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

Punch & Judy Politics? The roles and functions of Prime Minister’s Question Time

ruxandra.serbanIn their recently published book, former Labour advisers Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton explore the backstage machinery behind Prime Minister’s Question Time. Drawing on her PhD research, which focuses on parliamentary mechanisms for holding prime ministers accountable in parliamentary democracies, Ruxandra Serban reflects on how the book informs wider debates in legislative studies.

Prime Minister’s Question Time does not have a particularly good reputation. Designed as a weekly opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister, it is criticised for being noisy, excessively theatrical, scripted, and confrontational. But to what extent does it fulfil its role in holding the Prime Minister to account? What other roles does it perform for parliament and for the political system?

As PMQs provides a forum for the head of government to be questioned publicly and routinely by MPs, its implications for politics and for the workings of democracy are very important. In the recently published Punch & Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton offer useful insights into the procedures and practices for holding Prime Ministers accountable. Drawing on interviews with key players at the centre of politics, as well as on their experience as advisers to several Labour Party leaders, the authors expose the machinery behind the weekly duel between party leaders. In what is a thorough and insightful overview of PMQs, they trace the development of the procedure from its introduction in 1961, document the extensive preparation that goes on both in No 10 and in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and describe the strategies underpinning questions and answers. In providing such a detailed account, the book in part sets out to understand the roles and functions of PMQs, and contributes to a wider conversation in legislative studies about the functions of parliamentary questions, and of parliaments more generally. Continue reading

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)The EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Theresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the ‘Official’ Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the use of the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the ‘Official Opposition’. Hence, the guarantee of questions at PMQs.

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Exploring Parliament: opening a window onto the world of Westminster

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)Cristina.Leston.Bandeira.1.000In February this year, Oxford University Press published Exploring Parliament, which aims to provide an accessible introduction to the workings of the UK parliament. In this post, the book’s editors, Louise Thompson and Cristina Leston-Bandeira, explain why the book is necessary and what it hopes to achieve.

If you travelled to Parliament Square today you’d see hundreds of tourists gathered in and around the Palace of Westminster. Over 1 million people visited parliament in 2017 to take part in organised tours, watch debates in the Lords and Commons chambers, attend committee hearings and visit its unique gift shops. Many more will have watched parliamentary proceedings on television; most likely snapshots of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). Recognition of the iconic building, with its gothic architecture, distinctive furnishings and vast corridors is high. However, the public’s understanding of what actually goes on within the Palace of Westminster is much lower.

As we write this blog it is another typically busy day in parliament. Among the many other things happening in the Commons today, Labour MP Diana Johnson is asking an Urgent Question on the contaminated blood scandal, there is a backbench debate on autism and an adjournment debate on air quality. Over in the Lords, peers will be scrutinising the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill and debating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Those of us who teach, research or work in parliament will know what each of these activities is. We’ll know why the Commons chamber will be far quieter during adjournment debates than at question times and we’ll be able to follow with relative ease the discussion in the Lords as peers scrutinise the various clauses, schedules, and amendments being made to government legislation. But to the wider public the institution can seem somewhat opaque. The language may seem impenetrable, the procedures archaic and the customs of debate unfamiliar. One may say there is therefore an important role, and perhaps duty, for those of us who teach and research parliament to inform and educate the wider public about the diverse range of roles being performed each day by the institution and its members. Continue reading

Questioning Prime Ministers: a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies

Prime Ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there has been little comparative research on how they are held to account by parliaments. As part of her PhD research Ruxandra Serban is seeking to fill this gap. Here, she outlines initial findings from a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies.

Prime ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there is little understanding of how they are held accountable by parliaments. What are the mechanisms through which parliamentarians may question them and how do such mechanisms vary procedurally? The UK House of Commons famously provides a high-profile weekly session for questioning the head of government at Prime Minister’s Questions. How does PMQs compare with questioning mechanisms in other parliaments?

Drawing on my PhD research, this blog presents preliminary findings from a survey of procedural rules regarding such mechanisms in 32 parliamentary democracies, and illustrates the variety of procedures available in different countries.

How does questioning take place?

Collective and individualised

Whether prime ministers are questioned individually or together with other ministers is likely to be important in determining how they interact with parliamentarians. The nature of government in parliamentary democracies is collective. Prime ministers lead the government and are collectively responsible together with their cabinets; but in most countries they are not responsible for specific ministerial portfolios. Prime ministers are expected to account for their own actions and also to speak for the government. Consequently, whether or not they are questioned individually or together with ministers is likely to have an important effect on the types of questions they are asked.

Plenary and committee

An additional dimension concerns the distinction between plenary and committee mechanisms. The setting of the procedure creates different types of questioning environments. For example, the Liaison Committee in the UK House of Commons was introduced to complement the main plenary mechanism (PMQs), specifically in order to configure a more focused forum of scrutiny.

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