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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Parliaments and COVID-19: principles and practice; challenges and opportunities

Unit Director Meg Russell analyses the challenges and opportunities for reform facing parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised complex questions about how to balance the different functions of parliaments and their need to operate effectively.

In the UK and around the world parliaments have had to adjust their practices to the unexpected new environment of COVID-19. This has brought major challenges but, some suggest, also opportunities in terms of suggesting future means for parliaments to adapt. This post starts from the core principles of parliamentary functioning, briefly reviews practice under COVID-19, and considers the primary opportunities and challenges presented. It concludes that the future lessons from this unique period reinforce some familiar themes; but they also raise significant conundrums and trade-offs between the different essential principles of what parliaments are there to do.

Principles

Stripping back to the basics, what are parliaments for? Legislative studies scholars have suggested various overlapping lists of functions. For example in the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies, Amie Kreppel provides a list of four, which I will boil down to three: 

  • Representation takes many forms, often including – as is central to the UK House of Commons – geographic representation. Numerous, diverse, individuals participate in the legislature, underpinned by a crucial democratic principle of equality, where each ultimately has an equal vote.
  • Linkage is closely connected to this – as parliamentarians provide a voice in parliament to their voters, and remain accountable to them.
  • Policy-making – for example through approving bills – is perhaps what parliaments are best known for. Connectedly, they have a control function in holding executives to account. For simplicity, I treat these two functions together.

Other terms often mentioned in such classifications include deliberation –much of which takes place publicly – and legitimation, meaning all of parliaments’ functions help them generate broad public support for policy.

Practice

It is easy to see how the circumstances of COVID-19 have challenged some of these principles.

The threats to representation were pretty immediate and obvious. With limits on travel, requirements for social distancing, and heightened risks for people with certain health conditions, parliamentarians gathering from all over the country immediately became a problem. Some legislatures responded by limiting the number who could participate – with those decisions often taken by leaders and whips. Others moved their proceedings online. The UK House of Commons initially did the latter, but then rolled this back in a quite problematic way which breached principles of equal participation.

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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

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

Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution

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The coronavirus is a once in a generation event that has required an almost unprecedented response from government at all levels, from Westminster to West Lothian. Akash Paun argues that it has raised five crucial questions about the politics of devolution at a time when efficient and effective intergovernmental relations are crucial. 

Coronavirus has hit all parts of the UK and has required a comprehensive response by government at all levels – central, devolved and local. The crisis has raised (at least!) five big questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations and the politics of the Union:

  • Does the crisis show that the UK and devolved governments can cooperate effectively?
  • To what extent does devolution enable policy divergence between the UK nations?
  • How is the crisis affecting the operation of the devolved institutions themselves?
  • How is the pandemic response being funded – and with what impact on devolution?
  • What might this period mean for wider constitutional debates and the Union?

It is too early to give a definitive answer to any of these questions. But developments over the past few months already point to some preliminary conclusions, as well as identifying important lines of investigation for future research.

The UK and devolved governments can work together – at least in a crisis

One important finding, as the Institute for Government (IfG) recently concluded, is that the UK and devolved governments have shown the ability to work together well at various points over the past three months. Given the many disputes over Brexit, the Union and other matters in recent years, and the underlying weaknesses of the UK’s system of intergovernmental relations, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the different administrations would be able to cooperate at all.

But credit should be given where it is due. In early March, the UK and devolved governments published a joint Coronavirus Action Plan – a rare sighting of a government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations. There was close working too on the Coronavirus Act, which was drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention. And devolved leaders participated in meetings of the COBRA emergency committee throughout this period, helping to ensure that major announcements, not least the imposition of the lockdown in late March, were coordinated between the capitals. 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

Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster

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This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management. 

Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present. 

Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.

For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions. 

The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates. Continue reading