Looking forward, looking back: an evening with David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

MPs’ Expenses, IPSA and Constitutional Watchdogs: A Parliamentary Committee Inquiry-Lite?

Did you know that a House of Commons Committee is currently holding an inquiry into the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009? No? Thought not.

The Act is the centrepiece of the Government-inspired response to the Members’ expenses scandal, and which created IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority).  Given the media and public firestorm over expenses in 2009, and the continuing bad press – especially the patent lack of sympathy with Members’ criticisms of the new system – it is a pity, if not really surprising, that the current Inquiry, by the aptly-named Members Expenses Committee, is proceeding almost unnoticed.

The Inquiry was ordered by the House in mid-May, but was not actually announced until mid-July, after a protracted delay in establishing the Committee’s membership, when it was given until the end of this year to report.  Its remit was relatively broad, perhaps to reflect the range of Members’ concerns about the operation of the IPSA-run system:

“to review the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and make recommendations, giving due consideration to ensuring:
(a) value for money for taxpayers;

(b) accountability;

(c) public confidence in Parliament;

(d) the ability of Members to fulfil their duties effectively;

(e) fairness for less well-off Members and those with families; and

(f) that Members are not deterred from submitting legitimate claims.”

A Committee press release of 20 July sought written evidence by 3 October.  This evidence has now been placed on the Committee’s website, including a submission by me. To date, there have been 4 oral evidence sessions since mid-September.

It is a pity that there has not been more interest in this Inquiry. Apart from the detailed issues of the structure and operation of the new expenses system (as an aside, the Committee is chaired by Adam Afriyie, who publicly supported in 2009 the replacement of the current salary and expenses with a single ‘consideration’ based on the initial 1911 figure of £400pa, as up-rated by reference to average earnings), it is proving to be a forum for more fundamental questions of constitutional interest, including the nature and purpose of ‘constitutional watchdogs’, especially those which have a close connection with Parliament.  This is an issue which has long interested the Constitution Unit, being the subject of two Reports and one book chapter published by it (I declare an interest as a co-author of these).

A fascinating debate, within and outwith the Inquiry, has been raging on what sort of body IPSA actually is, and what its primary function should be.  While MPs and the Committee on Standards in Public Life see IPSA mainly as a body to administer schemes of financial support for MPs in carrying out their parliamentary duties, IPSA sees itself primarily as an independent regulator, and as such, its fundamental purpose is “to serve the public interest”.

At heart, as with any such ‘watchdog’, is the interrelationship between the two principles of independence and accountability, one which is especially difficult and complex when what is being ‘regulated’ is Parliament itself, the ultimate constitutional watchdog.  With the principle of independence entrenched in the scheme establishing IPSA – as rushed through Parliament by ministers in the 2009 Act, and revised by legislation last year – MPs are focussed on IPSA’s accountability, by which they mainly mean, answerability to the Commons (through mechanisms such as the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA).  On the other side, IPSA’s maximalist view of its regulatory rather than mere payroll/administration role, emphasises its independence, especially from the very people and bodies which it is ‘regulating’.

Unfortunately, the Inquiry doesn’t seem so far to be addressing these complex questions in any evidence-based way, such as by research into, or much direct interest in, how other parliaments, including the 3 UK devolved institutions, address these problems. This absence of comparative perspective is regrettable.  For example, the Scottish and Welsh systems are of direct relevance, and the present Chair of the Welsh Assembly’s Remuneration Board, George Reid, would be a useful witness, being a former MP and Holyrood Presiding Officer.

With such a short timescale and methodology, this Inquiry cannot hope to do all its terms of reference justice.  All it can do is address, and maybe assuage, some of the main grievances voiced by Members since 2009, which was probably the main reason for this Inquiry in the first place.

What would be of value – apart from any tinkering with the detail of the IPSA-run system – would be for the Committee to recommend strongly in its report to the House that a dedicated committee of inquiry of some sort should be established to address the fundamental questions of IPSA’s relationship with Parliament and how the twin pillars of its independence and accountability can be reconciled positively for the benefit of the public, both as taxpayers and as constituents of adequately-resourced MPs.  The Public Administration Committee began the process in the last Parliament of examining these tricky issues where there are constitutional watchdogs.  That would provide a useful starting point for any future inquiry.