The marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid has been shocking; a year on, parliament’s role must urgently be restored

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned from Easter transformed by Covid. Since then, accountability for far-reaching government policy and spending has often been limited, many MPs have been excluded from key virtual proceedings, and whips now hold over 500 proxy votes. Meg Russell, Ruth Fox, Ronan Cormacain and Joe Tomlinson argue that the combined effect in terms of parliament’s marginalisation has been shocking, and that there are risks of government becoming too comfortable with decision-making which evades proper parliamentary scrutiny. One year on, more robust parliamentary accountability must urgently be restored.

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned to business transformed by Covid. Since March 2020, the public has lived under some of the UK’s most restrictive peacetime laws, and to support the economy public money has been spent on a vast scale. Yet parliamentary accountability for, and control over, these decisions has diminished to a degree that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic. One year on, with lockdown easing, the restoration of parliamentary control and functioning is now an urgent priority.

This post highlights five ways in which the government’s approach to the House of Commons during Covid has marginalised MPs. In a parliamentary democracy, government accountability to parliament is a core constitutional principle. But in a national emergency, when time for normal process is short, the gravity of the situation can require that parliamentary scrutiny be temporarily sacrificed in exchange for broader accountability. Yet the government has failed to keep its side of the bargain. Too frequently, announcements have been made at press conferences, or briefed privately to the media, rather than presented for democratic scrutiny and questioning by MPs. Ministers have sought extraordinary powers while consistently excluding both the House of Commons as a whole, and certain MPs, from participating in proper oversight.

In the early days of the pandemic necessity arguably justified this approach. But a year on, a real risk exists of damaging precedents being set. This is magnified by the fact that some recent developments have accelerated negative trends predating the pandemic. Unless MPs collectively take a stand against parliament’s continued marginalisation by ministers, what was once extraordinary risks becoming the norm.

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Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?

RuthFox.084_square.1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary scrutiny is essential to checking and legitimising government decisions. But the coronavirus crisis, during which government has been granted unprecedented powers, creates obvious challenges for parliament. Ruth Fox and Meg Russell argue that parliamentary change during the crisis must follow three core principles: first, parliament should go virtual insofar as possible; second, it should adapt its procedures accordingly, prioritising the most critical business; third, decisions about these changes should be open and consultative — to avoid the risk of a government power grab — should be strictly time-limited, and be kept under regular review.

Parliament has an essential role as the guardian of our democracy. But the coronavirus pandemic poses a huge and unprecedented challenge: how can parliamentarians conduct their core constitutional duties of holding the government to account, assenting to finance, passing legislation, and representing their constituents, when we are all required to adopt rigorous social distancing and, wherever possible, work from home? 

At a time when the government has been granted emergency powers of a kind unparalleled in peacetime, and ministers are taking rapid decisions that could shape our economy and society for a generation, democratic oversight is vital. Adversarial party politics take a back seat in a time of national crisis, but parliament’s collective responsibility to hold the executive to account remains. Hence the many calls – from both within and without parliament – for a ‘virtual’ legislature to ensure adequate scrutiny of the government’s decisions, and to maintain other essential time-sensitive work, while complying with public health requirements. 

As yet, however, there has been little detailed debate about how a ‘virtual parliament’ should operate. Parliament cannot work as normal, so what broad issues must it address in deciding how to work differently? 

This post identifies and argues for three core principles:

  • In the interests of safety, and to set a national example, parliament should operate as far as possible virtually, rather than accommodating continued physical presence at Westminster.
  • Parliament should not pursue ‘business as usual’ but should make more radical changes, identifying and prioritising essential business. 
  • Parliament’s crisis arrangements should be based on wide and transparent consultation with members to maximise support. ‘Sunsetting’ should be used to make clear that they are temporary and create no automatic precedent for the post-crisis era. 

In the UK, the government already has much greater control of the way parliament – particularly the House of Commons – operates than in many other countries. Any crisis arrangements must ensure fair representation for all members and parties; and the crisis and parliament’s response to it should not become a pretext to shift power further towards the executive and party managers.   Continue reading

Celebrating 40 years of departmental select committees

involve_portraits_may18_029b (1)download.jpg.pngForty years ago, the House of Commons revolutionised the way in which it scrutinises government by creating departmental select committees so that each section of government now receives continual and detailed scrutiny by MPs. In June, a two-day conference was held to explore the past, present and future forms and functions of these committees. Rebecca McKee and Tom Caygill summarise some of the event’s key themes and contributions. 

Almost 40 years to the day since the debate to establish the first departmental select committees in late June 1979, the House of Commons and the Study of Parliament Group held a two-day conference in parliament. The conference showcased the work of the committees, reflecting on changes since 1979 and looked forward at emerging challenges and how committees may need to evolve for the future.

There were 15 panels over two days, with a range of speakers from academia, Whitehall, the House of Commons and civil society. In this post we consider themes from the conference, looking specifically at the past, present and future of departmental select committees. 

Looking back at 40 years of select committees

The history of select committees

With 40 years of departmental select committees to explore, the panel ‘History, origins and early days of select committees’ began by looking back to their inception in 1979. The panel heard contributions from Philip Aylett (clerk); Professor Gavin Drewry (Royal Holloway, University of London), Mike Everett (clerk), Sir David Natzler (former Clerk of the House), and was chaired by Oonagh Gay, (formerly of the Parliament and Constitution Centre). 

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The session began with a discussion of the work conducted by the Study of Parliament Group in helping to develop and monitor early select committees. It was noted that the group did not always speak with one voice. Bernard Crick, one of the group’s founders, initially argued against specialist committees. 

However, these committees were not a complete novelty. Committees have existed since the late 13th century, when the Committees of Triers and Examiners of Petitions were established. Their usage expanded over the centuries. A dramatic increase occurred in the 16th century following the designation (in 1547) of a special Committee Room in the House of Commons. 

The panel then turned to the 20th century. They argued that the 1960s were a dark age for select committees; the Estimates Committee existed but had a very narrow remit and committees avoided policy issues. In 1965 however, the Procedure Committee recommended a greater specialisation of select committee work and in 1966 discussions began between parties to develop specialist committees. Harold Wilson argued that select committees should expand their remit beyond financial questions to cover policy issues also. By the 1970s a different role started to emerge, similar to the Committees we recognise today. Continue reading

The EU Withdrawal Bill: parliamentary prospects

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons by a relatively comfortable margin in the early hours of Tuesday morning. During the remainder of its parliamentary passage the government is likely to come under greater pressure, particularly on the issue of the delegated powers in the bill. On 13 September the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy and the Hansard Society’s Ruth Fox spoke about the prospects at the Constitution Unit. Alex Diggens and Jack Sheldon summarise what was said.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill looks set to be one of the most significant and controversial pieces of legislation to pass through parliament in recent memory. Ostensibly a bill to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and manage the process of converting EU law into domestic law, the bill has far greater scope. It hands significant delegated powers to ministers, allowing them to make changes to remedy supposed ‘deficiencies’ in both secondary and primary legislation through statutory instruments (SIs) and to implement the eventual withdrawal agreement. It also has major implications for the devolution settlements, as outlined in a previous blog post.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning the bill received its second reading in the Commons by the relatively comfortable margin of 326 votes to 290. However, the upcoming Commons committee and report stages, as well as the bill’s passage through the House of Lords, are likely to pose much greater difficulty for the government. On 13 September the Constitution Unit held a seminar to discuss the prospects. Chaired by the Unit’s Dr Alan Renwick, the panel comprised two experts on the dynamics at play: Mark D’Arcy, the BBC’s Parliamentary Correspondent, and Dr Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society.

Dr Alan Renwick introduces the seminar

Mark D’Arcy

Mark D’Arcy focused his remarks on the party-political landscape in relation to the bill and the key types of amendments that are being brought forward.

On the party-political landscape, D’Arcy argued that the bill’s passage will be a drawn-out battle, but one that the government go into reasonably confidently. He said that 10 Downing Street is working hard to keep open links with all of the Conservative factions, and that none of them is seeking to kill the bill. The Tory ‘Remain’ contingent in the Commons is small, and they recall the infighting during the Major years; they therefore recognise that actively fighting Brexit would be ‘career death’. D’Arcy suggested that ‘Bregretters’ might be a more accurate term for this group as they do not actually seek to prevent Brexit. The House of Lords have expressed significant reservations about the bill, notably through the influential Constitution Committee, but D’Arcy predicted that they will be constrained by not wanting to be seen fighting against ‘the people’.

As soon as the second reading vote went through the Commons, queues were forming to put amendments forward. The ‘Bregretters’ put down several, led by the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve. The focus of their amendments was on overseeing the technical operation of the bill, particularly on identifying which SIs require thorough parliamentary scrutiny. Another group of amendments comes from the Labour ‘Remain’ group. These tend to be more ambitious – they keep open options for the future, for instance the option to remain in the Customs Union, or perhaps even the European Economic Area. Other groups have more niche concerns – for example, some MPs are pushing to entrench specific rights provided by EU law.

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