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