The Wright Way to Infantilise the Commons

The short Commons debate on Monday 12 March on procedural changes to the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC) provided further proof that Government (and front benches generally) has no intention of ceding its dominance over the parliamentary agenda in any fundamental way, and will permit ‘reform’ only on its own terms and in its own good time.

What a pity that the vast legions of the ‘conventional wisdom’ – in academe, media and inside Westminster itself – will no doubt ignore this, as they have all clear signs in the last few years that the alleged empowering of Parliament, through the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee, is being skewed and diluted by ministers and their allies. The Backbench Business Committee is hailed as the battering ram which is breaching Government control of Commons business (what is discussed and when etc.), leading to the ultimate prize of a ‘full’ House Business Committee in the coming year.

I have blogged on all this, both in this Blog and elsewhere (eg here, and here), arguing for genuine Commons control (on behalf of the public they represent) of their own House and its operation, especially in respect of its business.  Monday’s debate is a good example of a government (any government) unilaterally deciding to propose its own changes to a select committee – and the one which is supposed to determine Backbench business! – at a time of its own choosing, and, according the BBBC’s chair and others, not only without consulting that committee in advance but also in the middle of a Procedure Committee review of the BBBC.  Because Ministers control time, all backbenchers can do is complain about it, or try to prevent it through amendments, when surely in any mature parliament worthy of the name, the timing of such a debate and the content of any proposed motions would be a matter for the House itself – through some form of genuine Business Committee.

The standard ministerial excuse is that all Government is doing is ‘providing an opportunity’ for debate and ‘facilitating’ discussion through its agenda-setting.  Note, in passing, that this debate was held alongside ‘sexier’ ones on MPs standards, guaranteed to monolopolise the limited available political and media interest.  Even worse, the minister putting all this through was  David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House (and my local MP) – the same David Heath who, when in opposition, demanded “An Everest of reform … to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose” and declared that “It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business.” Oh, I forgot, he’s now only ‘providing opportunities for debate and decision ….

Mr Heath is learning all the front bench business manager tricks. For example, he said on Monday that “Wright is not holy writ and should not be treated as such, not least because there are internal contradictions in the Wright report, just as there are sometimes in holy writ.”  In other words, we in Government can cherry-pick what we want out of the Wright reform blueprint, and ignore or change what we dont like.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the best – indeed, only – sensible strategy for acheiving reform is to go along with the Government (as has been done over the Government’s own unilateral e-petitions system being dropped into the BBBC mix) and to try and ‘save’ as much of the Wright blueprint as possible.  We can argue how radical Wright really was, in that glorious window of opportunity provided fleetingly by the expenses scandal of 2009.  What the incrementalists and trimmers have to demonstrate now is that when (perhaps, if) they actually can claim success over a full House Business Committee, it will be one worth having, and that the arrangement of Commons business will have really shifted decisively from the Government (and front benches more generally) to the House collectively on behalf of the people.

Monday’s debate confirms that the omens are not good.  But there may just be time for those who profess to seek genuine radical reform to act before it is too late, and try to overcome the House’s self-defeating acquiescence to government initiative over parliamentary reform.  After all, it was the Wright Committee itself which rightly asserted, in unequivocal terms, that “Time in the House belongs to the House,” and warned that  Government control of parliamentary time “infantilises Members.”  Time to grow up!

MPs’ Expenses, IPSA and Constitutional Watchdogs: A Parliamentary Committee Inquiry-Lite?

Did you know that a House of Commons Committee is currently holding an inquiry into the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009? No? Thought not.

The Act is the centrepiece of the Government-inspired response to the Members’ expenses scandal, and which created IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority).  Given the media and public firestorm over expenses in 2009, and the continuing bad press – especially the patent lack of sympathy with Members’ criticisms of the new system – it is a pity, if not really surprising, that the current Inquiry, by the aptly-named Members Expenses Committee, is proceeding almost unnoticed.

The Inquiry was ordered by the House in mid-May, but was not actually announced until mid-July, after a protracted delay in establishing the Committee’s membership, when it was given until the end of this year to report.  Its remit was relatively broad, perhaps to reflect the range of Members’ concerns about the operation of the IPSA-run system:

“to review the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and make recommendations, giving due consideration to ensuring:
(a) value for money for taxpayers;

(b) accountability;

(c) public confidence in Parliament;

(d) the ability of Members to fulfil their duties effectively;

(e) fairness for less well-off Members and those with families; and

(f) that Members are not deterred from submitting legitimate claims.”

A Committee press release of 20 July sought written evidence by 3 October.  This evidence has now been placed on the Committee’s website, including a submission by me. To date, there have been 4 oral evidence sessions since mid-September.

It is a pity that there has not been more interest in this Inquiry. Apart from the detailed issues of the structure and operation of the new expenses system (as an aside, the Committee is chaired by Adam Afriyie, who publicly supported in 2009 the replacement of the current salary and expenses with a single ‘consideration’ based on the initial 1911 figure of £400pa, as up-rated by reference to average earnings), it is proving to be a forum for more fundamental questions of constitutional interest, including the nature and purpose of ‘constitutional watchdogs’, especially those which have a close connection with Parliament.  This is an issue which has long interested the Constitution Unit, being the subject of two Reports and one book chapter published by it (I declare an interest as a co-author of these).

A fascinating debate, within and outwith the Inquiry, has been raging on what sort of body IPSA actually is, and what its primary function should be.  While MPs and the Committee on Standards in Public Life see IPSA mainly as a body to administer schemes of financial support for MPs in carrying out their parliamentary duties, IPSA sees itself primarily as an independent regulator, and as such, its fundamental purpose is “to serve the public interest”.

At heart, as with any such ‘watchdog’, is the interrelationship between the two principles of independence and accountability, one which is especially difficult and complex when what is being ‘regulated’ is Parliament itself, the ultimate constitutional watchdog.  With the principle of independence entrenched in the scheme establishing IPSA – as rushed through Parliament by ministers in the 2009 Act, and revised by legislation last year – MPs are focussed on IPSA’s accountability, by which they mainly mean, answerability to the Commons (through mechanisms such as the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA).  On the other side, IPSA’s maximalist view of its regulatory rather than mere payroll/administration role, emphasises its independence, especially from the very people and bodies which it is ‘regulating’.

Unfortunately, the Inquiry doesn’t seem so far to be addressing these complex questions in any evidence-based way, such as by research into, or much direct interest in, how other parliaments, including the 3 UK devolved institutions, address these problems. This absence of comparative perspective is regrettable.  For example, the Scottish and Welsh systems are of direct relevance, and the present Chair of the Welsh Assembly’s Remuneration Board, George Reid, would be a useful witness, being a former MP and Holyrood Presiding Officer.

With such a short timescale and methodology, this Inquiry cannot hope to do all its terms of reference justice.  All it can do is address, and maybe assuage, some of the main grievances voiced by Members since 2009, which was probably the main reason for this Inquiry in the first place.

What would be of value – apart from any tinkering with the detail of the IPSA-run system – would be for the Committee to recommend strongly in its report to the House that a dedicated committee of inquiry of some sort should be established to address the fundamental questions of IPSA’s relationship with Parliament and how the twin pillars of its independence and accountability can be reconciled positively for the benefit of the public, both as taxpayers and as constituents of adequately-resourced MPs.  The Public Administration Committee began the process in the last Parliament of examining these tricky issues where there are constitutional watchdogs.  That would provide a useful starting point for any future inquiry.

What Sir George Young will not say to the Constitution Unit on Wednesday

“This talk is entitled ‘Parliamentary Reform: Year One Report.’  I hope you will find what I have to say a little less dry than that may imply.

I am pleased to announce that the Government has been persuaded by those within and beyond Parliament that there is an urgent need for a fundamental reshaping of the relationship between Parliament and the Executive.  There can be no more appropriate proponent of this than my own Deputy, David Heath, who, until the last election led him into Government, consistently argued for such reform.

Just last year, in evidence to, and debates on, the Wright Committee, David described how ‘Executive control over the procedure of the House holds up the proper scrutiny and proper initiation of business’; that ‘Reform ought to be a tide coming in. …Reform of the House is necessary and urgent’ and ‘An Everest of reform is necessary if we are to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose.’

More particularly, he argued that ‘It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business’, and ’Standing Order 14 is the obstacle to this House behaving like a responsible, sensible, modern House of Commons… It has got to go. Until it goes, we will not be able to make the progress that I think the House wants.’

I, and the Government, now agree with this analysis, and we will do all we properly can to remedy this situation. Those steps which are in the Government’s own hands will be taken promptly, and for those which are properly matters for the House itself to decide, we will do all necessary to facilitate them (as where legislation or motions are required), and pledge not to use our inbuilt numerical or procedural control to impede or frustrate such discussion and decisions the House as a whole wishes to make.  My focus is the House of Commons, but I assume that change will impact directly or otherwise on the Upper House, and our new approach will apply to its different internal circumstances, and to relations between the two Houses.

1.         The House’s agenda and sittings will no longer be determined almost exclusively by the Government.  As the Wright Committee rightly said, the current system ‘infantilises Members and demonises Government.’  S.O. No. 14, and all other procedural rules and practices which entrench Executive control of the Commons calendar and agenda, need to be replaced at once. Some form of comprehensive Business Committee is required, and we now accept that there is no reason for this change not to be implemented, albeit on an interim basis, for the return of the House in January 2012 after the Christmas recess.

2.         The archaic and presumptuous title of ‘Leader of the House’ will be replaced by the more appropriate ‘Minister for Parliamentary Business’, where I and my Deputy will focus on the job of supporting the Government’s proper role within the House.

3.         The House of Commons Commission, which runs the institutional side of the House, should be reformed (a) to remove the front benches from membership, to ensure that it properly and effectively represents the whole House collectively, and not particular political parties or Governments or Oppositions, and (b) to enable it to manage the House, supported by a ‘fit-for-purpose’ staff organisation.  In a modern accountable democracy, we believe that that the public should have a direct role in the running of its own representative assembly, whether by direct membership or otherwise.

4.         We will support reforms to particular structures and procedures of the House that the House collectively wishes, including the extension of those which has evolved in specific areas over recent years, such as parity of membership between Government and Opposition in all committees; extension of the power beyond Ministers to initiate and pilot legislation; development of more effective methods of scrutiny of government and its policies, activities and conduct; inclusion of lay membership on appropriate internal House management and oversight bodies, and much wider public engagement in Parliament generally.

We are not laying down any details of particular reforms to structures, organisation, procedures or practice.  That is for the House to decide, and we hope that the Speaker, the Commission and relevant committees and staff will urgently discuss how to establish promptly that process.  We hope that this will be a fully open, transparent and evidence-based public process, with appropriate direct public engagement.  Its activities should not preclude immediate changes, such as those I have announced here, even those of an interim nature.  The Government, as a major participant in the operation and business of the House, will present its own proposals as appropriate, to be considered alongside those that emanate from all other sources within and beyond the House.

Parliament is the ultimate constitutional watchdog, because it scrutinises the Government of the country on behalf of the people.  It is wholly illogical, inefficient and constitutionally improper for the very body being scrutinised to have the dominant say in how its watchdog is structured and operates.  A more appropriate relationship between Parliament and Government – which also recognises the appropriate roles of Members individually and collectively, within political parties, House committees and otherwise – and, just as important, a more dynamic and meaningful relationship between these two institutions and the public they represent and serve, will be to the benefit of all.  Not least, it will provide the environment for a more mature, accountable and responsible Parliament, which can earn the trust and confidence of the public.

I commend this approach to Parliament and the public, and hope the Constitution Unit will play its full part in the process.  Thank you.”

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