Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

Effective and influential: where next for departmental select committees?

220px.Official_portrait_of_Dr_Sarah_Wollaston_crop_2Forty years after the creation of departmental select committees, it is beyond doubt that they have contributed significantly to the scrutiny of government. But could they be doing more? The House of Commons Liaison Committee has established an inquiry to answer this question. Dr Sarah Wollaston explains that this is a necessary task to ensure that committees continue to innovate and perform their crucial functions with the involvement of MPs, experts and the general public.

It is difficult to imagine a House of Commons without its select committees. They are places where MPs can come together and work across party divides, often showing parliament at its best. They are central to the scrutiny of government. They have the authority to question those with influence and power but are also forums where MPs engage with and listen to a range of voices, and provide a platform to those who might otherwise not be heard. Committee work provides an important focus for the working lives of many MPs, who can use them to develop and deploy their own expertise. But in fact this level and intensity of scrutiny of the government and other agencies of the state by parliament is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The departmental select committee system will celebrate its fortieth birthday in June this year. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of all the Chairs of the select committees, sees this anniversary as providing an unmissable opportunity to take stock and reflect on whether select committees are fulfilling their potential, and if not, to find what is stopping them. Do select committees do the right things, with the right people, resources, powers and outputs? What has worked well, and what could they do better?

The 1979 select committee reforms were heralded at the time as the start of a great new era. Norman St John Stevas, then Leader of the House, stated that the Commons was ‘embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important parliamentary reforms of the century’. Although select committees had a long parliamentary history, their use had declined through the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in 1970, Bernard Crick, the political philosopher, noted that the government had resisted establishing a select committee system:

For one thing, Select Committees on matters of public policy have been thoroughly distrusted and disliked by the Whips; despite government majorities on them, they have an awkward tendency to develop cross-bench sentiment, and a shocking habit of regarding the Executive as guilty until it is proved innocent. Continue reading

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings

robert-hazell-350x350In September the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published their report into Pre-Appointment Scrutiny Hearings. Robert Hazell gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the subject; here he discusses the report’s conclusions, and describes the events that led to its being undertaken, including two Constitution Unit studies that evaluated the effectiveness of such scrutiny.  

The recently published report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) was the product of an inquiry undertaken at the request of the Commons Liaison Committee, because of growing concerns amongst Select Committee chairs that pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were a charade, especially when the government ignored committee recommendations.  The Liaison Committee and PACAC both heard evidence from the former Constitution Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell, who explained that pre-appointment hearings were more effective than MPs recognised, and suggested ways in which they could be made more effective still.

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were introduced by Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in July 2007.  In his Green Paper The Governance of Britain he proposed:

… that the Government nominee for key positions … should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing with the relevant select committee. The hearing would be non-binding, but in the light of the report from the committee, Ministers would decide whether to proceed.  The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate’s suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in the selection.

The Cabinet Office and the Liaison Committee subsequently agreed a list of just over 50 key positions which would be subject to the new procedure. Ten years later, by the end of the 2015-17 Parliament, there had been almost 100 scrutiny hearings, involving almost every single departmental Select Committee. The Constitution Unit conducted an early evaluation of the first 20 hearings in 2009-10, and a second study in 2016-17, looking at a further 70 hearings. Continue reading

Why we need a Committee for Future Generations in the House of Lords

88q98 (1)The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development has proposed that the House of Lords establish a Committee for Future Generations to review legislation. It is hoped that such a body would reduce the short-termism that can creep into legislative and executive decision-making. Graham Smith explains why this Committee is needed and how it could work in practice.

The problem of short-termism in democratic politics is well understood. Psychologically, we all tend to prioritise more immediate concerns over long term considerations. Our electoral cycles of four to five years mean that politicians and political parties typically think in those timescales. Long-term issues are often complex and thus are difficult to deal with in the policy silos of government. Future generations by definition are not present and thus have no direct representation within decision making processes.

Some of the most challenging issues we face run against these tendencies, requiring us to take a long-term perspective and consider the interests of future generations. Rapid technological development, inter-generational economic opportunity, welfare and social care provision, or environmental challenges such as climate change all fit into ‘the too difficult box – the big issues that politicians can’t crack’ identified by former Labour minister Charles Clarke. The problem of ‘short-termism’ in politics was explored in detail by the international Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations in its 2013 report, Now for the Long Term. The Commission recommended that, as a matter of urgency, governments invest in ‘innovative institutions… independent of the short-term pressures facing governments of the day but appropriately accountable to the political system in question.’ Such institutions ‘should be charged with conducting systematic reviews and analysis of longer-term issues.’ Continue reading

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

Revisiting Tony King’s analysis of executive-legislative relations shows just how much parliament has changed

meg-russellPhilip.Cowley.2016The inaugural issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly contained one of Tony King’s most insightful pieces on parliament and politicians. It is still regularly cited, and has influenced the analysis of a generation of parliamentary scholars. In this blog post, Meg Russell and Philip Cowley analyse the extent to which King’s conclusions hold true in a parliament that looks significantly different to its 1976 counterpart.

Parliaments are not monoliths, they are highly complex political organisations. Anthony King’s 1976 article ‘Modes of executive–legislative relations: Great Britain, France and West Germany’ was one of the first to point out the importance of the multiple relationships inside legislatures – including some relationships that are often hidden from view.

King argued that the most important of these in the British parliament was the ‘intraparty mode’: between the government and its own backbenchers. Others, such as the ‘non-party mode’ or ‘cross-party mode’, he judged to be weak at Westminster.

King’s objective was to strip away the noise and present parliamentary dynamics as a set of stylised relationships between different actors. The fundamentals of this analysis have stood the test of time very well in the last 40 years, and the article remains a classic. But since it was published, a great deal has also changed. We review these changes, and their effects on his conclusions, in a recently-published article in the Political Quarterly entitled ‘Modes of UK Executive-Legislative Relations Revisited’.
Continue reading

House of Lords Committees: What needs to change?

25476The House of Lords Liaison Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the functioning of select committees in the House of Lords. With Brexit due to occur in March 2019, it is likely that the scope and role of many committees will change significantly. In this post, Lord McFall of Alcuith, who chairs the Liaison Committee, discusses the inquiry and some of the issues it will need to examine in order to be effective.

When I joined the House of Lords in 2010, following 23 years in the House of Commons (including ten as Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee), I was impressed by the range and extent of committee activity in the second chamber. Having gone on to serve on a number of committees – including the Draft Financial Services Bill Joint Committee, Economic Affairs Committee, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee – I developed a stronger appreciation of the depth, breadth and rigor of their work. Committee activity is a crucial part of the work of the House of Lords, which is well placed to draw on the extensive and wide-ranging expertise of our members and adds significant value to the work of parliament as a whole. I believe that Lords Committees also contribute to society more widely through their influence on government policy and societal change.

Nevertheless, we need to do more to increase awareness of this vital and relevant role. House of Lords committees should be more at the forefront of engaging the public in their work. I want to see that engagement develop into a national conversation about the work of our committees and how and why they are relevant to the public. Committees provide a unique opportunity for people from all walks of society and all parts of the United Kingdom to interact with the House of Lords. Our inquiries should inspire conversation and debate about the important issues they address. And we need to use digital tools, as well as our more traditional meetings and visits, to extend their reach. Continue reading