Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

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The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

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What does ‘evidence’ mean to MPs and officials in the UK House of Commons?

Select committees are a key mechanism of the House of Commons in its role as scrutineer of legislation and government policy. However, there has been little research on how committees’ members and officials use evidence to support their work. Marc Geddes has been researching the topic; here he offers a summary of his findings.

Select committees are the principal mechanism of accountability in the House of Commons and act as information-gathering tools for parliament. They are generally regarded as influential in the UK policy-making process (even if this is often informal), who enjoy widespread media coverage, and who have a generally positive reputation. Despite their importance, we know comparatively little about how they approach and use evidence to support their work (with some notable exceptions). In this blog, I want to explore precisely this topic.

Select committees are made up of small groups of MPs, elected as members by their colleagues. In order to hold governments to account, select committees rely on extensive evidence-gathering, including an open call for written evidence and oral evidence through invite-only committee hearings. Evidence is analysed and published in a report, which will include recommendations for change. What does ‘evidence’ mean in this context?

The formal meanings of ‘evidence’ are set out in Erskine May, the authoritative reference book on parliamentary procedure for the UK Parliament. It is expected that evidence is ‘truthful’ (para 38.31), which may otherwise be ‘treated as a contempt of the House and investigated and punished’ (para 38.55). Interestingly, evidence prepared for a committee becomes its ‘property’ (para 38.32) in order to be protected by parliamentary privilege (preventing evidence from being called into question by the courts).

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Boris Johnson and parliament: an unhappy tale in 13 acts

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament returns from its summer break today. During Boris Johnson’s 13 months in office as Prime Minister his relationship with parliament has often been rocky. In this post, Unit Director Meg Russell reviews 13 episodes during these 13 months which illustrate Johnson’s difficult relationship with parliament. His Number 10 has often resisted parliamentary oversight, and faced down significant parliamentary opposition – including from his own backbenchers. With growing indications of backbench discontent, she explores the dangers of this situation.

As the Commons reassembles today, it’s a good moment to reflect on the relationship between Boris Johnson’s government and parliament so far. Johnson has now held office for just over a year, and rumours are emerging of significant discontent on the Conservative backbenches. From the outset, Johnson’s relationship with parliament has been beset with controversy. As he enters his second parliamentary year, what have been the key flashpoints, and what do they add up to collectively?

This post looks back at 13 episodes in the past 13 months, before reflecting on what they teach us, and what the future may hold. It suggests that while existing flashpoints have resulted from Number 10’s bold assertions of executive power, there are risks for Johnson that the tables could soon start to be turned.

1. The first day: two hours of scrutiny before recess

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the afternoon of 24 July 2019, following his victory in the Conservative leadership contest. On that day, Theresa May took her final Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson thus had just one day to face parliament, which was about to break for its summer recess. The hot topic was Brexit; May had been forced out after failing to gain adequate support from her own MPs for her Brexit deal, which was defeated three times in the Commons between January and March. Johnson had been among those voting against it. The big question was how he could succeed where Theresa May had failed. On 25 July there was a brief potential window for MPs to quiz him on his Brexit strategy. But he chose instead to make a far more general statement on ‘priorities for government’. After two hours of questions ranging across all policy topics, the Commons moved to adjourn until September. An attempt by MPs to delay adjournment had failed, as did a later attempt to recall parliament over the summer to discuss progress on Brexit. Recall is impossible without the agreement of the government. Continue reading

The Intelligence and Security Committee and its role in democratic accountability

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Dominic Grieve, former Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, discusses whether or not reform of the committee is desirable or sensible following the dual controversies of the delayed release of its report on Russia and the government’s unsuccessful attempt to whip committee members into supporting its choice of Chair.

The recent controversy over the election of a new Chair for the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) and the longer running saga of the failure to publish its report on the threat from Russia, has put the spotlight on both the constitution and work of an organisation that usually attracts limited attention.

Prior to 1989 the existence of all three of the UK’s intelligence agencies, the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was not even avowed, despite their existence being common knowledge. While from 1989, a degree of scrutiny started for the work of the Security Service (MI5), as a result of the Security Service Act, there was also no system of parliamentary scrutiny of their activities. Any question raised in parliament on a topic of national security involving the operational work of all three of the agencies would not and will still not normally be answered.

In 1994 the government of John Major put the work of all the agencies on a statutory footing with the Intelligence Services Act. This also made provision for the establishment of an Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament to oversee their work. But this was effectively confined to their expenditure, administration and policy. The ISC had no power to investigate specific operations. The ISC was also answerable to the Prime Minister and not to parliament, even if it was composed of parliamentarians. Although the cross-party composition of nine members involved input from the leaders of the Opposition and of the third largest party in the Commons, appointment was at the discretion of the PM, who also chose the Chair. The ISC reported to the PM, who decided what if anything of any report might be published. There was criticism that the relationship between the ISC and the PM and the agencies was too close and that it did not have the independence needed to provide proper oversight. When after 2005 concerns grew about both UK involvement in US unlawful detention and rendition and in the handling of counterterrorism, the government allowed the ISC to widen its remit, by agreement, to allow it to look into some past operational matters. Continue reading

Coronavirus and the hybrid parliament: how the government moved the Commons backwards on remote participation

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Image Credit: Return of the House of Commons rehearsal (CC BY 3.0) by UK Parliament

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn recent weeks, the government has taken the Commons from an acceptable hybrid system to the current confused regime of limited virtual participation and proxy voting. As David Natzler has outlined in previous posts, during the coronavirus lockdown the Commons moved with surprising speed and unity to create a hybrid parliament in which MPs could participate remotely, with the same speaking and voting rights as members present in the chamber. Here David outlines how the Commons moved so fast and so far backwards on virtual involvement for MPs. 

In this blog I intend to summarise the confusing developments in the past three weeks in the regime for doing parliamentary business in the House of Commons, and to analyse some of the reasons for the almost daily change of regime and the emergence of a new temporary hybrid regime. 

The first regime of virtual participation: 21 April to 20 May

On 21 and 22 April, on its return from the Easter recess, the House agreed to several government motions which established a temporary regime allowing for virtual participation by members in hybrid scrutiny and substantive proceedings, and for remote voting, to endure until 12 May. The regime was founded on a resolution of general principles also agreed on 21 April, including a requirement for parity of treatment between members participating virtually and those participating in person. Virtual select committee proceedings had already been established under a separate and longer-lasting order. On 12 May the House agreed to extend the debating and voting regimes until 20 May. 

Non-renewal of the regime

This regime operated successfully for the best part of a month, until the House rose on 20 May for the Whitsun recess, at which point the detailed operative Orders agreed on 21 and 22 April, but not the resolution setting out the founding principles, lapsed. It became known on 11 and 12 May through the government strategy statement and remarks by the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that the government had no intention of renewing the regime of virtual participation, on the grounds that it was time for parliament to ‘get back to business’. But the government offered no opportunity over the next few days, before the House rose on 20 May, for the Commons to give its positive assent for letting the regime lapse. Continue reading

How has the House of Lords adapted to the coronavirus crisis?

beamish.jpg (1)Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the UK ‘lockdown’, there has been much debate on this blog and elsewhere about how the House of Commons should function during a period of ‘shielding’ and ‘social distancing’. Little attention has been paid, by contrast, to the procedures and practices adopted by the House of Lords. As David Beamish explains, the Commons has tried to return to ‘normality’, whereas the Lords has embraced hybrid proceedings and remote voting in a way that may leave it irrevocably altered.

On 9 March the House of Commons Commission and House of Lords Commission issued a short joint statement following a meeting ‘to discuss Parliament’s response to Coronavirus’. On 11 March the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, and on 13 March the Speakers of the two Houses, Lindsay Hoyle and Lord (Norman) Fowler, sent a joint letter to all members about restrictions on parliamentary travel and visitors to the parliamentary estate in order to reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19. They sent another joint letter on 17 March, announcing more stringent restrictions on access to the estate. Since then, however, the approaches taken by the two Houses have diverged significantly. The Commons initially introduced hybrid proceedings in April, while the Lords introduced a mix of virtual-only and physical-only proceedings, subsequently moving to a hybrid model only this month – just as the Commons ended its own hybrid arrangements. David Natzler’s blog post of 13 May set out what the House of Commons had done to enable MPs to operate remotely, and the dismantling of those arrangements has since caused significant controversy. This post looks at what has been happening in the House of Lords, which has attracted far less public attention. As things stand, the Lords seems to have now instituted the very kinds of proceedings that many MPs are pressing to see reinstated.

The Lord Speaker works from home

On 19 March the 82-year-old Lord Speaker made a personal statement, announcing that he would ‘withdraw from the House for the time being’, and that he would be ‘working from home’ – with his Woolsack duties to be carried out by his deputies.

The average age of the Speaker and his 23 deputies was at that point 76, with only four aged under 70. So it was unsurprising that on 23 March the House agreed to a motion that ‘until 21 July 2020, and notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, any member of the House may perform the duties of a Deputy Chairman without further motion’. Five additional members took on this role, and on 21 April were formally appointed, at once reducing the average age of the panel by over three years.

Initial restrictions on business in the chamber

On Thursday 25 March, before the House adjourned for an extended Easter recess (which had been due to start at the close of business on 1 April), it agreed to a business motion restricting until 21 May (the start of the Whitsun recess) the kinds of business which could be taken: there would be no Private Members’ Bills, balloted debates or Questions for Short Debate. In moving this motion the Leader of the House (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) announced that for the first three weeks after the return of the House on 21 April it would sit only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays it would meet at 1pm (instead of 2.30pm) and on Wednesdays at 11am (instead of 3pm); Thursday sittings would begin at 11am as usual. She also announced ‘that a working group of senior officials from both Houses and the Parliamentary Digital Service has been set up to develop effective remote collaboration and videoconferencing’.

When the House returned at 1pm on Tuesday 21 April, the scene in the chamber was strikingly different from normal, with only about a dozen ‘socially distanced’ members physically present. The first business was the introduction of two new life peers, Lord Grimstone of Boscobel and Lord Greenhalgh, who had quietly been appointed ministers in March. They did not wear robes and did not have the usual two supporters. Continue reading

The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill: how to ensure a level playing field

alan.jfif (1)professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgLegislation now before parliament will reform how parliamentary constituencies are drawn up. Most controversial is a proposal that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions should be implemented automatically. Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell argue that the principle of automatic implementation is right, but it should be combined with stronger safeguards on the commissions’ independence. 

The government’s Parliamentary Constituencies Bill was debated in the House of Commons for the first time earlier this week. The bill, if passed, will keep the number of MPs at 650, cancelling a cut to 600 that was legislated for in 2011 but has not yet been implemented. It will also alter the procedures for drawing up Westminster constituency boundaries, in four main ways. First, it will reduce the frequency with which boundaries are reviewed, from five- to eight-year intervals. Second, it will slightly shorten the duration of the next review (but only the next one), from 34 to 31 months, to ensure its conclusions can be implemented in good time for a 2024 election. Third, it will adjust the sequence of the review process, so that public hearings on proposed boundaries take place after an initial round of written submissions. Finally, and most importantly, it will make the implementation of new boundaries automatic: parliament will lose its current power to block the proposed changes.

Cancelling the cut in the number of MPs is no longer controversial. That reduction was introduced in 2011 in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, when public scepticism about the value of MPs’ work was at a peak. It was designed to show that ministers understood people’s anger about perceived waste at the heart of politics. Since then, however, parliament has done much to reassert its value. MPs have become more independent-minded in holding government to account. Following reforms implemented in 2010 – some of which were strongly based in earlier Constitution Unit research – select committees have risen greatly in prominence, and are now widely seen as doing much important work. Furthermore, many constituents were discomfited when they saw that cutting the number of MPs would reduce their own local representation at Westminster. The cross-party support that exists for retaining 650 MPs is therefore welcome.

Some of the changes to review procedures have, however, proved more contentious. In particular, opposition parties have argued against the introduction of automatic review implementation. Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, both the Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement, Cat Smith, and SNP Spokesperson David Linden called it ‘a power grab’ by the executive over the legislature. Labour’s Stephen Kinnock described it as ‘nothing short of a constitutional outrage’. Continue reading

Coronavirus and the Commons: how the hybrid parliament has enabled MPs to operate remotely

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It has now been three weeks since the House of Commons agreed to operate on a hybrid basis, with many MPs contributing remotely and the Commons holding its first remote votes. Former Commons clerk David Natzler assesses how the virtual parliament has been operating, and asks if and when the Commons will return to its pre-hybrid state.

The three weeks since the return of parliament from the Easter break have seen the rapid emergence of a virtual parliament, but asymmetrically between the two houses. The Lords has followed a twin track: ordinary chamber proceedings whenever a decision of the House is required, and ‘Virtual Proceedings’ for questions, statements and debates where participation is restricted to those peers not in the chamber. In separate orders agreed on 21 and 22 April the Commons decided that both scrutiny (questioning) and substantive (decisive) proceedings would be ‘hybrid’, meaning that members could take part whether in the chamber or not, and that each group would be treated with strict equality. All categories of business can now at least in theory be dealt with. For example, the report stage of the Agriculture Bill is scheduled for 13 May. On 11 May two pieces of internal business were dealt with: a personal statement from Greg Hands was made remotely, and Conor Burns was suspended from the Commons for seven days, both following reports from the Committee on Standards: evidence that the House has still been able to exercise its powers during these unusual times.

Lists of questioners are compiled and published in advance, on the parliamentary website, indicating whether the member intends to attend in person or remotely. Virtual contributions are denoted in Hansard with a ‘V’ by the speaker’s name. That all is proceeding smoothly is due not only to the staff of the House but also to its political leadership, which has created a broad consensus in a way that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. The Westminster parliament is now something of a market leader: the senior official overseeing the changes, Matthew Hamlyn, gave evidence on 30 April to the Canadian House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee, along with representatives of other parliaments, on the new arrangements.

Who still attends in the Commons – and why?

The lead minister responsible for the department answering questions,  making a statement or introducing legislation generally, but by no means always, attends. Indeed, the first minister to answer departmental questions, Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales, participated remotely. Junior ministers often attend physically if they have more than one question to answer. The presence in the chamber of the answering minister does give general confidence that their replies will be audible whatever minor gremlins get into Zoom. Most but not all opposition frontbenchers attend in person, although Lisa Nandy and Ellie Reeves both made their frontbench debuts remotely

By now the overwhelming majority of backbenchers participate remotely. A handful of members choose to attend in person, some travelling from far away; but as the new temporary regime has developed the numbers seem to be dropping. In the short debate on a pension enrolment instrument on 4 May there were no participating members physically present. By contrast debates on some specific local or sensitive topics seem to have more physical participants. Mark Garnier said that he had made a 300-mile round trip by car ‘to speak here in person’ on a harrowing case of domestic abuse, during the second reading debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Some members may still feel that a 10-minute speech in an important debate carries more weight if delivered in the chamber, while a 30 second question can be posed remotely without loss of impact. That said, Sara Britcliffe made the first virtual maiden speech remotely from Lancashire. But there is no prospect of Lancashire’s proud son in the Speaker’s chair presiding from Chorley. Continue reading