One of the features of government restructures is that it poses an administrative challenge for parliament, which then has to decide how to maintain proper scrutiny of the new machinery of government. Long-serving Commons official David Natzler explains how changes such as those made at the start of the month will affect parliament and poses possible solutions to some of the potential logistical problems.
On 7 February Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the creation of four new government departments. Responsibility for energy and the policy of ‘net zero’ was transferred from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ). The remaining parts of BEIS were merged with the existing Department for International Trade (DIT) to create a Department for Business and Trade (DBT). And a new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) was founded, comprised of the existing Government Office for Science, together with the digital responsibilities hitherto in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). DCMS reverts to its original 1992 responsibilities, when it was created as the Department of National Heritage.
Parliament plays no role in this process, unlike in some other countries, including Canada. It is an accepted part of the prerogative powers of the Prime Minister to create and wind up departments of state, constrained only by the statutory limit on the numbers of those paid as Cabinet ministers. No primary legislation is required: Transfer of Functions Orders will presumably be laid in due course, but these are subject only to the negative procedure and are tabled after they take legal effect. The costs of such reorganisations, expertly analysed in 2019 by the Institute for Government, could in principle be challenged under parliamentary processes for approval of expenditure, but that is not easy to envisage in practical terms. These latest changes seem to enjoy a large measure of cross-party support. But that does not diminish the case for greater parliamentary involvement in changes in the structure of government. It surely cannot be right that the Prime Minister has almost untrammelled power to determine how the UK is governed.
The changes have consequences for parliament, and for House of Commons select committees in particular. Such reorganisations are far from uncommon. In the era since the launch of departmental select committees in 1979 there have been several such changes. Some have involved little more than a change of nameplate, such as the replacement of the Department of Social Security by the Department of Work and Pensions. In other cases – most recently in the preservation of the International Development Committee despite the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – the Commons decided not to reflect a strict departmental structure in its committees.
The Unit today published a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators. Robert Hazell explains that public awareness of these regulators is low and the position of some of them in public life is precarious. He calls for several measures, including putting the CSPL on a statutory footing, protecting watchdogs from dismissal, and repealing the legislation allowing the government to produce a strategy statement for the Electoral Commission.
Today sees the launch of a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators, (Unit report 195), by Marcial Boo, Zach Pullar and myself. Marcial Boo, former Chief Executive of IPSA, joined the Constitution Unit in late 2020 as an honorary research fellow. We asked him to do a study of those watchdogs which are directly sponsored by parliament, working with Zach Pullar, a young law graduate who has since become a Judicial Assistant in the Court of Appeal. There is an obvious tension with watchdogs whose role is to scrutinise the executive (like the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests), being themselves appointed and sponsored by the government. Less obvious, but just as fundamental, is the tension for watchdogs whose role is to regulate the behaviour of parliamentarians, being themselves appointed and sponsored by parliament.