Parliament and COVID-19: the Coronavirus Bill and beyond

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgThe Coronavirus Bill introduced by the government last week will be debated by parliament in circumstances where it is harder for both Houses to meet, scrutinise and vote than at any time in recent memory. How should parliament respond to both the legislation and the crisis that prompted it? Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler outlines the key issues facing MPs and peers as they consider how parliament should function in the coming months.

Just as the dust is settling on the first phase of the Brexit marathon, and the Constitution Unit and others are examining the role played by Parliament over the past three years, COVID-19 presents itself wholly unexpectedly as a challenge to all the nation’s institutions. Parliament was settling in for five years of single-party majority government and it looked as if, Brexit deal aside, it would be relatively smooth sailing. Now parliament faces the challenge of fulfilling its role in a COVID-19 environment.

The Coronavirus Bill

The government published its Coronavirus Bill on Thursday 19 March, having already revealed the policy proposals to which it gives effect in its Action Plan (published on 3 March) and a more detailed prospectus (published on 17 March). The bill has 87 clauses and 27 Schedules, totalling 321 pages of legislative text. The Explanatory Notes run to 73 pages, and there is a 31-page long memorandum on the implications for human rights.

Commons scrutiny

The bill is to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March for a maximum of six hours: up to four hours on second reading and two hours for committee of the whole House and remaining stages. The House decided on 18 March to disapply the EVEL Standing Orders in relation to the bill, so it will be spared the rigmarole of forming a Legislative Grand Committee.

It has been possible to table amendments since the bill was introduced. Four amendments and four new clauses were tabled on the day of its publication, and more may be expected in so-called ‘manuscript’ form on the day. They mainly address the issue of for how long the Act will be in force. The bill establishes that its provisions will apply for two years, with provisions for individual powers to be ‘sunsetted’ earlier or indeed revived if it falls due to a sunset clause. It also provides for a general debate in both Houses after one year. Both the official opposition and a cross-party group are proposing systems of six-monthly debate and renewal only if the House so decides. It is perhaps significant that the Irish parliament last week passed a similar bill and as a result of amendment decided that it should last for one year. This is an area where some change is likely; both the Scottish Government, and independent human rights organisations such as Liberty, have expressed concerns about the sunset and scrutiny provisions as currently drafted. Continue reading

Has parliament just got boring? Five conclusions from the passage of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act

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The 2019 parliament has passed its first statute: the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Unusually for a major constitutional bill it was approved unamended. Does this demonstrate the shape of things to come, with an enfeebled parliament under Johnson’s majority government? Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that the WAB was not a typical bill, and the circumstances were far from normal. Even under majority government parliament is far from powerless, and the full dynamics of the new situation may take some time to play out.

1. The Act passed easily – but the circumstances were unusual

The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 (the WAA or – before it gained Royal Assent – the WAB) passed with remarkable ease and speed. A 100-page bill implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, it was packed with detailed provisions on everything from citizens’ rights to the operation of the Joint Committee. Nonetheless, following just 11 days’ scrutiny, it passed wholly unamended: five government defeats in the Lords were swiftly overturned when the Bill returned to the Commons.

Comparison with a key previous piece of Brexit legislation – illustrated in the table below – shows how uneventful the WAB’s passage was in relative terms. The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was similar in scope and complexity, but had a far rockier passage. During 36 days’ scrutiny the government was defeated 16 times, including a rare defeat in the Commons. By the time it passed, it had been so heavily amended – by backbenchers, opposition parliamentarians and ministers themselves – that it was 63% longer than when first introduced.

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Dramas at Westminster: select committees and the quest for accountability

iOpQqpWl_400x400.jpgNow that the government has a secure majority in the Commons, the role of select committees in scrutinising its work will be crucial. But how do select committees operate, what makes them tick and how effective are they? Drawing on the findings of his new book, Marc Geddes argues that if we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

How do MPs make sense of their scrutiny work? Accountability is one of three core functions of legislatures (the other two being law-making and representation), yet we know remarkably little about how MPs interpret, or seek to carry out, scrutiny work. Those MPs that do take it seriously often join select committees. They are seen as the main vehicles of accountability in the House of Commons, made up of a small group of MPs to consider policy questions. Traditionally, there is one committee per ministerial department, as well as additional cross-cutting ones (such as on public administration and constitutional affairs). Committees normally consider policy issues through an evidence gathering process that may include written, as well as oral, evidence, before then publishing a report with recommendations for action (very often these reports are published consensually, with agreement from all the committee’s MPs). Select committees are seen to be influential and have been widely celebrated, especially in 2019, which marked the 40th anniversary since their present-day incarnation. While they are seen as fundamental to good scrutiny and we know that they can be influential, I wanted to examine select committees from a different vantage point, asking why MPs join committees and how they make sense of their role. This culminated in a book, Dramas at Westminster. What did I find? 

The core argument of my book is that there is no easy answer or unifying theme to understand what ‘scrutiny’ actually means. Rather, MPs’ interpretations of the concept are wide-ranging and, while MPs’ beliefs often blend well together to create effective means to hold the executive to account, their ideas about select committee work can also contrast and diverge from what others might consider to be ‘good scrutiny’ – or, in fact, ‘scrutiny’ at all. For example, for some, scrutiny is about holding the government’s feet to the fire and they would only regard scrutiny as being successful if they have blown a minister off-course; for others, scrutiny is about transparency, i.e. better understanding why a minister might have taken a particular decision. I argue that these different interpretations create different ‘performance styles’; behaviours that MPs can adopt when they enact their scrutiny role – much like in a theatre or play. To illustrate this point, I identify six styles: specialists, who often form the core of committee business and attempt to analyse aspects of the policy area; lone wolves, who take their passions so far that they make their case irrespective of other committee members or the committee’s remit; constituency champions, who look at scrutiny through the prism of how it can benefit local causes; party helpers, who seek to protect their party interests on the committee; learners, who use their membership to better understand a policy issue; and absentees, who – as their name suggests – are largely absent from substantive committee work.

These styles are not fixed, with many MPs changing the role they adopt based on particular circumstances. For example, it might be the case that an MP is a specialist in one aspect of a committee’s work but not another, and so acts as specialist or learner accordingly; in other areas of a committee’s work, it might directly touch on their constituency while in a hearing with the secretary of state, or they cannot help themselves and use their party allegiance to poke fun at the government. It is worth thinking about performance styles to understand the wider dynamics of committee hearings and evidence processes. Doing this detailed analysis will help us to better understand why a committee will come to certain conclusions but might avoid other recommendations. Most importantly, the performance styles that I have identified here are designed to be illustrative rather than definitive, drawing on the most recurring themes and behaviours that I found during my fieldwork.  Continue reading

This prorogation is improper: the government should reverse it

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgBoris Johnson’s prorogation announcement has generated widespread criticism, and will be hotly debated when MPs return today from their summer break. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell argue that the decision to suspend parliament for five weeks was an improper use of executive power, sets dangerous precedents, and undermines fundamental principles of our constitution. It should therefore not proceed. MPs may seek to block it, and so may the courts, but the preferable route would be for the government to recognise its mistake and reverse it.

MPs return to Westminster today after the five-week summer recess in deeply unusual and worrying circumstances. Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has faced just one day of parliamentary scrutiny since taking office on 24 July, triggered a prorogation of parliament, set to last another five weeks. Particularly given the Brexit deadline of 31 October, this has caused widespread consternation: among opposition parties, senior Conservatives (such as former Prime Minister Sir John Major, and Lord Young of Cookham who served for 24 of the last 40 years on the frontbench under a succession of Conservative leaders), plus constitutional experts, and the wider public. MPs must now decide how to respond, and meanwhile the action is being challenged in the courts. In this piece we argue that the prorogation was improper, that it sets dangerous precedents, that it is contrary to our constitutional traditions, and that there is still time for the government to defuse the crisis by reversing it.

The rights and wrongs of prorogation

At one level, parliamentary prorogation is entirely uncontroversial. By routine, a short prorogation usually occurs each year between the end of one parliamentary session and the start of the next – ahead of a new Queen’s speech. In addition, a short prorogation often occurs before parliament is dissolved for a general election, in order to regulate the timing and ensure that election day takes place on a Thursday. The recent practice and procedure of prorogation is set out clearly in an excellent briefing from the House of Commons Library.

Discussion of potentially more sinister uses of prorogation began during the Conservative leadership contest, when Dominic Raab (now Foreign Secretary) refused to rule out proroguing parliament to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the face of opposition by MPs. This was roundly condemned by others in the race at the time: being described by Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) as ‘trashing democracy’, and Michael Gove (now effective Deputy Prime Minister) as ‘a terrible thing’. Andrea Leadsom (now Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) commented that ‘I don’t think prorogation is the right thing to do and I don’t think that a Prime Minister would choose to do that’.

Following Johnson’s prorogation announcement, ministers have instead suggested that this is absolutely standard procedure. On Thursday’s Today programme, the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, claimed that it was more or less what happened every year, and that it was ‘because of the 3 ½ weeks of conference recess [that] it is five weeks in total’. Hence Rees-Mogg accused critics of the move of expressing ‘confected anger’.

But such suggestions of normality are disingenuous, seeking to exploit public confusion between the different means by which it can be decided that the Commons will not sit. It is important to distinguish between the following three things:

Prorogation brings all parliamentary business to a complete stop. Unless rescued by a government motion, bills that are before parliament fall and must start their passage again. Importantly, the decision to prorogue lies wholly in the hands of the government – through issuing advice to the Queen, which she is duty bound to accept. Usually a prorogation lasts for just a few days. Research by the House of Lords Library shows that a five-week prorogation will be the longest since 1930.  

Parliamentary recess is very different. Recess occurs periodically throughout the year, to accommodate holidays and, usually, a break for the party conferences. However, the decision to adjourn for recess lies with MPs. The motion for the 2019 conference recess had not yet been laid, and the looming Brexit deadline meant that there was increasing pressure from MPs to cancel or cut this recess short. Crucially, it is also possible for some parliamentary business – such as meetings of select committees – to continue during recess, and the progress of bills is not halted.

Dissolution of parliament in contrast occurs before a general election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the decision to dissolve parliament again lies with MPs themselves – and is taken by a parliamentary vote. Dissolution does not simply suspend parliament: as the name suggests, it dissolves parliament in preparation for the creation of a new one through a general election.

Hence either recess or dissolution, sometimes combined with a short prorogation, frequently result in parliamentary breaks which last a number of weeks. But in both of these cases MPs take the decision to break themselves. Had ministers genuinely wanted to hold a ‘routine’ prorogation to facilitate a Queen’s speech, as they claim, they could easily have proposed one lasting a few days, and left the decision to MPs regarding whether to take the conference recess. Instead, they have proposed the longest prorogation for 90 years, using executive power to shut down parliament in the midst of a crisis – seemingly to avoid the risk that MPs would veto the conference recess, and perhaps use the time available defeat the government on other things. As suggested in the previous comments of Conservative leadership contenders, that represents an improper use of executive power. Continue reading

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

Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

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The process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared. Jack Simson Caird believes that we are in the midst of a constitutional moment that has taught us seven key lessons.

Brexit can plausibly be described as a ‘constitutional moment’. The decision to leave the EU will shape the UK constitution over the coming decades. Even if the full extent of the constitutional changes that will flow from Brexit are not yet known, future Prime Ministers will be defined (in part, at least) by their ability to oversee successful constitutional reform. The post-referendum period has revealed a great deal about the relationship between the UK’s political system and its constitutional framework. Those responsible for changing the constitution moving forward will need to learn the lessons from this tumultuous period.

1. Governing without a majority needs a change of approach

One of the principal causes of the current crisis has been the way in which Theresa May’s government approached the task of governing without a majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, members of the government stressed the need to deliver on the referendum result without delay. The overwhelming sentiment was that the government, led by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, should be left to get on with the task of negotiating a deal: a majoritarian mindset disconnected from the reality of a divided Cabinet and parliament. Instead, the government should have sought to build a majority for its proposed approach to delivering Brexit before it triggered Article 50 (or at the beginning of the 2017 Parliament).

Any future government that wishes to deliver constitutional change without a majority should look to the example of 2010 Coalition government. The coalition agreement struck between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats specified the constitutional changes that the two parties would agree to support. Theresa May’s government should have done the same and at the outset sought support for the substance of its approach for delivering Brexit.

2. Identify processes that can help to build consensus

The domestic process by which Brexit was to be delivered was not given sufficient attention early enough. Constitutional change gives rise to cross-cutting issues deserving of a special form of public and parliamentary scrutiny. In the absence of a rock-solid parliamentary majority, a special process needed to be constructed to deliver the constitutional transformation of the scale required by Brexit. The commitment to construct such a process at an early stage would have sent a positive message to other parties – and to the public – that the government was committed to finding a compromise that commanded wide support.

In the absence of a formal agreement with another party, the government could have sought to construct a bespoke process that might have facilitated cross-party support for delivering Brexit.

In the early stages of the process, suggestions that parliament should have more input in the negotiations were rejected on the basis that the government should not have its hands tied. Rather than treating these suggestions as an opportunity to bring MPs onside, they were treated as threats that could derail the process. Theresa May’s government only resorted to indicative votes and cross-party talks after the negotiations with the EU finished (and her deal or no deal strategy had failed) which did little to inspire the sense that the desire to engage was genuine.

3. Parliament needs to develop new forms of influence

The Article 50 process has demonstrated that parliament is a powerful constitutional actor. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was published in November 2018, the majorities against the Withdrawal Agreement and against a no deal exit shaped the debate. However, the Article 50 process has also shown that parliament’s influence on the substance of treaty negotiations and the legislative process is limited. Over the course of the 2017 parliament, the House of Commons inched its way to more control through innovative uses of parliamentary procedure, such as through business of the House motions and the Humble Address. The problem is that MPs only realised the extent of their power when it was too late. This meant that compromises were put together and agreed in haste. Essentially, backbench MPs made the same mistake as the government by not prioritising their influence over the process at an earlier stage.

4. The values of liberal democracy should be robustly defended

During the Brexit process, parliamentary scrutiny and debate has been characterised by some as anti-democratic. However, one of the central tenets of liberal constitutionalism is that proposals to change the constitution should be subject to scrutiny and debate. Constitutional democracy is in a very difficult place if this scrutiny and debate is not valued and defended. The core of the case for a carefully constructed procedure for constitutional change is that it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the end-product. How can constitutional reformers build the case for properly constructed change, if deliberation itself is undervalued in UK political culture?

The House of Commons and the Civil Service are restricted in their ability to defend their constitutional role by the requirements of impartiality. So, advocates of constitutional democracy need to robustly defend the role that institutions play in empowering citizens through democratic deliberation. No one is suggesting that politicians or institutions should be free from criticism (on the contrary, criticism is critical to their health and development). However, Brexit has highlighted a need for the values that underpin the basic elements of the democratic process to be defended far more vigorously.

5. Reframe the language of constitutional democracy

Prior to the referendum vote, the Vote Leave campaign demonstrated that a constitutional argument could be framed and communicated in a way that could cut through. Restoration of sovereignty (‘take back control’) was central to the Vote Leave campaign narrative. However, in the post-referendum period, the government has struggled to find a way of communicating the message that leaving the EU with a deal would empower ordinary citizens.

Of course, the reality of constitutional change is more complex than the messaging during the referendum campaign conveyed. However, it is clear that the constitutional ambition of the government was limited by its ability to communicate the value of democratic institutions. Implementing Brexit through radical constitutional change (by, for example, devolving power to English regions) would have required innovative ways of communicating this change to voters – and the government did not have this capacity.

6. Bring law and politics closer together

The Brexit process has exposed a fairly dysfunctional relationship between law and politics in Westminster. Parliamentarians have often been called out for misunderstanding some of the legal fundamentals of the Brexit process. The level of understanding of international law and EU law has been particularly problematic (although this perhaps reflects the limited incentives that parliamentarians have so far had to engage with either of these areas of law). At the same time, it is important to recognise that lawyers are not best equipped to engage with politics. As a result, the Brexit process has often been characterised by a frustratingly circular discourse. To improve the quality of debate over constitutional change, we need to bridge the gap between law and politics.

7. We need politicians that want to build a constitutional consensus

It may be that the UK’s constitutional democracy is in such difficulty that it cannot be repaired through piecemeal change. However, a more radical constitutional overhaul (perhaps in the form of a written constitution) will require politicians that are willing to prioritise finding a new constitutional settlement to resolve the post-Brexit divisions. At present, there are very few frontline politicians that prominently advocate constitutional change. It is not a message that seems to garner support.

Professor Jeff King’s inaugural lecture – delivered at University College London in April 2018 – persuasively argued that moving towards a written constitution in the UK would provide a means for citizens to take ownership over the UK’s constitutional democracy. In order to revitalise constitutional democracy in the UK post-Brexit, political leadership will need to harness this insight and communicate it to the public at large.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Counsel and is reprinted with permission.  

About the author

Dr Jack Simson Caird is Senior Research Fellow in Parliaments and the Rule of Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He tweets as @jasimsoncaird

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Should we worry if MPs seize control of the parliamentary agenda?

download.001Ahead of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit, attention has focused on the rights and wrongs of the House of Commons seeking to ‘seize control’. Meg Russell argues that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.

With stalemate over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejected dramatically by the House of Commons on 15 January by 432 votes to 202, there is increasing talk of parliament ‘seizing control’. On Tuesday, following the Speaker’s controversial decision to allow a vote on Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve’s amendment speeding up the timetable, MPs will vote on a series of propositions about what should happen next. These include a further proposal by Grieve that the government’s usual control of the agenda should be set aside on specified days to allow MPs to make decisions on Brexit, and a proposal from Labour’s Yvette Cooper that such control be set aside to allow time to debate a private member’s bill demanding that ministers avoid a no deal Brexit by requesting an extension to Article 50.

Consequently, some inside government have expressed concerns that the Commons, with the Speaker’s assistance, is overreaching itself. It has been reported that an internal government document warns of MPs’ moves ‘represent[ing] a clear and present danger to all government business’, and even meaning that ‘the government would lose its ability to govern’. One senior legal figure (whose career was spent inside the government) has argued that changes of this kind could set dangerous precedents for the future, even potentially dragging the monarch into a constitutional crisis (though other legal experts have firmly rebutted such claims).

So are we entering dangerous constitutional territory? What is, after all, so odd about the idea of a democratically-elected chamber gaining greater control over its own time, and its own rules? Continue reading