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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The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act: should it be amended or repealed?

A parliamentary committee has been established to review the effectiveness of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Rather than wait for its conclusions, the government has published a draft bill designed to return control of the timing of general elections to the executive. Robert Hazell examines the issues the committee will have to consider, and proffers some possible improvements to the status quo.

On 1 December the government published its draft bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). This would implement the commitment in the Conservative 2019 manifesto, which pledged: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – it has led to paralysis when the country needed decisive action’. The bill would revert to the previous system, and restore the prerogative power of dissolution. As the government’s Foreword explains:

The Bill makes express provision to revive the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. This means once more Parliament will be dissolved by the Sovereign, on the advice of the Prime Minister. This will enable Governments, within the life of a Parliament, to call a general election at the time of their choosing.

The bill also contains an ouster clause to make sure that the exercise of the power of dissolution, and any decision relating to that power is non-justiciable and therefore not open to challenge in the courts. Alison Young and Mark Elliott have published detailed legal critiques of the bill which analyse the effectiveness of the ouster clause, and whether the power of dissolution that has been revived is now a statutory power, or a prerogative power. This blog does not go into the legal complexities, but focuses on the politics, and the possible outcomes from the review of the bill by the joint parliamentary committee established in November.

The joint parliamentary committee, and previous committees

The FTPA has all along contained a built-in mechanism for its own review, in a final section added during its parliamentary passage in 2011. Section 7 provides that between June and November 2020 the Prime Minister should arrange for a committee to review the operation of the Act. That committee was established last month, with 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords. The Committee held its first sitting on 26 November, when it elected former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin as its chair, and set a deadline of 4 January for the submission of evidence. The Committee held its first oral evidence session on 10 December, with Stephen Laws and Professor Alison Young; the next session is on 17 December, with former Commons clerks Lord Lisvane and Malcolm Jack.

But two parliamentary committees have already recently reviewed the operation of the FTPA: the Lords Constitution Committee, and the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). The Lords Committee held two evidence sessions, in autumn 2019 (including evidence from me); but it was a further year before the Committee published its report in September 2020, as summarised here by its chair Baroness (Ann) Taylor. The long delay suggested the Committee had difficulty agreeing its recommendations, and the report instead raised a series of basic questions about any legislation to replace the FTPA. 

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Parliaments and COVID-19: principles and practice; challenges and opportunities

Unit Director Meg Russell analyses the challenges and opportunities for reform facing parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised complex questions about how to balance the different functions of parliaments and their need to operate effectively.

In the UK and around the world parliaments have had to adjust their practices to the unexpected new environment of COVID-19. This has brought major challenges but, some suggest, also opportunities in terms of suggesting future means for parliaments to adapt. This post starts from the core principles of parliamentary functioning, briefly reviews practice under COVID-19, and considers the primary opportunities and challenges presented. It concludes that the future lessons from this unique period reinforce some familiar themes; but they also raise significant conundrums and trade-offs between the different essential principles of what parliaments are there to do.

Principles

Stripping back to the basics, what are parliaments for? Legislative studies scholars have suggested various overlapping lists of functions. For example in the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies, Amie Kreppel provides a list of four, which I will boil down to three: 

  • Representation takes many forms, often including – as is central to the UK House of Commons – geographic representation. Numerous, diverse, individuals participate in the legislature, underpinned by a crucial democratic principle of equality, where each ultimately has an equal vote.
  • Linkage is closely connected to this – as parliamentarians provide a voice in parliament to their voters, and remain accountable to them.
  • Policy-making – for example through approving bills – is perhaps what parliaments are best known for. Connectedly, they have a control function in holding executives to account. For simplicity, I treat these two functions together.

Other terms often mentioned in such classifications include deliberation –much of which takes place publicly – and legitimation, meaning all of parliaments’ functions help them generate broad public support for policy.

Practice

It is easy to see how the circumstances of COVID-19 have challenged some of these principles.

The threats to representation were pretty immediate and obvious. With limits on travel, requirements for social distancing, and heightened risks for people with certain health conditions, parliamentarians gathering from all over the country immediately became a problem. Some legislatures responded by limiting the number who could participate – with those decisions often taken by leaders and whips. Others moved their proceedings online. The UK House of Commons initially did the latter, but then rolled this back in a quite problematic way which breached principles of equal participation.

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Five years of ‘EVEL’

In the wake of the devolution settlements of the Blair years, political pressure to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ persisted. In 2015, the proposed answer was ‘English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL). Today, on its fifth anniversary, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny assess how EVEL has worked, during one of the most volatile political periods in living memory.

On 23rd October 2015, the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) procedures came into force in the House of Commons. Introduced by David Cameron in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, these new rules were designed as an answer to the notorious ‘West Lothian Question’ – the late Tam Dalyell’s resonant enquiry about why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should continue to be able to vote on matters that only affected England after devolution, while MPs in England were not able to reciprocate in devolved areas.

When EVEL was introduced, the procedures were sharply criticised by opponents. For some, the reform would not only be logistically difficult to implement – likely to be ‘incomprehensible’ to MPs and the public alike – but would also threaten the UK’s constitutional makeup. In particular, it was argued that EVEL would establish ‘two classes of MP’ at Westminster, undermining the ability of non-English MPs to represent their constituents’ interests. Others, meanwhile, criticised the procedures as too tame, and falling short of providing adequate representation to England.

The five-year anniversary provides an opportune moment to review how this contentious reform has fared in practice. Yet the wider territorial politics of the UK have also undergone significant changes in the intervening period. The questions to which these complicated rules were a response have become ever more pressing, but whether EVEL can provide a sustainable response to the increasingly fraught question of English devolution is increasingly doubtful.

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Braking the law: is there, and should there be, an executive veto over laws made by parliament?

During the Brexit crises of 2019, something exceptionally rare happened twice in less than six months: parliament passed legislation without the government’s consent. But are there constitutional veto mechanisms that governments can use to prevent this? In a new Unit report, Paul Evans explores this question in detail. He summarises his conclusions here.

What do executive vetoes look like? 

Many constitutional democracies include mechanisms whereby a head of state can veto a law made by the legislature, but few of these are absolute vetoes. Most are suspensory, inviting the legislature to think again, but giving it the last word. The US Constitution is the most obvious example of such an arrangement. France has a broadly similar system but, as with many if not most such vetoes, it isn’t used. Some states (for example Iceland) enable the president to put a law to a referendum. Others (such as Ireland) leave the last word with a constitutional court, but only on matters of constitutionality, not on grounds of political disagreement.

In the UK (and most of the old dominions which retain the Queen as head of state) such an arrangement looks impossible. The executive and the legislature are fused – they can’t have different views. The executive as a lawmaker in the UK only exists as an element of the sovereign parliament (the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Crown-in-Parliament’). The sovereign has no personal stake in the making of law. They must do as parliament decides. As long ago as 1867, Walter Bagehot expressed this constitutional fact with typical rhetorical brio:

The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the Sovereign. First, in its oldest form at least, it considers him as an ‘Estate of the Realm’, a separate co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the Sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills, if not as the House of Commons rejects them, at least as the House of Peers rejects them. But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any.

Withholding of royal assent

Nonetheless, when the first stirrings of what was to become the Cooper-Letwin Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019) began in the Commons in early 2019, it was suggested in some quarters that ministers could advise the sovereign to refuse royal assent to an Act agreed upon by parliament. The same argument re-emerged six months later in relation to the Benn-Burt Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (No. 2) 2019), which Boris Johnson insisted on referring to repeatedly as the ‘Surrender Act’. But, despite these theoretical arguments, subsequent events appear to have confirmed that this concept of a royal veto is definitely a dead letter. Queen Anne was the last sovereign to decline the royal assent to an Act passed by parliament – in 1707 (or 1708 if you prefer to apply retrospectively the change of the new year from 25 March to 1 January in 1752). 

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Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined

Backbench rebellion over parliament’s sidelining during the COVID-19 pandemic seems set to reach a critical point this week. Meg Russell and Lisa James argue that parliament’s crisis-era marginalisation is real, and part of a longer-running trend. So while government concessions now look likely, MPs should accept them only if they are genuine and comprehensive.

Backbench unease over the government’s treatment of parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to a head. On Wednesday, MPs will debate a motion to renew the government’s powers under the Coronavirus Act. But Conservative MPs’ frustration over the government’s handling of the crisis, and particularly its tendency to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, is increasingly evident. 

Earlier this month Charles Walker, joint Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee and former Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, accused the government of treating its backbenchers like dogs. Similar concerns have appeared in the Telegraph and the Times. Now more than 40 Tory MPs have signed an amendment proposed by 1922 Committee Chair Graham Brady to Wednesday’s motion. This would make continuation of ministerial powers conditional on MPs getting a vote on any future coronavirus-related restrictions – whether made under the Coronavirus Act itself or other legislation (such as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984). The amendment may have no formal legal force, and for procedural reasons might ultimately not be voted upon; but its political significance is clear.

Parliament has been sidelined

MPs have genuine cause for complaint: parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic. The most frequent criticism is over the government’s use of delegated legislation. Numerous coronavirus restrictions have been imposed through regulations subject to limited parliamentary oversight, with debate often scheduled long after the restrictions themselves were announced or came into force. A critical report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) noted how the requirement to wear masks on public transport was announced in a Downing Street press conference on 4 June, coming into force 11 days later; yet it wasn’t debated in the Commons until 6 July. Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings 8 days previously, these were not debated in parliament. Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law points out, the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.

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Requiring MPs to vote in person during coronavirus places the institution of parliament at risk. It’s time to bring remote divisions back and to plan for continued restrictions

Today, the House of Commons will decide whether or not MPs should be allowed to continue to vote by proxy. Karen Bradley, Chair of the Commons Procedure Commmittee, sets out her views on how voting should take place, calling on MPs to support her amendment, which would require the government to bring alternative proposals for conducting divisions to the House for debate and decision. Those proposals, she argues, ought to include the reinstatement of remote divisions. 

Shortly after the Commons summer recess the Procedure Committee published the report of its review of pilot arrangements for proxy voting in the House.

Our work fell into two distinct sections – an evaluation of the pilot of proxy voting for baby leave, and consideration of the use of proxies to manage absences arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consensus on the first was easily found; the second raises more challenging issues. Today the House will take a decision on each.

Proxy voting for parental absence: a successful pilot

In the first, we evaluated how proxy voting for parental absence had worked in practice. This initiative, started by Harriet Harman, Maria Miller and others and brought to the Commons by Andrea Leadsom as Leader of the House, has been piloted over the last 20 months. It has been so successful that many have not realised that it is still in the pilot stage. 

Pairing arrangements for colleagues on parental absence did not work badly, in the main, but they deprived new mothers in the House of the opportunity to record their votes on key issues. In the 2017 parliament, when voting records were scrutinised as never before and voting behaviour increasingly analysed and presented to the public via algorithm, this put those MPs at a huge disadvantage. Breaches of pairing arrangements, however inadvertent, did the House’s reputation no good. 

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Will the Lords block the UK Internal Market Bill?

Parliament will this week begin debating and scrutinising the UK Internal Market Bill, which the Northern Ireland Secretary has already acknowledged will, if passed in its current form, place the UK in breach of international law. When the bill reaches the upper chamber, what sort of treatment will it receive? Might the Lords block it? Unit Director and Lords expert Meg Russell offers her view.

Widespread shock greeted this week’s news that Boris Johnson hopes to set aside elements of the Withdrawal Agreement related to Northern Ireland – particularly when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted to the House of Commons that the UK Internal Market Bill drafted to achieve this ‘does break international law’. Former Conservative Prime Ministers Theresa May and John Major, and senior government backbenchers, loudly protested. Former Conservative Solicitor General Lord (Edward) Garnier expressed surprise that the government’s law officers – those ministers expressly charged with protecting the rule of law – hadn’t resigned.

After an emergency meeting, the European Commission vice-president demanded that the UK withdraw the plans. The Irish Taoiseach described them as ‘extremely divisive – and dangerous’, while the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that breaching international law would mean ‘absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement’.

There are clear questions over whether such a controversial bill – whose Commons second reading is on Monday – can secure parliamentary approval. Specifically will it, as some suggest, be blocked by the House of Lords? A prior question is whether these provisions will make it through the House of Commons. Despite Johnson’s majority, Conservative dissent is unusually intense. This is unsurprising since, as many have recently quoted, that most iconic of Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher consistently emphasised respect for the rule of law as a core Conservative value.

There is actually a prior question even to this, regarding whether the Commons will actually be asked to approve the offending clauses. In parliament the ‘law of anticipated reactions’ generally applies: sensible governments facing a likely Commons defeat will retreat on legislation if they can. When Charles Walker, vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, was asked whether Conservative MPs would vote against the bill (21:18), he responded ‘I doubt we are to get to the stage where we are asked’. This implied that the Prime Minister would hear the drumbeats, and back down.

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