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. 

The diversity of priorities for MPs affects scrutiny in different ways. Most notably, MPs’ styles of scrutiny push accountability in particular directions and may mean that the focus of reports could be skewed. Committees therefore depend on MPs knowing which style to adopt – acting as specialist, for example, when holding civil servants to account, but as learners when they want to gain information about a topic from academic witnesses. In my book, I particularly draw attention to two ways in which the beliefs and practices of MPs (and officials) affect committee work: evidence gathering and consensus building.

First, the book looks at how committees seek to gather evidence. Continuing the metaphor of a play, gathering evidence is a political performance in which committee members have their time in the limelight to promote their stylised versions of scrutiny. They work alongside committee officials, who become stage directors and production managers; who write briefing papers that act as loose scripts for MPs; and who ensure that witnesses – the perceived stars of the show – are willing to attend a committee hearing in the first place. Indeed, the work of officials, predominantly conducted backstage, can be just as important in making scrutiny happen as the MPs themselves, with most committee members relying on the deftness and skills of committee staff to keep the show running. 

Second, I also look at how MPs seek to build effective relationships. This is important because, traditionally, committees seek to publish reports with the agreement of all members of the committee. How do they do this? One interviewee spoke to me about ‘norms of civility’ that sustain partnership and collaboration across parliament. Effective relationships are key to good scrutiny because they ensure that MPs are able to respect and trust each other, without fear that one or another will undermine them. These everyday behaviours are often overlooked because they seem mundane, routine and inconsequential. However, they add up. And it is through their daily negotiations with each other that MPs are bound together and work with each other in good faith.

While I draw attention to evidence gathering and relationship building, the intention of Dramas at Westminster is to highlight the power of ideas, beliefs and the ‘everyday’ in affecting select committees more broadly. The book demonstrates the multi-purpose role of select committees in structuring parliamentary life, in which I find that committees allow MPs to learn about policy, act as information gathering tools for Parliament, help to socialise MPs into the conventions and procedures of the House, can allow for opportunities for MPs to test lines of inquiry to use elsewhere, and so on. While committees serve different roles, they are also under pressure from the multiple demands of work placed on MPs, from the short timeframes and reactive nature of much scrutiny work, and from changing membership of committees. 

Ultimately, the aim of this book is to provoke a debate about how we study parliaments. I use the metaphor of theatre to highlight that, very often, scrutiny becomes a spectacle or drama (think of the headlines from hearings with Sir Philip Green, for example). If we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

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About the author

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. He uses an interpretive approach to study legislatures, with his most recent book, Dramas at Westminster, now available. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes

Election replay with the experts: looking back at the 2019 general election

luke_moore1_500x625_0.jpgThe 2019 general election is now complete, but there is still plenty to say about the campaign, the rules that governed it, and the new parliament it has produced. Luke Moore summarises the contributions at our final seminar of 2019, where Unit staff were joined by other experts to dicuss the lessons of the election.

On Monday 16 December the Constitution United hosted an event entitled Election Replay with the Experts, at which four leading political scientists, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, looked back on the 2019 general election. The issues discussed included polling, women’s representation, the rules of the electoral game, and the effect of the election on the new parliament. The event was chaired by Unit Research Associate Lisa James

Ben Lauderdale – polling 

Ben Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at UCL, started the evening by discussing the performance of polling at the election. During the election campaign Lauderdale had been involved in producing the much-discussed ‘MRP’ (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling used to predict constituency results. His central message was that after two general elections — in 2015 and 2017 — in which some of the polls proved to be significantly out of step with the results, polling for the 2019 election is largely a non-story, as most pollsters were on target in their predictions. Further, the accuracy of the polls meant that the media was (in retrospect and in Lauderdale’s view) discussing the right topics during the election campaign. The most important of these was the prospect of a Conservative majority, but also the specific demographic and geographic weaknesses of the 2017 Labour coalition. While the terminology was a bit reductive and silly, it was not wrong to have focused on the vulnerability of Labour’s ‘red wall’ and Conservative appeals to ‘Workington man’.  Continue reading

Getting a new parliament up and running: what happens after the election?

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgbeamish.jpg (1)We may not yet know the result of the election, but we do know that we will have a new parliament. David Natzler and David Beamish explain what will happen when the new parliament commences next week. No matter the outcome of today’s vote, certain processes will need to be followed: parliament will need to be officially opened, MPs will need to be sworn in, and committees will need to be re-established — and their members and chairs must be elected.

The dates

The first days of a new parliament follow a well-trodden path, and the surest guide to what will happen is usually to look up what happened last time, in June 2017. However, much depends on the political context. And we will not know that context until the early hours of Friday 13 December at the earliest. All we know for sure is that the new parliament will meet on Tuesday 17 December, and that if the current Prime Minister returns, the State Opening – the start of the new session – will be only two days later, on Thursday 19 December. If there is a hung parliament, the State Opening could be delayed. Continue reading

From candidate to elected member: will new MPs face a trial by fire after the 2019 Canadian federal election?

Louise.CockramNews.jpgCanadian voters will today cast their votes in a tight federal election, after  which a large number of first-time MPs are expected to take their seats. Following interviews she conducted with sitting MPs and parliamentary staff, Louise Cockram argues that new members are currently forced to rely on their parties to acclimatise to the House of Commons, and that the official House induction has limited impact.

While the UK waits for a possible snap election, Canadians have been in election mode for months in advance of the federal election that will take place today (21 October). Public opinion polls and the backlash to recent controversies suggest that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may lose some seats, while a third of New Democratic Party MPs plan to leave politics altogether. This means that a fresh crop of MPs will arrive in Ottawa in late October. These rookie MPs will have spent the past few months knocking on the doors of potential voters, attending community events and coordinating campaigns for party members in their constituency. Once elected they will have to adapt to the procedural rules of the House, as well as answer demands from their constituents and party whips. What will it take for these new MPs to transition from being a party candidate to an elected member? 

A joint project between Carleton University and the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield attempts to answer this very question. As part of the project we have spoken to 26 Canadian MPs who were elected following the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, as well as seven House of Commons staff who are responsible for facilitating the induction of MPs. The purpose of these interviews is to find out how newly elected MPs learn to do the job of an elected representative once they enter the House. The MPs interviewed for the project were from all the major parties in Canada (the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP) and were from different parts of the country. Indeed, due to Canada’s vast geography, many MPs face challenges balancing their constituency and parliamentary duties. It takes a full day for an MP who represents a riding (electoral district) in Northern British Columbia to travel to their constituency from Ottawa. This presents difficulties for the MP not only in terms of their ability to represent constituents but also puts a strain on family life. 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

Which MPs are responsible for failing to ‘get Brexit done’?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgToday Boris Johnson will give his leader’s speech at Conservative Party conference, doubtless with a central argument about the need to ‘get Brexit done’. MPs have been blamed for the failure to achieve this. But which MPs precisely are responsible? Meg Russell argues that opposition parties cannot normally be expected to deliver government policy. Instead, government backbenchers usually have that role. It is resistance from Conservative backbenchers – including Johnson himself and others promoted to his Cabinet – to supporting Theresa May’s deal that provides the most obvious reason for Brexit not having been agreed.

The slogan for this year’s Conservative Party conference, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to ‘get Brexit done’. Immediately following the Supreme Court ruling against the government last week, ill-tempered exchanges in the House of Commons saw the Prime Minister repeatedly blaming parliamentarians for failing to deliver Brexit. For example, Boris Johnson commented thatPoliticians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the result. Sadly, many have since done all they can to abandon those promises and to overturn that democratic vote’. In contrast he pledged thatWe will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not’, adding that ‘That is what the Opposition want to do’. Far stronger words, characteristically, have been ascribed to his chief adviser Dominic Cummings in blaming parliament for the Brexit impasse. Several papers have reported Cummings as suggesting that it was ‘not surprising’ that people are angry with MPs, as they have failed in their duty to get Brexit done. Given the risks that such comments further stoke such public anger against our democratic institutions, it seems important to consider exactly which MPs primarily bear responsibility for the failure to agree a Brexit plan.

First, a quick recap on what happened in the months before Johnson took office. His predecessor, Theresa May, pursued a lengthy negotiation with the EU27 – resulting in a withdrawal agreement that was signed off on 25 November 2018. Under the terms of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, this deal was then put to an initial ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019. However, it was defeated by MPs by a whopping 432 to 202 votes. The Prime Minister subsequently brought the deal back for a second such attempt on 12 March. By this point various MPs had been brought round to supporting the deal; but it was nonetheless still heavily defeated, by 391 votes to 242. A third and final attempt at getting the House of Commons to agree the deal then occurred on the originally-planned Brexit day, of 29 March 2019. This was not a ‘meaningful vote’ under the terms of the Act, as Speaker John Bercow had hinted that such a move could be ruled out of order – on the basis that MPs cannot just repeatedly be asked to vote upon the same proposition – but it was again an in-principle vote on the deal. Again the gap between supporters and opponents narrowed, but the government was defeated by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58. Hence a further 30 MPs would have needed to switch from opposing to supporting the deal in order for it to be clearly approved. Continue reading