The election of the Speaker: myth and reality

When the newly elected House of Commons meets on Tuesday, its first task will be the election of the Speaker. In this post, Andrew Kennon explains how this will work and separates some of the myths surrounding the process from reality.

When the newly elected House of Commons meets for the first time on Tuesday, the first business – even before swearing in all MPs – will be election of the Speaker. John Bercow, who won his Buckingham seat with a majority of over 25,000 on Thursday, is expected to be re-elected unopposed, though prior to the election there was some talk of a challenge. What are the myths and realities surrounding this process?

Is the Speaker always re-elected unopposed?

This is what has happened in practice. Every Speaker who has been re-elected to the House – normally with other parties not putting up rival candidates in the constituency – has been re-elected to that post. But the House is given the opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only if the answer is ‘no’ does it proceed to a full election.

The possibility of rejecting the incumbent has been raised in the media under Speaker Bercow. He was first elected in 2009, about a year before the 2010 general election. At that point, he was a Conservative MP on the opposition side of it he House. There was some speculation after the 2010 election that the new Conservative government would oppose his re-election, but this did not materialise. The same occurred after the 2015 election.

So: this is practice but not binding.

Does a new Speaker always comes from the Government side of the House?

This is what happened in practice until 1992 when Betty Boothroyd was elected. There is no reason to regard it as a convention.

Does the Speakership alternate between the two main parties?

Since Speaker Martin (Labour) succeeded Speaker Boothroyd (also formerly Labour) in 2000 this cannot be said to be a firm rule. Between 1965 and 1992 successive Speakers did come from the opposite side of the House to their predecessor – but, equally, they also came from the party in government at the time of their election. The House’s freedom to make its own choice among an array of volunteers probably means that any sense of it being the ‘turn’ of a particular party is out of date.

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What might parliament do with the Article 50 bill?

Meg-Russell

On 24 January the Supreme Court ruled that the government requires parliament’s consent to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty and hence begin formally negotiating Brexit. This requires a bill, and the government responded with the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – on which debates in the Commons begin today. Meg Russell asks how parliament could respond to the bill – both procedurally, and in terms of the political dilemmas facing members.

In the form it was introduced, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is a very short and simple measure. With just two clauses, it authorises the government to ‘notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU’, stating that this is notwithstanding the 1972 European Communities Act or any other existing statute. Yet its simplicity clearly belies its importance; the decision to trigger Article 50, following the Leave vote in last June’s referendum, has potentially huge ramifications for both the UK’s politics and its economic future. It is well-known that a majority of MPs, and probably an even higher proportion of peers, supported Remain in the referendum. The government’s original starting point was that parliamentary approval of this kind was neither desirable nor necessary. Now that the bill has been published, its passage could present significant political challenges, for government and parliamentarians alike.

This post focuses primarily on the procedural aspects. What are the stages through which the bill will have to pass, and where do the potential obstacles lie? The post focuses in particular on the immediate Commons stages. Having indicated the key steps, it moves on to discuss MPs’ representational dilemmas, and how these could play out. Finally, it provides some brief reflections on the bill’s likely reception in the Lords.

The timetable for the bill in the Commons was set out by David Lidington, Leader of the House of Commons, on Thursday 26 January. Its second reading stage is due to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, with debate today able to last up to midnight. It is then proposed to spend three days in committee, on the floor of the House of Commons, next week, after which it will quickly receive a third reading and (if approved) pass to the House of Lords.

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MAKING TIME TO REFORM PARLIAMENTARY TIME

14th May 2013

All this talk of draft bills and Loyal Address amendments about an EU referendum raises several vital democratic issues of parliamentary process, not least that of the ways in which MPs, individually or collectively, can initiate debate or legislation on important topics of the moment.  At its heart, as always, lurks the core problem of Government control of House of Commons business and time.

Supporters of the ‘conventional wisdom’ parliamentary reform agenda over the last half century have justified the pace and route of reform as being incremental, evolutionary and practical, being the only way to achieve change in the face of the Government’s dominant position in the House of Commons.  Those more sceptical may choose to describe it more negatively, as being ad hoc, piecemeal, reactive, incoherent and devoid of any consistent guiding principle.

Some changes come not directly from demands from MPs or even the public, but from the initiative of the Government itself, and these, though dressed up as parliamentary reform to strengthen Parliament, often result in making life easier for Ministers.  Richard Crossman in the 1960s said there was a difference between parliamentary reform and modernisation, when he was distinguishing practical updating in infrastructure and facilities from procedural changes.  In the modern context, too often ‘modernisation’ has been the catchword for changes which assist the Government, or which can be absorbed by Ministers without serious inconvenience, whereas genuine ‘reform’, to make Parliament itself more powerful and effective, especially in relation to the Executive, has to take a back seat, awaiting Government permission and, worse, facilitation.

So it is with ‘parliamentary time’ and the control and order of business.  There have been some changes, especially to the scope for debate not initiated by Ministers, such as Westminster Hall.  There has been the innovation of the Backbench Business Committee, but that has been hobbled by the albatross of the Government’s e-petition wheeze around its shoulders.  Some ever-optimistic souls are still waiting in hope for the emergence of Government proposals for a ‘House Business Committee’ of some sort, originally promised for this year.

But we also wait in vain for fundamental change to issues like the current antiquated arrangements for backbench legislative initiative.  How different would the current ‘discussions’ of EU referendum legislation opportunities be if we didn’t have to rely on the various existing ‘private members bill’ processes, with its random ballot and limited scope for genuine progress of controversial bills, but if there were clear and efficient arrangements for the allocation of time for all types of parliamentary business, including scope for debates and legislative initiative by non-Governmental sources, such as backbenchers – getting rid of the unhelpful term ‘private member’ would be a small but symbolic reform – and committees.

The current confused mess – which may, in many ways, be helpful to Ministers – further undermines the Commons’ reputation with the public as an effective, responsive and accountable representative assembly, able to address coherently important issues of public interest.  Time for real, principled and all-embracing reform!

TIME TO RECALL A SHELVED PARLIAMENTARY REFORM

The UK Parliament was recalled on 10 April to mark the death of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. This post does not discuss whether recall was an appropriate response – personally, I do think it was – but considers how Parliament, especially the House of Commons, was recalled, as it is a good example of the wider, and fundamentally important, issue of the autonomy of Parliament, and its relationship with the Executive.

Parliament’s website announced the recall of both Houses. In respect of the Commons, it stated that “Standing Order 13 gives the Speaker the authority to recall the House of Commons when it stands adjourned, if he is satisfied it is within the public interest.” That sounds fair enough, in keeping with this core democratic body’s standing as the main representative forum of the people. But wait, what it didn’t say was that such a recall by the Speaker can only be done if triggered by the initiative of the Government. What the Standing Order actually says is:

“Whenever the House stands adjourned and it is represented to the Speaker by Her Majesty’s Ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet at a time earlier than that to which the House stands adjourned, the Speaker, if he is satisfied that the public interest does so require, may give notice that, being so satisfied, he appoints a time for the House to meet, and the House shall accordingly meet at the time stated in such notice.” [S.O.no 13(1), emphasis added].

So, at least as regards initiating recall of the Commons, the Daily Telegraph headline “Margaret Thatcher: David Cameron recalls Parliament for ‘remarkable’ former British leader” was probably a more accurate statement. A report in the Guardian suggested that the recall “was the idea of the prime minister and involved him in a lengthy wrangle with the Speaker’s Office. John Bercow felt there was no need to recall parliament, and was taken aback by the request. His office thought the tributes could be paid next Monday in line with precedent for previous deaths of party leaders. At one point, Cameron had to enlist the support of Miliband to overcome the opposition, and Labour sources said they felt faced with a fait accompli and did not want to risk being seen as failing to show Thatcher due respect.”

A useful Parliamentary briefing paper issued on 9 April, discusses the procedural and practical aspects of the Commons recall process; looks at how it is handled (generally differently) in the Lords and in the devolved parliament/assemblies, and proposals for its reform, within and outwith Parliament, especially to make it a procedure in the hands of the House and its Speaker rather than subject to the instigation of Ministers.

In particular, it records such a proposal by the previous Labour Government, in its 2007 green paper, The governance of Britain, and the announcement of an inquiry into this and related issues by the then Modernisation Committee. Despite much trumpeting at the time that the Modernisation Committee was an effective way to get Parliamentary reform – especially because it was chaired by a Government minister, the Leader of the House (!!!) – the Committee never completed its inquiry or took oral evidence, though some of its written evidence was published.

It should also be noted that the 2009-2010 ‘Wright Committee’ on the reform of the Commons – whose work is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – did not address various  “contentious issues” on the House’s sitting patterns, and had “no collective view” on recall, but it did make a more general point very strongly (para 101): ”But we do recommend that the House should at least decide for itself when it sits and does not sit.” [bold in original].

What a refreshingly democratic notion! How about doing something about it, dear representatives of the people?

McKay Commission Report: Parliament on the Sidelines … Again

28th March 2013

In a couple of earlier posts (here and here), I looked at the creation and operation of the McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question, criticising the fact that it was set up unilaterally by the Government, despite dealing with a core issue of parliamentary procedure.

Sadly, its newly-published report confirms this executive-centred approach to parliamentary reform.  The key section entitled ‘next steps’ (paras 248-9) contains phrases like “We envisage that the Government would first make an assessment of our proposals and put before the House..” and “When the House has expressed its views, we suggest that the Government should move for a select committee to advise the House on the details..”

Announcing publication of the report on 25 March, ministers said: “We will consider seriously and constructively this report and provide a substantive response to it in due course.”

The initial response from parliamentary officers and committees was ….. [fill in the blank].

Presumably Parliament is expected, as usual, to sit back quietly and wait for its executive masters to work out how it should operate.  The idea that one of the Commons’ select committees dealing with House matters (given the current Political & Constitutional Reform Committee’s inquiry into the ‘Wright Committee reforms’, we currently have 2 of them, ie it and Procedure Committee) should do a brisk inquiry into the subject of WLQ and the McKay Report, independently of Government’s own deliberations, is presumably far too revolutionary for the current House.  Ditto for some sort of initiative of this sort by the Speaker.

Or perhaps they will surprise us all?

The McKay ‘West Lothian’ Commission: Two Cheers?

In a post last month on this Blog (here) I looked at the new McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question, and especially at its status and operation, given that it  was set up, and is sponsored, by Government, not Parliament. It argued that, despite this provenance, to have any credibility and utility it needed to demonstrate independence, openness & transparency, and real public and parliamentary engagement. This includes a genuinely open evidence-taking process, and transparency through, for example, a live website and an initial ‘consultation paper’.

The Commission met for the first time in late February, and it seems some of this minimum agenda has been adopted. For example, there is now a website – note the word ‘independent’ in the address, akin to that of the Silk Commission on devolution in Wales, a similar Government established and resourced commission. It is, at this early stage, a bit thin, but potentially it can be used as the engine of its operation in much the same way that the impressive, content-rich Silk Commission site has developed.

The crucial tests are those of openness & transparency and of genuine, evidence-based engagement with public and parliaments. For example, the Cabinet Office press release on 17 January suggested that the Commission “will be expected to call experts to give oral or written evidence.” The website front-page now invites “submissions and enquiries from those with an interest or views on the West Lothian question”, though its 2 March press release (hands up, all those who spotted this!) is a bit more engaging, stating that “the Commission is keen to hear from those with views on the subject of the West Lothian question” and quotes its Chair, Sir William McKay, as saying that “the Commission had a productive first meeting and will be meeting again soon to develop its thinking and initiate arrangements to progress its work.”

Does this mean that it is starting with a genuinely blank sheet of paper, within the terms of its remit, or that it is to be largely expert-driven, with a veneer of public engagement? We must hope the former, ie not just ‘transparency’ (“look, but don’t touch”) but genuine ‘openness’. That requires a more positive and engaging approach than has been suggested thus far – again the Silk Commission (and earlier devolution inquiries like Calman or Richard) can provide a model to learn from. If the Commission is not in a position yet to issue a consultation or ‘issues & questions’ paper, as a focus for its inquiry, it could state that it intends to do so, as a prelude to formal evidence-taking or public/parliamentary consultation.

That the Commission requests submissions by 13 April is potentially concerning, unless this is just intended to be a preliminary phase, prior to a more formal consultation/evidence-gathering process which includes the public. However, the Commission said on 2 March that its next meeting will be in late March and “it is planned that evidence will be heard by the Commission in April, May and June. Dates and locations of forthcoming meetings will be published through the website over the coming weeks in March.”

There remains the thorny issue of the extent of its remit. Even apart from what ministers say is expected to be excluded (especially devolution funding and Commons representation), the Commission needs, initially, to set out very clearly and openly how wide or narrow it sees its terms of reference. Will they include, for example, ‘Sewel Convention’ aspects, or inter-parliamentary relations? Will they take account (and if so, how?) of the three devolution ‘settlements’ as being dynamic processes, as with the current Scotland Bill, the Silk Commission and the looming Scottish Independence Referendum, so that their proposals are adequately flexible and robust to accommodate conceivable developments in the coming years?

So, two cheers for now, and a hope that the third cheer will be soon deserved.

The West Lothian Commission: getting it right from the outset

The recently announced McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question has the potential to be a significant factor in the constitutional and political development of the UK.  Whether it makes things better or worse will depend a lot on how it goes about its work.  The initial omens are not good.

The Commission derives from the May 2010 Coalition Government agreement to “establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’”, itself derived from a similar pledge in the Conservative manifesto, and a more general one in the Liberal Democrat manifesto about the place of England in any new constitutional arrangement.  The Government’s thinking, as it developed, was set out in Parliament by Ministers, culminating in the announcement on 17 January.

I and others have already commented on the narrowness of the Commission’s remit, and its prospects for ‘success’, however that is measured.  These are important issues, because, for example, if its report is seen to be timid because of its inherent restrictions, it could inflame rather than quell the claimed resentments inEnglandabout the current situation.  Not to mention the possibility of it being largely overtaken by any move towards Scottish independence….

The recent announcement said that the Commission will begin its work this month, and it is understand that the members will meet for the first time over the next few weeks.  As far as I can see, no further details have been released.  So, perhaps there is still time for a few suggestions on its structure and operation:

Sponsorship: The Commission is described by Ministers as “independent” and “non-partisan”.  Be that as it may, it is wholly a Government exercise, supported by Cabinet Office staff – albeit with, according to Ministers, some initial consultation with House authorities.  Sadly, but wholly true to form, the idea that such a Commission, solely examining Commons procedure and practice, should actually emanate from Parliament rather than Government is, almost literally, unthinkable to the Westminster/Whitehall political and media classes.  It is probably too late for such a fundamental change, but, at the very least, the sponsorship of the Commission should be shared equally by the House and the Cabinet Office, including resourcing and staffing support (the Cabinet Office probably still has a senior Commons Clerk on secondment to liaise on parliamentary issues).  The Commission should report to both the Speaker and the Deputy Prime Minister.  Its contact details, including website, should reflect its independent status, and not be seen as a Government outpost.

Public Engagement:    The Commission should operate at least as openly and inclusively as we now expect from such an independent, expert public sector inquiry. Westminster, following the lead of Holyrood and the other devolveds, is becoming more ‘publicly engaged’, so any reform inquiry should, at worst, match the openness of a Westminster select committee – a fairly undemanding standard.  The ministerial announcements make no mention of this, so the implication is that it is to be an exclusive, private inquiry, engaging solely with “experts” (as last month’s announcement put it).  What is needed includes an accessible website containing all relevant information and scope for interactivity; the early publication of a consultation paper or ‘issues & questions’ paper on which to invite evidence and comments from the public; public sessions (ideally all around the UK), and interim reports describing the Commission’s thinking.  There may well be scope for ‘private seminars’ and similar standard inquiry devices where discussion can be free and frank, but these should complement, not replace, public evidence-gathering and operation.

Parliamentary engagement:  There needs to be formal engagement, in an open and transparent manner, with the House of Commons at all levels.  Quiet words with selected officials, committee chairs, whips and the like through the ‘usual channels’ may still be seen as acceptable parliamentary practice at Westminster even today, but it is not good enough for such an important inquiry. Even the narrow remit of the Committee engages the interests of the House authorities, its various committees, party groups, individual Members and others.    Similar engagement should take place with the UK Government, and the devolved parliaments/assemblies and administrations, which all have genuine interests in the Commission’s work. The thorny issue of the Sewel Convention – a relevant parallel to the West Lothian Question, from a legislative procedural perspective – was eventually dealt with reasonably clearly some years ago, when parliamentary committees north and south of the border finally cooperated openly to tackle it.

Whether the Coalition Government’s aim in setting up this Commission is to ‘solve’ the West Lothian Question or to kill it off as a running sore, the more legitimate the Commission is seen to be by the public and politicians alike, in terms of its structure and operation, the better chance, however slim, of some sort of positive and productive outcome.