Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

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Parliament and Brexit: what do the public think?

IMG_20181213_223144Almost four years have passed since the 2016 EU referendum delivered a mandate for Brexit. However, as John Curtice explains in the latest extract from our joint report on Parliament and Brexit, the views of the public on the role of referendums in the Brexit process is heavily influenced by their views on whether Britain should leave the European Union or remain a member.

Though they have been used various times on constitutional matters in the UK, referendums are often thought to challenge traditional notions of representative parliamentary democracy. In the UK’s version of such a democracy, MPs are sent to Westminster to deliberate and exercise their judgement on their constituents’ behalf. Referendums seemingly usurp this traditional role, in an attempt to ascertain ‘the will of the people’.

Nonetheless, survey research has long suggested that referendums are popular with voters – as indeed was the June 2016 EU referendum. A fortnight beforehand, 52% told YouGov that David Cameron was right to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and only 32% said he was wrong. On the very eve of polling, Ipsos MORI reported that 66% of voters felt the Prime Minister was right to hold a ballot, while only 24% reckoned he was wrong.

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Yet, underneath the surface there were already important differences of opinion. As the first chart shows, Leave and Remain backers had rather different views. According to YouGov, 83% of Leave supporters supported Cameron’s decision, and only 9% thought it wrong. In contrast, 60% of likely Remain voters disliked the decision and only 26% approved. Of course, in calling the referendum Cameron had opened up the possibility that the UK might indeed leave the EU, a prospect that Leave voters were more likely to
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Commons select committees and Brexit

wager.150x150This week, the Constitution Unit co-published a new report, Parliament and Brexitin which some of the UK’s leading academics look at how parliament has managed Brexit to date, and how it might seek to handle the issue in future. Here, Alan Wager argues that select committees in the Commons proved their worth at a time when the public perception of parliament was at a low point, but that future Brexit challenges will see them come under pressure.

The House of Commons select committee system is a parliamentary success story. But it is a success story about to come under a period of sustained pressure. The influence and public profile of the committee system has been boosted by a reputation as a generator of agenda-setting policy discussion, and a vehicle for genuine cross-party scrutiny. The new political environment since the 2019 general election provides a test of whether these factors can be sustained. In an environment where the government is explicitly setting out to reduce the level of parliamentary scrutiny around Brexit and its consequences, select committees face the challenge of maintaining the levels of influence they enjoyed during the 2017-19 parliament.

Some government decisions that inhibited select committee scrutiny at the start of Boris Johnson’s tenure are temporary. The attempted prorogation, actual prorogation, dissolution and the slow start after the general election, combined with the distraction of the Labour leadership contest, have disrupted committee activity. The Liaison Committee has yet to question Boris Johnson, who cancelled an agreed appearance in October, having postponed twice previously. All this at a critical time when negotiating mandates and opening positions are being fleshed out.

Yet there are other substantive and long-term problems for scrutiny, resulting directly from government decisions, which will continue to impact throughout the transition period. As discussed in Lisa James’ contribution to the Parliament and Brexit report, government revisions to the post-election EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB) reduced MPs’ ability to scrutinise the next steps on Brexit on the floor of the House of Commons – including the negotiating mandate and updates on negotiations. This means that MPs (and watchers of BBC Parliament) will be denied those pinch points of high drama – and, more importantly, high scrutiny – that shaped government strategy throughout the last parliament. The question is whether select committees – with their proven capacity to generate moments of scrutiny and expose the government of the day – can partly fill the gap. Continue reading

Parliament, politics and anti-politics

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week, the Constitution Unit and UK in a Changing Europe publish a new report, Parliament and Brexit, which contains expert analysis how parliament has handled Brexit in the near four-year period since the 2016 referendum victory for the Leave campaign. It also includes discussion of parliament’s future scrutiny functions, as Brexit continues to take shape in increasingly difficult political times. In this, the first excerpt from the report to appear on our blog, Unit Director Meg Russell outlines how the tussle between parliament and government over Brexit harmed the former’s reputation, to the detriment of our parliamentary democracy.

Parliament sits at the heart of the UK’s democracy, with core functions of holding the government to account, scrutinising and legitimising its actions. Through local representation and the representation of political parties, it links citizens to the key political decisions that are taken in their name.

In all democracies parliaments are central – it’s impossible to be a democracy without a parliament. But this centrality is particularly so in the UK, for two fundamental reasons. First, as a ‘parliamentary’ (rather than presidential) democracy the government ultimately depends on the confidence of the House of Commons for its survival. Second, the UK puts the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ at the core of its constitution (as discussed in Barnard and Young’s contribution to the report). Challenges to the authority of parliament are thus challenges to UK democracy, and potentially to our constitution itself. Yet such challenges occurred, increasingly, during the Brexit process.

That process saw unprecedented levels of conflict between government and parliament, and perceived conflicts between ‘parliament and people’, precipitated by a unique chain of events. The 2016 referendum handed voters the in-principle decision over the UK’s membership of the EU, at a time when most MPs supported Remain (see contributions in the report from Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker). This already promised tensions, given that parliament and government were left to navigate the more detailed questions about the form that Brexit should take. The Conservatives were highly divided on Brexit, while most Labour MPs instinctively opposed it. Delivering such a controversial policy with the narrow parliamentary majority that Theresa May inherited from David Cameron looked risky, so she gambled on a general election in 2017 to improve matters; but this resulted in an even weaker minority government. Her authority was undermined, and parliament more divided than before. Continue reading