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

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

Should we worry if MPs seize control of the parliamentary agenda?

download.001Ahead of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit, attention has focused on the rights and wrongs of the House of Commons seeking to ‘seize control’. Meg Russell argues that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.

With stalemate over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejected dramatically by the House of Commons on 15 January by 432 votes to 202, there is increasing talk of parliament ‘seizing control’. On Tuesday, following the Speaker’s controversial decision to allow a vote on Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve’s amendment speeding up the timetable, MPs will vote on a series of propositions about what should happen next. These include a further proposal by Grieve that the government’s usual control of the agenda should be set aside on specified days to allow MPs to make decisions on Brexit, and a proposal from Labour’s Yvette Cooper that such control be set aside to allow time to debate a private member’s bill demanding that ministers avoid a no deal Brexit by requesting an extension to Article 50.

Consequently, some inside government have expressed concerns that the Commons, with the Speaker’s assistance, is overreaching itself. It has been reported that an internal government document warns of MPs’ moves ‘represent[ing] a clear and present danger to all government business’, and even meaning that ‘the government would lose its ability to govern’. One senior legal figure (whose career was spent inside the government) has argued that changes of this kind could set dangerous precedents for the future, even potentially dragging the monarch into a constitutional crisis (though other legal experts have firmly rebutted such claims).

So are we entering dangerous constitutional territory? What is, after all, so odd about the idea of a democratically-elected chamber gaining greater control over its own time, and its own rules? Continue reading

2017 select committee chair elections: a short guide

The new parliament is the third in which chairs will be elected by the whole House. These elections take place on Wednesday, with 28 chairs to be elected (though only 11 are being contested). Andrew Kennon discusses these elections and some of the trends that have developed over the seven years the system has been in operation.

Wednesday 12 July could prove to be the next best indicator (after the votes on the Queen’s speech) of how effective the new House of Commons will be at performing its constitutional role. It is the day when 28 people will be elected by their fellow MPs to chair select committees in these tumultuous times. No other parliament in the world has yet entrusted the choice of committee chairs to a secret ballot of all MPs. The system was the unexpected outcome of the expenses scandal and the imagination of the resulting reform committee, chaired by Tony Wright MP, to find ways of rebuilding the reputation of the House of Commons.

Direct elections

Chairs of select committees were first elected by the whole House in 2010 and then again in 2015, so the system is still fairly new. But members have quickly learnt how to get the best out of the system. Notably members of newer intakes have used the elections to ensure that their generation does not have to wait decades for their share of the spoils. Chair by-elections in 2014 saw two of the 2010 intake, Sarah Wollaston and Rory Stewart, securing the chairs of the Health and Defence committees, and other members of the 2010 intake were elected to chairs in 2015. It would be good to see more of the 2010 MPs taking the helm of committees now and some of the more recent arrivals staking a strong claim. The last thing we need is an American approach of longevity as the determinant of chairmanships

The distribution of chairs between parties in 2017, based on their strengths in the House, is only slightly changed since that of 2015 – the Conservatives have given up the chair of the Science and Technology Committee to the Liberal Democrats. It would have been possible, within the same number, for a more imaginative re-distribution of committees between parties to have taken place. This would certainly have occurred if there had been a change of party in government.

Term limits

There are term limits for select committee chairs and this rule will bite unexpectedly as a result of the early general election. Several chairs first elected in 2010 will – if re-elected again now – have to stand down in mid-2018 under the current rule, causing by-elections for those chairs. Some that this would have applied to are not running again but Clive Betts (Communities and Local Government), David TC Davies (Welsh Affairs), Sir Kevin Barron (Standards) and Bernard Jenkin (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs) are offering themselves for re-election. Three of these have now been re-elected unopposed but Clive Betts faces a challenge – with the exception of Ian Mearns, on the Backbench Business Committee, all other Labour incumbents are elected unopposed.

Continue reading

MAKING TIME TO REFORM PARLIAMENTARY TIME

14th May 2013

All this talk of draft bills and Loyal Address amendments about an EU referendum raises several vital democratic issues of parliamentary process, not least that of the ways in which MPs, individually or collectively, can initiate debate or legislation on important topics of the moment.  At its heart, as always, lurks the core problem of Government control of House of Commons business and time.

Supporters of the ‘conventional wisdom’ parliamentary reform agenda over the last half century have justified the pace and route of reform as being incremental, evolutionary and practical, being the only way to achieve change in the face of the Government’s dominant position in the House of Commons.  Those more sceptical may choose to describe it more negatively, as being ad hoc, piecemeal, reactive, incoherent and devoid of any consistent guiding principle.

Some changes come not directly from demands from MPs or even the public, but from the initiative of the Government itself, and these, though dressed up as parliamentary reform to strengthen Parliament, often result in making life easier for Ministers.  Richard Crossman in the 1960s said there was a difference between parliamentary reform and modernisation, when he was distinguishing practical updating in infrastructure and facilities from procedural changes.  In the modern context, too often ‘modernisation’ has been the catchword for changes which assist the Government, or which can be absorbed by Ministers without serious inconvenience, whereas genuine ‘reform’, to make Parliament itself more powerful and effective, especially in relation to the Executive, has to take a back seat, awaiting Government permission and, worse, facilitation.

So it is with ‘parliamentary time’ and the control and order of business.  There have been some changes, especially to the scope for debate not initiated by Ministers, such as Westminster Hall.  There has been the innovation of the Backbench Business Committee, but that has been hobbled by the albatross of the Government’s e-petition wheeze around its shoulders.  Some ever-optimistic souls are still waiting in hope for the emergence of Government proposals for a ‘House Business Committee’ of some sort, originally promised for this year.

But we also wait in vain for fundamental change to issues like the current antiquated arrangements for backbench legislative initiative.  How different would the current ‘discussions’ of EU referendum legislation opportunities be if we didn’t have to rely on the various existing ‘private members bill’ processes, with its random ballot and limited scope for genuine progress of controversial bills, but if there were clear and efficient arrangements for the allocation of time for all types of parliamentary business, including scope for debates and legislative initiative by non-Governmental sources, such as backbenchers – getting rid of the unhelpful term ‘private member’ would be a small but symbolic reform – and committees.

The current confused mess – which may, in many ways, be helpful to Ministers – further undermines the Commons’ reputation with the public as an effective, responsive and accountable representative assembly, able to address coherently important issues of public interest.  Time for real, principled and all-embracing reform!

The Wright Way to Infantilise the Commons

The short Commons debate on Monday 12 March on procedural changes to the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC) provided further proof that Government (and front benches generally) has no intention of ceding its dominance over the parliamentary agenda in any fundamental way, and will permit ‘reform’ only on its own terms and in its own good time.

What a pity that the vast legions of the ‘conventional wisdom’ – in academe, media and inside Westminster itself – will no doubt ignore this, as they have all clear signs in the last few years that the alleged empowering of Parliament, through the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee, is being skewed and diluted by ministers and their allies. The Backbench Business Committee is hailed as the battering ram which is breaching Government control of Commons business (what is discussed and when etc.), leading to the ultimate prize of a ‘full’ House Business Committee in the coming year.

I have blogged on all this, both in this Blog and elsewhere (eg here, and here), arguing for genuine Commons control (on behalf of the public they represent) of their own House and its operation, especially in respect of its business.  Monday’s debate is a good example of a government (any government) unilaterally deciding to propose its own changes to a select committee – and the one which is supposed to determine Backbench business! – at a time of its own choosing, and, according the BBBC’s chair and others, not only without consulting that committee in advance but also in the middle of a Procedure Committee review of the BBBC.  Because Ministers control time, all backbenchers can do is complain about it, or try to prevent it through amendments, when surely in any mature parliament worthy of the name, the timing of such a debate and the content of any proposed motions would be a matter for the House itself – through some form of genuine Business Committee.

The standard ministerial excuse is that all Government is doing is ‘providing an opportunity’ for debate and ‘facilitating’ discussion through its agenda-setting.  Note, in passing, that this debate was held alongside ‘sexier’ ones on MPs standards, guaranteed to monolopolise the limited available political and media interest.  Even worse, the minister putting all this through was  David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House (and my local MP) – the same David Heath who, when in opposition, demanded “An Everest of reform … to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose” and declared that “It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business.” Oh, I forgot, he’s now only ‘providing opportunities for debate and decision ….

Mr Heath is learning all the front bench business manager tricks. For example, he said on Monday that “Wright is not holy writ and should not be treated as such, not least because there are internal contradictions in the Wright report, just as there are sometimes in holy writ.”  In other words, we in Government can cherry-pick what we want out of the Wright reform blueprint, and ignore or change what we dont like.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the best – indeed, only – sensible strategy for acheiving reform is to go along with the Government (as has been done over the Government’s own unilateral e-petitions system being dropped into the BBBC mix) and to try and ‘save’ as much of the Wright blueprint as possible.  We can argue how radical Wright really was, in that glorious window of opportunity provided fleetingly by the expenses scandal of 2009.  What the incrementalists and trimmers have to demonstrate now is that when (perhaps, if) they actually can claim success over a full House Business Committee, it will be one worth having, and that the arrangement of Commons business will have really shifted decisively from the Government (and front benches more generally) to the House collectively on behalf of the people.

Monday’s debate confirms that the omens are not good.  But there may just be time for those who profess to seek genuine radical reform to act before it is too late, and try to overcome the House’s self-defeating acquiescence to government initiative over parliamentary reform.  After all, it was the Wright Committee itself which rightly asserted, in unequivocal terms, that “Time in the House belongs to the House,” and warned that  Government control of parliamentary time “infantilises Members.”  Time to grow up!