The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over Covid-19, tensions between the Government and Parliament have run exceptionally high. This was predictable during minority government 2017-19, but has remained the case despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority.
A common theme – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the Government’s power over what MPs can discuss and when.
Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda, followed by worldwide attention on the Government’s unlawful attempt to prorogue Parliament. During the Covid-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on Parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise lockdown restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to virtual Commons participation.
On all these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ Parliament. Even without a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.
Controversies about government control of the Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a centuries-old tussle for dominance. In more recent times, they were a key focus of 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 recommendations to achieve this.
Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and the 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.
The agenda: who decides what the House of Commons can discuss?
In international terms, the Commons agenda is unusually executive-dominated. The principal source is Standing Order No.14, whose opening words are that, ‘Save as provided in this order, Government business shall have precedence at every sitting’.
The standard forum for discussing the Commons agenda is each Thursday’s ‘Business of the House’ session. Here the Leader of the House of Commons (currently Jacob Rees-Mogg) announces the coming week’s business. MPs can raise objections, but cannot change what is proposed.
Specific exceptions do exist to the Government control in Standing Order No.14, including ‘opposition days’ and backbench business – each allocated a certain number of days per parliamentary session. But there are two fundamental problems.
First, some sessions are far longer than others, but no increase in non-government time is guaranteed. Second, ministers schedule non-government time, so can readily withhold it to avoid awkward debates.
Hence over Brexit – despite MPs’ and the relevant select committee’s demands – the Government repeatedly failed to facilitate ‘indicative votes’ on the options once Theresa May’s deal had been defeated, and withheld opposition time entirely for a crucial five-month period.
This drove MPs to ‘seize control’ of the agenda by temporarily setting aside Standing Order No.14. While the indicative votes ultimately proved inconclusive, this outcome could have been established earlier – and with a good deal less acrimony– had agenda time been more readily available to MPs.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the Commons Procedure Committee has repeatedly argued that MPs unable to travel to Westminster should be able to fully participate in parliamentary proceedings virtually.
Ministers have consistently blocked these matters from the agenda, again denying MPs the opportunity to decide for themselves.
On lockdown restrictions, it took a significant rebellion (which potentially could have prevented the Coronavirus Act’s renewal) to make the Government commit to debates and votes on new restrictions.
Meetings: who decides when House of Commons can sit?
A similar pattern is seen on the even more basic question of when MPs meet. Ministers propose the ‘recess’ dates for the House of Commons, in a motion which MPs can neither debate nor amend.
Prorogation requires no parliamentary involvement at all: the Prime Minister simply makes a recommendation to the Queen. When Johnson prorogued Parliament in autumn 2019, MPs were driven to seeking redress through the courts.
This again fed significant acrimony and media assaults on both Parliament and judges.
Once the Commons is in recess, MPs are likewise powerless to initiate recall, which must be requested by a minister. There are numerous recent cases of MPs pressing for recall on important matters, and there have been various reform proposals.
Most recently, many backbenchers expressed frustration that the Christmas lockdown measures were radically changed only after Parliament had entered recess.
Despite entreaties to ministers, MPs were powerless to engineer recall, leading to the perverse outcome that MPs could only scrutinise legal restrictions on Christmas gatherings after Christmas had passed.
Yet when the Government wanted to recall MPs just after Christmas – principally to pass its Brexit deal legislation – this happened.
What is to be done?
Our report, published today, includes 20 conclusions and recommendations for change. Some proposals are straightforward, and could be implemented relatively easily.
For example, the Standing Order No.14 exceptions for opposition and backbench business should be reframed as a fortnightly or monthly allowance, providing fairness in longer sessions and ending the potential for manipulation by the Government.
Motions setting recess dates should be debatable and amendable by MPs. Prorogation should require parliamentary approval – the Government’s planned bill to amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act could provide a vehicle for this.
Other, more fundamental, changes require careful consideration. A key Wright committee recommendation which was never implemented, but could have avoided many recent problems, was that MPs should be able to amend and approve the weekly agenda.
Overall, more than a decade on from the Wright Committee, we argue that it is time for a fresh review of government control of House of Commons business – either by the Procedure Committee, or by a new ad hoc body, perhaps under the auspices of the Commons Speaker.
At present, House of Commons rules too often explicitly privilege the Government rather than the parliamentary majority. But, as recent events have shown, these two will not always be the same thing.
The fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision making – not government control.
By Professor Meg Russell, Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe and Director of the Constitution Unit, at University College London, and Dr Daniel Gover, Lecturer in British Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Read their new report ‘Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time’ here.