Looking forward, looking back: an evening with 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

Leaving the European Union, leaving the Palace of Westminster: Brexit and the Restoration and Renewal Programme

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A year after the House of Lords backed a major refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, Alexandra Meakin discusses the relationship between the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU and the plans for MPs and peers to temporarily move out of their current home.

Anna Soubry: ‘We have to grasp this, do the right thing, and – I cannot believe I am going to say this – but in this instance, in supporting amendment (b), absolutely everybody vote leave.’

Over the past few months parliamentary proceedings have taken centre stage in our nation’s consciousness. The legislative and political machinations surrounding the UK’s planned exit from the European Union have turned the Palace of Westminster into a theatre offering endless drama and occasional farce. Indeed, the wider area around the Palace has been absorbed into the set: the pro and anti-Brexit protests in Parliament Square; the broadcasters’ gazebo village on College Green; and even the steps outside St Stephen’s entrance, which hosted an impromptu press conference. The audience following every scene, however, couldn’t fail to observe the scaffolding covering the set, the external sign of a dilapidated building, where the infrastructure is decades past its expected lifespan. Alongside the preparations for departing the EU, MPs and peers are also planning for a further departure: leaving the Palace of Westminster to enable a major refurbishment programme.

After decades of neglect, the scale of the problem inside Parliament was outlined in a 2012 report, which noted ‘if the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild’. On receipt of the report the governing bodies in the Commons and Lords agreed that ‘doing nothing was not an option’. They ruled out the construction of a new parliamentary building, and committed instead to further analysis of the options for repairs, and specifically whether the work could be carried out while both Houses continued to sit in the Palace. Continue reading

The Business of the House: the role of the clerks in the Speaker’s decision on the Grieve amendment

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214As tensions rise in parliament over Brexit, the role of the Commons clerks has been much discussed. Here, former Clerk of the Committees Andrew Kennon offers a personal insight into how the clerks operate, within the context of  the recent decision of the Speaker on the 9 January Grieve amendment.

In his memoirs, Speaker George Thomas recalled a Member of Parliament in the 1970s who ‘had been told by the clerks that something he wanted to do was out of order because of a private ruling given by Mr Speaker Fitzroy years before the war’. When the Member asked to see the ruling, he was told it had been lost and that the only proof of it was a footnote in Erskine May, which is the official guide to parliamentary practice and procedure.

I recognise this clerkly approach from when I started in the House of Commons in 1977. This incident led Speaker Thomas to decide that all private rulings by the Speaker should be published. For a while, small green volumes of these rulings were produced, but the whole practice has now fallen into disuse.

There was nothing private or secret about Speaker Bercow’s decision on 9 January to select the Grieve amendment requiring the government to come back to the House within three days of any defeat on the Brexit deal (such a defeat came to pass on 15 January). The Speaker’s decision immediately resulted in an hour-long viva on parliamentary procedure in the form of points of order.

It remains to be seen how significant this decision will turn out to be in political terms. The procedural issue at stake is small. But it is when a government does not command a majority in the House that immense political pressure comes to bear on weak links in procedure; sometimes they break. Continue reading

The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading

The election of the Speaker: myth and reality

When the newly elected House of Commons meets on Tuesday, its first task will be the election of the Speaker. In this post, Andrew Kennon explains how this will work and separates some of the myths surrounding the process from reality.

When the newly elected House of Commons meets for the first time on Tuesday, the first business – even before swearing in all MPs – will be election of the Speaker. John Bercow, who won his Buckingham seat with a majority of over 25,000 on Thursday, is expected to be re-elected unopposed, though prior to the election there was some talk of a challenge. What are the myths and realities surrounding this process?

Is the Speaker always re-elected unopposed?

This is what has happened in practice. Every Speaker who has been re-elected to the House – normally with other parties not putting up rival candidates in the constituency – has been re-elected to that post. But the House is given the opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only if the answer is ‘no’ does it proceed to a full election.

The possibility of rejecting the incumbent has been raised in the media under Speaker Bercow. He was first elected in 2009, about a year before the 2010 general election. At that point, he was a Conservative MP on the opposition side of it he House. There was some speculation after the 2010 election that the new Conservative government would oppose his re-election, but this did not materialise. The same occurred after the 2015 election.

So: this is practice but not binding.

Does a new Speaker always comes from the Government side of the House?

This is what happened in practice until 1992 when Betty Boothroyd was elected. There is no reason to regard it as a convention.

Does the Speakership alternate between the two main parties?

Since Speaker Martin (Labour) succeeded Speaker Boothroyd (also formerly Labour) in 2000 this cannot be said to be a firm rule. Between 1965 and 1992 successive Speakers did come from the opposite side of the House to their predecessor – but, equally, they also came from the party in government at the time of their election. The House’s freedom to make its own choice among an array of volunteers probably means that any sense of it being the ‘turn’ of a particular party is out of date.

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The Speaker election row tells us two important things about parliament

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On 26 March, its final sitting day, the House of Commons rejected government proposals to reform how the Speaker is elected at the start of the new parliament. Here Meg Russell reflects on what this teaches us about parliament, suggesting it holds two lessons. First, that the 2010 House of Commons was more resistant than its predecessors to government dominance; but second, that further reform is still needed to reduce that dominance.

Two weeks ago the House of Commons met for the last time before the general election. A debate had been scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee to allow retiring MPs to make short valedictory speeches. This might have served as the highpoint of the day – a dignified and nonpartisan moment before election hostilities began. But instead the day was hijacked by a completely unexpected and high-profile row, when Commons Leader William Hague brought forward a motion to change the procedure that the new parliament would follow to elect its Speaker. This was widely viewed as an ill-disguised attempt to unseat Speaker Bercow, sprung in a completely underhand manner. In the event, the motion was defeated by 228 votes to 202. This brought an ignominious end to Hague’s own otherwise distinguished Commons career, and saw the Commons break up with an air of bitterness. Nonetheless there was also something to celebrate in terms of the defiant independence shown by Commons backbenchers, which rounded off nicely the independent 2010-15 parliament. Yet these events also pointed towards a reform agenda for its successor parliament.

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“The precious centre of our Parliamentary democracy”: Commons governance after the Clerk appointment affair

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Barry K Winetrobe examines the current controversy over the appointment of a new Clerk of the House of Commons, and the lessons it has for the better management and governance of the House.

It is exactly a year since I posted a piece on this blog on how the Commons could use the Government defeat on the 29 August 2013 Syria vote as a catalyst for greater Commons institutional autonomy and procedural reform, driven by itself rather than by the Executive.  This was to be led by the Speaker.  Given the current controversy over the appointment of a new Clerk of the House, the Speaker may not now be seen by everyone in such a role.  However, this sorry episode does raise important questions about the governance of what the outgoing Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, rightly described in his farewell letter as the ‘central institution in our democracy’ and ‘the precious centre of our Parliamentary democracy’.

By the time this piece is posted, the immediate crisis may be in the early stages of resolution, with time-honoured Westminster ad hoc compromises, promises of root and branch governance reviews etc..  However, that the process of appointing the most senior House official has been, for whatever reasons, so controversial is seriously damaging to the House’s reputation. We know from the House Service’s own Strategy for 2013-17 that its vision is that the House be seen as ‘a model of good practice and innovation’ and that ‘the House Service will have the respect of Members of Parliament and of the public for our independence, integrity and professionalism… We will be seen as efficient, responsive, diverse and inclusive.

Of course, this affair is as much a proxy war about the performance of the present Speaker as it is about getting the best Clerk/Chief Executive or deciding what the proper role and functions of the Head of the House Service should be.  In this long recess period, where the usual dearth of official in-House response and rebuttal is even more acute, the anti-Bercow forces have been able to make the running in attacking the Speaker for his handling of the recruitment process and for his apparent favoured candidate.  Their views are set out in their memorandum, which was leaked on the Guido Fawkes blog a few days ago. This document, which is riddled with factual errors and patronising and one-sided arguments, can be basically summed up as:

the top job in the House Service of Clerk/Chief Executive can only be filled, as now, by a ‘real’ Clerk, because the proceduralist side of the role is more extensive and more important than the relatively mundane ‘chief executive’ side, which the Clerk can also do as he/she has been trained to do it on the job.

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