and behaviours that I found during my fieldwork.  Continue reading

Female leaders can amplify the voices of other women in politics

avatar.jpgIt has long been said that women in politics act as role models and influencers for the women that come after them. But what is less clear is whether or not there is a causal effect on the impact of female MPs as a result of having female ministers in charge of government departments. Jack Blumenau has analysed two decades of parliamentary data and argues that women don’t just inspire other women, they amplify their voices and increase their impact on parliamentary debates and outcomes.

In an interview in 2013, Betty Boothroyd – the first female Speaker of the House of Commons – paid tribute to her political mentor, Barbara Castle. Castle holds an important position in the history of British political feminism not only because of her promotion of seminal legislation such as the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, but also because she was the first woman to lead a series of important government departments, including Overseas Aid, Transport, and Employment. In her interview, Boothroyd pointed to the important effect that Castle’s leadership had on her own career: ‘She was my role model because I felt, well, if Barbara can do it then I can do it.’

As key figures in the legislative process, female cabinet ministers seem natural candidates to be “role models” to other women in UK politics. Historically, women have been under-represented in cabinet positions and so the appointment of a female cabinet minister might help to break down gendered sterotypes about the policy areas to which women are entitled to contribute. Similarly, there is also evidence from previous research that female politicians employ a distinct political style which is more cooperative and encouraging than that of their male colleagues. If these behavioural differences persist amongst leadership figures, the appointment of a female cabinet minister may promote a culture that is more conducive to, and encouraging of, the participation and influence of other female MPs.

In a recently published article, I investigate whether there is systematic evidence for the type of female leadership effects described by Boothroyd. In particular, I focus on the relationship between female cabinet ministers and other female MPs in UK politics, and look for evidence of these effects by examining parterns of participation in nearly 15,000 parliamentary debates between 1997 and 2017.

Parliamentary debates matter because they represent the main opportunity for MPs to express their positions on different policy options. If some types of MP routinely speak at greater length than others in debate, or are systematically more influential in their spoken contributions, then this could have important consequences for the representational function of our parliamentary system. Continue reading

Advice in a time of belief: Brexit and the civil service

Jim.Gallagher.150x150.jpgThe role of the civil service in delivering Brexit has been hotly debated by many. Its neutrality has been questioned by some, and individual civil servants have been personally criticised. But what precisely is their role when it comes to advising ministers, and has it been affected by Brexit? Jim Gallagher argues that just as political parties have been tested by the result of the 2016 referendum, the civil service is similarly under pressure.

The UK civil service prides itself on being able to serve democratically elected ministers of radically different political beliefs. This principle of political neutrality has carried it through transitions as marked as Callaghan to Thatcher, Major to Blair, and from the Brown government to its coalition successor.

The permanent home civil service has also successfully transitioned from serving Westminster departments to devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh, even advising a Scottish government in pursuing independence. None of these transitions has been painless, but Brexit seems to present a different challenge.

Individual officials have been publicly identified for criticism, dismissed or moved after giving unpalatable advice, or leaked against in the press. Sir Ivan Rogers was sacked from his job in Brussels for advising on how the EU would react. Olly Robbins will be the fall guy for negotiating Mrs May’s failed deal. Last week, Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s ambassador in Washington, resigned, and the Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill is said to be next.

But this may not just be about individuals. Many pro-Brexit politicians seem to see the civil service as a supporter of the establishment they seek to overthrow. So is the principle of a politically neutral civil service under threat? Continue reading

The Lords Leader and Cabinet controversies

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The Prime Minister has angered peers by appointing Baroness Stowell as Leader of the House of Lords without appointing her to the Cabinet. In a scathing debate last Monday David Cameron was criticised for diminishing the status of the Lords Leader, and thus the chamber itself. Meg Russell and Robert Hazell highlight that the row, and the proposed solutions, point to wider uncertainties about the size of Cabinet and status of Cabinet ministers.

The current controversy began on 15 July with the Cabinet reshuffle, when the previous Lords Leader (Lord Hill of Oareford) was nominated as Britain’s next EU Commissioner. This vacancy was to be taken by Baroness Stowell. But while Lord Hill had been a Cabinet member, it soon emerged that Baroness Stowell would not be; instead she would join the ranks of ministers merely ‘attending’ Cabinet. Following criticism that a male Lords Leader was being replaced by a female one at a reduced level of pay, the Prime Minister offered to top up her salary to the level of a Cabinet minister from Conservative Party funds. Baroness Stowell showed her mettle by publicly rejecting this offer. On the day after the reshuffle peers had made it clear (from col. 594) that they considered it inappropriate for a minister formally representing the whole House of Lords to be part-paid by one political party.

The most fundamental principle at stake concerns the representation of the House of Lords at Cabinet level. This is the first time the chamber has had no representation among full members of Cabinet. In a quick report issued on 25 July, the Lords Constitution Committee commented that all previous Leaders of the House of Lords have had Cabinet rank. But the nature of the change goes far further. The position of Lords Leader dates only to 1846, when Lord John Russell became Prime Minister in the Commons. Before this Prime Ministers had more commonly been drawn from the Lords. It was also common until the 19th century for a majority of Cabinet members to be peers. This subsequently declined, but Lords representation had always been guaranteed by presence of the Lord Chancellor: a centuries-old post held consistently by a peer until reform in 2005. Hence until nine years ago the Lords effectively had two guaranteed seats in Cabinet. Suddenly it has none.

Continue reading