The Primacy of Parliament

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.You said earlier that for the sake of accuracy you had managed to obtain a copy of the Queen’s Speech. You need not have done any such thing, as you might just as well have bought a copy of The Sunday Telegraph. Will you confirm that this is the first time that a draft of the Queen’s Speech has ever been leaked to a national newspaper? Will you personally conduct an investigation to find out whether it was leaked from No. 10 Downing street and whether any money changed hands in connection with it? You rightly used to excoriate Labour Ministers if ever we made announcements before making them to this House, so will you make sure that that lot over there do not announce things to the press—as they have done, day in, day out over the past 10 days—without first bringing them before this House?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which warrants an immediate response. The House will share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment that it and he did not hear for the first time the details of the Government’s legislative programme while listening to the Queen’s Speech this morning. This gives me the opportunity to say at the start of this new Parliament that I shall continue to expect, as I said two days after first being elected Speaker last June, that

“Ministers ought to make key statements to the House before they are made elsewhere.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2010; Vol. 494, c. 798.]

If they do otherwise, I—and, I am sure, the House—will expect to hear explanations and apologies as necessary.House of Commons Hansard, 25 May 2010

It is a long-standing convention in Westminster parliamentary systems that ministers make statements on policy or announcements of national interest in the House first. In Canada at least, at Confederation, no provision existed for this in the written rules, yet, from the start, ministers would rise before Orders of the Day to make presentations on matters of government policy or public interest. Representatives of the opposition parties would then respond to policy statements. The tradition was codified in 1964, with the adoption of a Standing Order which provided guidelines by which the procedure could be regulated.

However, both in Canada and in the UK, as we see from the above, ministers frequently make major policy announcements outside the House, much to the dismay of the opposition. The new coalition government in the UK has been chastised repeatedly in the House of Commons for a surprising number of announcements made before the new Parliament even opened: political reforms, budget cuts, the repeal of national ID cards, changes to the welfare system, and more seriously, the entire Throne Speech was leaked to the Daily Telegraph.

It may surprise some to learn that while federal and provincial Standing Orders in Canada, as well as the Standing Orders of the UK (and most likely Australia and New Zealand) codify ministerial statements, a Minister is under no actual obligation to make such statements in the House. Consequently, a Minister who makes a policy announcement during a press conference, or during a speech, is not actually doing anything wrong. Many points of privilege have been raised in various jurisdictions by opposition members frustrated by the growing tendency of governments to make announcements outside the legislature in advance of, or instead of informing the House. While repeatedly conveying their deep concern about how these extra-parliamentary announcements erode the stature of Parliament, speakers have consistently conceded that they cannot compel ministers to first make these announcements in the House.

Speakers will, however, impress upon the government side that it is expected that such announcements be made in the House first, as Speaker Bercow did in the above quotation. The reason why the opposition wants such announcements made in the House is so that they can respond to them, and thus get their own party’s position on the issue into the public record. A strong opposition makes for a strong government. Holding the executive to account is central to our system of government, but this cannot fully take place when the ability to respond to and criticize announcements of government policy is not available because the announcement did not occur during Ministerial Statements.

Why do government ministers so often make policy announcements outside of their respective legislative chambers? I am certain the reasons are varied. In most cases, it is probably not their intention to slight the House; however, in some cases, I am certain that it is a deliberate decision to thumb their nose at the opposition parties. Perhaps a large motivating factor is simply publicity: a press conference will get media coverage. Ministerial statements in the House often will not. An unfortunate reality, at least in Canada, is that media coverage of proceedings in the House of Commons, and most likely in provincial legislatures, focuses on Question Period. A major policy announcement made during Statements by Ministers won’t get the press coverage that the same announcement made during an organised media event will.

And unfortunately, press coverage often means more to a sitting government than does showing respect and courtesy to the House.

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