The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster offers an opportunity to make parliament more user-friendly

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A joint parliamentary committee is currently considering options for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, expected to begin after the 2020 general election. Much of the media speculation has focused on what will happen whilst the work is undertaken but the committee must also address some other big questions. Oonagh Gay sets these out and argues that the programme offers major opportunities to re-design the Palace to be more user friendly.

The Palace of Westminster is falling down, and gradually the need to do more than patch and repair it has become urgent. This is a Grade 1 listed building forming part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a million visitors a year, after all, even if extra expenditure on accommodation and services for MPs and peers is hardly popular. But a nineteenth century palace has struggled to adapt to modern office practices, with a growing need for online working and public transparency.

Senior parliamentary officials warned in October 2012 that irreversible damage would occur if nothing was done. A programme of Restoration and Renewal (R & R) began in the last parliament. The House of Commons Commission set in place an Independent Options Appraisal which was published on 18 June 2015, just after the general election. This set out three options:

  1. Rolling programme. Undertaking minimum work taking 32 years. Both chambers would have to close for between 2-4 years, at different times, but sittings could be relocated to a temporary structure elsewhere in or around the Palace.
  2. Partial move out. The work would be carried out more quickly if first the Commons, then the Lords, were to move to temporary accommodation outside the Palace.
  3. Full move out. If both Houses fully vacated the Palace this would take the least time and would avoid disruption to parliament from construction works. This approach would take around six years.

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The Strathclyde recommendations are based on a false premise that there is a convention that the Lords does not reject statutory instruments

Lord Norton MSP_7912

Lord Norton of Louth argues that the Strathclyde Review recommendations are based on a false premise that there is a convention that the Lords does not reject statutory instruments.  Instead of rushing into wider changes the immediate response to October’s tax credits controversy should be to address the inconsistency in the way Commons financial privilege is recognised in relation to SIs. In the longer term there is a case for a wider review of how both houses deal with secondary legislation.

The report produced by Lord Strathclyde is based on two propositions.  First, that there is a convention that the House of Lords does not vote to reject statutory instruments.  Second, that the problem of the vote on 26 October last year, when the House withheld agreement to the Tax Credits Regulations, is one of failure to comply with that convention.  Both propositions are false, the second necessarily so given that the first has no basis in fact.

There is much misunderstanding of what constitutes a convention.  They are non-legal rules that determine a consistent, indeed invariable, pattern of behaviour.  Those who comply with them do so because they accept that they are, as David Feldman has cogently expressed it, right behaviour.

Conventions do not become such by the words of a particular person, be it Viscount Cranborne in 1945 or Lord Sewel in 1998.  They are not created, but develop.  A convention exists once there is an invariable practice.  That is not the same as standard or usual practice.  If one deviates from it, it is not an invariable practice.  Kenneth Wheare distinguished between conventions and usage.  I think it more appropriate to distinguish between invariable and usual practice.

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Reflections on the Strathclyde Review

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Lord Strathclyde’s report into the House of Lords and secondary legislation, published before Christmas, is to be debated in the Lords today. Ruth Fox and Joel Blackwell from the Hansard Society, which last year published a comprehensive study of the secondary legislation system, respond to Strathclyde and argue that his proposals are no way to undertake reform – an independent inquiry into the legislative process is required.

Following the controversial tax credits regulations vote in the House of Lords last October, the Prime Minister asked Lord Strathclyde to conduct a ‘rapid review’ of Statutory Instruments (SIs) to consider ‘how more certainty and clarity could be brought to their passage through Parliament’ and the primacy of the House of Commons assured. The Strathclyde Review was published before Christmas and will be debated in the Lords this afternoon.

Just over a year ago the Hansard Society published the first comprehensive study of the SI system for nearly 80 years, The Devil is in the Detail: Parliament and Delegated Legislation. In responding to Lord Strathclyde’s report we are thus able to draw on three years of research. Since the start of this new parliamentary session we have also begun to track every SI that is subject to parliamentary scrutiny, enabling us to maintain the most comprehensive and up to date monitor of delegated legislation available each week.

This response to the Strathclyde Review is not a comprehensive analysis of every aspect of the report; rather, it focuses on what we consider to be the key elements of concern, which we hope will inform the debate about it in the House of Lords.

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The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence

Meg-Russell

The UK parliament continues to be dismissed as powerless in many academic and popular accounts. Drawing on a large body of quantitative and qualitative research conducted over more than 15 years, a recent article by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley argued that the Westminster parliament is in fact an institution with significant policy influence. Meg Russell summarises here.

In the study of public policy, legislatures tend to be portrayed as relatively weak institutions. This applies to the UK parliament in particular. The classic comparative view associates the Westminster model, of which the UK is seen as the emblematic case, with centralised executive power and an acquiescent legislature. Assumptions of Westminster’s weakness are not, however, confined to comparative scholars or to the recent past. In a 2011 article Matthew Flinders and Alexandra Kelso traced gloom-laden statements of British parliamentary powerlessness back over a century and more. Meanwhile, a public policy textbook published in 2012 reflected the view of many scholars in the field when stating that ‘Despite the name “parliamentary democracy”, the parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’ (p. 139).

Yet in recent years scholars specialising in the study of the UK parliament have found evidence of significant parliamentary influence on the policy process. This may in part be due to changes in parliamentary structures and behaviour, but also simply result from more exhaustive research approaches. I have contributed to this literature through my work on the House of Lords, and the policy impact of the Westminster parliament. Professor Philip Cowley has also contributed greatly, particularly through his work on the Commons. In a recent article in the journal Governance we drew these various strands together – using four large quantitative data sets, complemented by more than 500 interviews with key parliamentary and government actors – to demonstrate that Westminster’s influence is both substantial and probably rising. We conclude that parliament’s critics make two key mistakes – by concentrating largely on the decision-making stage of the policy process, and focusing almost exclusively on visible parliamentary impact (e.g. government defeats on legislation). We broaden the focus to take into account both visible and less visible impact, with a particular interest in anticipated reactions. Our arguments are summarised in this post.

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The Lords, politics and finance

Meg-Russell

In the aftermath of Monday’s Lords defeats on tax credit cuts there has been much talk of a ‘constitutional crisis’. In this post Meg Russell argues that whilst Monday’s vote was certainly unusual, the most significant change is the wider political context: that it is a Conservative government on the receiving end of repeated defeats in the Lords. Much like Labour ministers under Blair and Brown, Conservative ministers will need to learn how to handle a relatively assertive House of Lords in which they lack a partisan majority.

A Conservative government seems to be at war with the House of Lords. The Daily Telegraph claims that the Lords is ‘undermining democracy’. What on earth is going on? Has the Lords suddenly lost hold of its senses and begun acting entirely without precedent? To listen to some government supporters, in particular, one would assume so. Ministers have suffered a string of defeats since May 2015 – a total of 19 up to and including this Monday. The most controversial, of course, was the chamber’s decision to delay approval of the tax credits regulations, which has caused some to proclaim a ‘constitutional crisis’– and has subsequently sparked the government to announce a review into the chamber’s policy powers.

There are aspects of Monday’s tax credits vote which were undoubtedly unusual. As explored in an earlier post on the Constitution Unit blog last week, defeats in the Lords on ‘delegated legislation’ (the proposed vehicle for the tax credit changes) are relatively rare. There have been only four previous occasions when such measures were blocked outright by the Lords. None of these (on sanctions against Rhodesia in 1968, the London mayoral elections in 2000, the Manchester ‘supercasino’ in 2007 and access to legal aid in 2012) had such major financial implications as Monday’s vote. This fuelled claims that the Lords was breaking centuries-old convention by not respecting the Commons’ financial primacy. Yet the parent act, the Tax Credits Act 2002, had explicitly given the House of Lords a veto over such orders – even though it is quite possible for explicitly financial legislation (as detailed in this excellent Hansard Society blog) to create orders that require the approval only of the Commons. The well-respected Lords Statutory Instruments Scrutiny Committee had drawn the measure to the attention of the House on the basis of inadequate information about its impacts (a circumstance which the 2006 Joint Committee on Conventions explicitly suggested could merit use of the veto power (para 229)). In fact, the most clearly innovative thing about Monday’s vote was that the Lords did not reject the government’s proposals outright via a ‘fatal’ motion, but only imposed a delay – in the case of  Baroness Meacher’s motion until further information became available.

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The triumph of EVEL: What next for the English Question?

akfBTj4-_reasonably_smallDan Gover

Yesterday MPs voted by 312 to 270 to adopt changes to the House of Commons Standing Orders that will allow ‘English votes for English laws’ to take effect. In this post Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover highlight some of the issues that will need careful monitoring and reflect on the wider implications, arguing that the implementation of EVEL is very likely to impact on debates about the future constitutional character of the UK.

MPs voted yesterday to approve controversial changes to the House of Commons Standing Orders that implement the principle of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). This attempt by the governing party to address the ‘West Lothian Question’, and to frame its response as a key part of its answer to the question of English devolution, is a watershed moment in the history of parliamentary government in the UK. The ethos underpinning the development of devolution in non-English parts of the UK has now been applied to the largest territory within the UK, and the Conservative party has moved away from the unionist assumption that England rests content to be governed by British institutions. This effort to identify and institutionalise an English dimension to the workings of the UK parliament has attracted a good deal of procedural comment and political controversy. But whatever the political calculations and interests it reflects, the constitutional significance of this attempt to offer some form of devolution for England should not be overlooked.

English votes for English laws: a recap

Under the new procedures the Commons Speaker will be required to ‘certify’ bills, or clauses within them, that meet two criteria: first, they relate only to England (or England and Wales); and second, comparable policy decisions are devolved elsewhere in the UK. On such legislation, MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies will have the opportunity to give their ‘consent’ to the provisions, through two new mechanisms: first, a Legislative Grand Committee of English (or English and Welsh) MPs will vote on a ‘consent motion’ prior to the bill’s third reading; and second, a ‘double-majority’ voting system will apply when MPs consider Lords amendments (which will also apply on secondary legislation). The effect of these reforms is a ‘double veto’: to pass, certified legislation will require the support both of UK-wide MPs and those representing English (and/or English and Welsh) constituencies. Detailed discussion of the government’s original proposals can be found here. These changes will come into effect immediately, and will affect the passage of a number of bills, even though there is no immediate threat of a ‘West Lothian’ situation in the House of Commons.

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