Pressures to recall parliament over Brexit during the summer seem likely – what if they occur?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgIMG_20190723_020219.jpg (1)A new Prime Minister is expected to be appointed tomorrow, the day before MPs break up for the summer recess. With just 14 weeks remaining before the current Article 50 deadline, the Commons is then not due to meet for almost six weeks. This creates some very obvious scrutiny gaps. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover suggest that pressures for a Commons ‘recall’ during the summer recess seem likely, but that this will revive difficult questions about who can, and should be able to, recall MPs.

On Thursday, MPs are due to leave Westminster for the summer recess. Yet, barring mishaps, a new Prime Minister is expected to be installed in Downing Street only the preceding day, making immediate parliamentary scrutiny of the new government’s key decisions all but impossible. An added pressure, of course, comes from the Brexit context. The current Article 50 deadline for the UK to depart the EU is 31 October, but parliament is due to remain closed for around half that time – for almost six weeks initially, until 3 September, followed by another break for the party conferences. During this period, calls for parliamentary scrutiny of the new government – most obviously over Brexit – seem very likely to grow. 

In this post we examine the pressures that may build for a recall of parliament during the summer, and what mechanisms exist for MPs if they do. Crucially, a formal Commons recall can only be initiated by the government – which may push parliamentarians towards innovative solutions. In the longer term, pressures for reform of the recall process may well be revived. 

Why there may be pressures for recall 

Demands for the Commons to be recalled from a recess are not unusual, as discussed below. However, they seem especially probable this year. MPs are set to break up just one day after the new Prime Minister takes office, while the tensions over Brexit and how he intends to handle this (particularly if the winner is Boris Johnson) are running high.

An initial challenge, raised in another recent post on this blog, is whether it will even be possible to know that the new Prime Minister and his government enjoy the confidence of parliament. The first action of a new premier is to appoint a cabinet, followed by junior ministers. Within the 24 hours available to the House of Commons, this process may not be complete. As the Commons’ confidence depends not only on the personality of the Prime Minister, but the personalities and balance of the whole government, this could well be brought into doubt. Additionally, there will be very little time under current plans for parliament to quiz the Prime Minister on his Brexit strategy. A statement on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday is possible, but not assured – and if MPs are dissatisfied there will be very little time to respond. The immediate start to the recess hence already looks problematic, and MPs may depart amidst claims that the new Prime Minister is dodging scrutiny. Continue reading

175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. Continue reading

Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

Effective and influential: where next for departmental select committees?

220px.Official_portrait_of_Dr_Sarah_Wollaston_crop_2Forty years after the creation of departmental select committees, it is beyond doubt that they have contributed significantly to the scrutiny of government. But could they be doing more? The House of Commons Liaison Committee has established an inquiry to answer this question. Dr Sarah Wollaston explains that this is a necessary task to ensure that committees continue to innovate and perform their crucial functions with the involvement of MPs, experts and the general public.

It is difficult to imagine a House of Commons without its select committees. They are places where MPs can come together and work across party divides, often showing parliament at its best. They are central to the scrutiny of government. They have the authority to question those with influence and power but are also forums where MPs engage with and listen to a range of voices, and provide a platform to those who might otherwise not be heard. Committee work provides an important focus for the working lives of many MPs, who can use them to develop and deploy their own expertise. But in fact this level and intensity of scrutiny of the government and other agencies of the state by parliament is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The departmental select committee system will celebrate its fortieth birthday in June this year. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of all the Chairs of the select committees, sees this anniversary as providing an unmissable opportunity to take stock and reflect on whether select committees are fulfilling their potential, and if not, to find what is stopping them. Do select committees do the right things, with the right people, resources, powers and outputs? What has worked well, and what could they do better?

The 1979 select committee reforms were heralded at the time as the start of a great new era. Norman St John Stevas, then Leader of the House, stated that the Commons was ‘embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important parliamentary reforms of the century’. Although select committees had a long parliamentary history, their use had declined through the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in 1970, Bernard Crick, the political philosopher, noted that the government had resisted establishing a select committee system:

For one thing, Select Committees on matters of public policy have been thoroughly distrusted and disliked by the Whips; despite government majorities on them, they have an awkward tendency to develop cross-bench sentiment, and a shocking habit of regarding the Executive as guilty until it is proved innocent. Continue reading

Parliamentary reform and The Constitution Unit

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In the last of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Tony Wright reflects on 20 years of parliamentary change and reform. He argues that parliament has become a good deal better over the past two decades, and points to Unit research as making a major contribution to bringing this about.

I am struck by the fact that if you want to campaign for office in the United States, you have to campaign against Washington. Every candidate has to be going to Washington to sort them out, to break the Washington consensus. What I notice is that this has now started to happen here. Everybody campaigning for office here seems to have to attack Westminster, or the ‘Westminster elite’. This was standard fare in Nicola Sturgeon and Nick Clegg’s general election speeches, and in the Labour leadership contest. Now this is an interesting development, and it is certainly different from twenty years ago. Even at this event today, we have been encouraged by Vernon Bogdanor to organise our thoughts around the idea that parliamentary sovereignty is a busted flush, and the serious ways that power has been cut into pieces. I would actually put a more positive spin on it, and say that there has been accountability explosion over the last twenty years. If you think back about the accountability environment then, and what it is now, we are in a different world. In that respect there is much to put in the positive ledger.

But the problem is where does parliament fit in to that changed environment? The health of our representative institutions is something that matters and getting the right relationship between the old forms of representative democracy and the new forms that we might want to develop is where the challenge comes. The mistake we make is how we think we can embrace new forms, and simply forget about these old institutional bits, when the health of our representative institutions actually matters profoundly. And in some respects – and this is why I react against this Westminster elite trope – parliament has got a good deal better over these last 20 years.

Continue reading

Farewell to the Commons: Reflections on parliamentary change over 40 years

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On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.

Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.

For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.

Continue reading

Time For Commons To Seize The Reform Moment

01 September 2013

Seizing the moment

There has been much talk about shifts in the balance of parliamentary-Executive relations following the Government’s defeat on the Syria vote on 29 August, with Parliament said to be more emboldened in standing up to the Executive – despite the fact that, for example, it was still only the Government, not the Speaker or MPs, who could initiate its recall to have that debate and vote.

In a recent CU Blogpost criticising the endorsement of the ‘Wright approach’ by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I outlined a way in which the Commons itself could take control of its own agenda and procedures back from the Government.  Here, I explore this issue further, in the hope that someone within the Palace of Westminster might feel that there is now, because of the events of ‘29/8’, a brief window of opportunity for a radical move forward.

The PCRC Report, and its related media and Chamber statements, made the usual call for its particular analysis to be accepted and its proposals to be implemented.  But like all such calls, it has no way of ensuring that the House – in practice, the Government – pays any heed at all to this plaintive plea.  How can the House or its committees make those reforms they may want actually happen, without being totally dependent on the Executive’s blessing?

Bypassing the Executive blockage

One approach would be to bypass existing formal structures and procedures, such as select committees or debates, as these are ultimately subject to Executive veto or control.  Alongside this Government-dominated ‘parliamentary’ Commons where the formal business of the House is conducted (mostly in public), lives an ‘institutional’ Commons, where the Government’s dominance does not apply, at least to the same degree.  At the apex of this ‘institutional House’ – a rather byzantine structure (see the House ‘organogram’) – is the Speaker, the HC Commission and the House Service (ie the House’s own staff), supported (often in private) by any number of departments, committees and the like (some of which, like the Commission and various ‘domestic’ committees, have MP or ministerial membership).

What if a ‘parliamentary reform body’ existed within this institutional structure, and not as a traditional parliamentary committee?

Crucially, the ‘institution’ operates according to public aims, objectives and principles, articulated in its Strategic and Management Plans.  These apply to the House Service, but many of them relate to the ‘parliamentary’ operation of the House (Chamber, Committee and related activities of the House and its Members), and to its relation with the public.  As such, it seems both obvious and logical for any reform proposals coming from select committees, the Government or from external sources also to be assessed against these standards.  Such compliance would also have the benefit that individual reform proposals would be designed to contribute to the achievement of an overall, consistent approach, rather than, as is the norm in the Commons, ad hoc, piecemeal and often reactive.

The HC Strategic Plan as the benchmark

The current version of the Commons’ ‘mission statement’ seems to be the Strategy for the House of Commons Service 2013-17.  For ‘reform compliance’ purposes, the key parts of the Strategy include the following:

“Our vision is that: The House of Commons will be valued as the central institution in our democracy: effective in holding the Government to account, scrutinising legislation, and representing the diverse views of the electorate. It will be seen both in the UK and abroad as a model of good practice and innovation, and will provide value for money. Members of Parliament will have the information, advice, support and technology they need to be effective in their work and to engage closely with their constituents.”

It then lists various ‘strategic goals’ with specific actions, such as

“1. We will make the House of Commons more effective by:

• supporting the House in implementing reforms to the way in which the Government is held to account and in strengthening the scrutiny of legislation

• supporting initiatives that develop new ways to represent the diverse views of the electorate

• influencing decisions on constitutional and procedural change, and being ready to respond to the outcomes

……………

3. We will ensure that Members, staff and the public are well-informed by:

• giving Members and their staff the support and access to the information they require to be effective in their role…

• giving the public the information needed to understand and appreciate the work of the House and its Members, by continuing to develop our website, education and outreach services, and opening a new Education Centre at Westminster

 4. We will work at every level to earn respect for the House of Commons by:..

• encouraging public participation in parliamentary business, including the work of select committees and the legislative process, and making the House more welcoming to the public

Within all this are various key benchmarks against which procedural reforms can, and should, be assessed, to ensure that reform proposals are ‘Strategy compliant’.

‘Speaker’s Advisory Panel on Strategy Compliance’

Just as the Speaker unilaterally set up his Advisory Council on Public Engagement in 2009-10, so he could establish something similar to assess procedural reform proposals.  I believe that the office of Speaker is a more appropriate sponsor for this body, rather than, say, the Commission or the Management Board, because the Speaker is, in the words of the parliamentary website, “chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons”, and is political impartial in office.

Membership of this body would be a matter for careful consideration.  Arguably its membership should not to be confined to MPs or Commons officials, but also contain appropriate ‘external’ representatives, including senior former members of Westminster Model parliaments/assemblies within and outwith the UK (a retired devolved Presiding Officer would be a good option as Chair), academics and members of civic society.

The remit of the Panel would be to review all proposals for Commons reform – from relevant committees, such as Procedure, PCRC, Liaison, Privileges and Standards, and from the Government (as set out in election manifestos, Queen’s speeches, Coalition agreements etc) – and to assess how well they match the principles, vision and goals set out in the current Strategy for the House Service.

Again its working process would be a matter for careful consideration – not least to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort – but should be open and transparent, and involve the public as well as the relevant officials, Members, and ministers. It would be required to make a public report to the Speaker setting out its conclusions on the extent to which the proposals are or are not compliant with the Strategy.  The Speaker would then certify these conclusions as ‘compliant’ (in whole or in part) or ‘not compliant’ and transmit them to the relevant initiating body, with the expectation that ‘not compliant’ proposals will not be proceeded with unless and until appropriately amended.

This would all be informal and indicative, as they are unlikely – at least initially – to be adopted in Standing Orders or the like, and would rely for their ‘enforcement’ on the prestige of the office of Speaker and the robustness of the work of the Panel.  However, if it became accepted as the norm, it would be a way for the House as a corporate institution to assert its autonomy and influence how it operates.

Over to the Speaker

Occupants of the Chair elsewhere can be proactive in matters of procedural reform – it was, for example, the Holyrood PO who triggered the review process which led to major changes in 2011-12 – and there is no reason why the Commons Speaker, who is at the centre of both the ‘parliamentary’ and ‘institutional’ Commons, should not be the catalyst for this proposed development in Commons reform.

The present Speaker came to the Chair as a ‘reformist’, and he has continued to express such sentiments, as in his recent speech in New Zealand.  He has been handed a rare opportunity now to give effect to his aspirations for a reformed House, by providing a coherent and public framework – however transitional – for ensuring that desired reforms are not obstructed or delayed by Ministers and that Government initiatives (such as the linkage of its e-petitions scheme to the backbench business innovation) are not unilaterally or inappropriately ‘imposed’ on the House.  Carpe diem!