Reclaiming Parliament

An essential feature of parliamentary government is that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer to, the House of Commons for their actions. The House of Commons controls the executive by passing or rejecting its Bills and by forcing Ministers of the Crown to answer for their actions, for example during oral questions. The Lower House may attempt to bring down the government by rejecting a motion of confidence or by passing a motion of no confidence. Over time, however, in both Canada and the UK at least, the House of Commons’ scrutiny of the government has weakened. Its authority has been undermined both unintentionally and deliberately, to the point where the House has become largely impotent.

Parliament’s authority has been diminished uintentionally due to certain factors such as party discipline and the First-Past-the-Post voting system. Elections held under FPTP usually result in one party winning a majority of seats in the House. A majority government has limited need to compromise with other parties, and thus its legislative agenda is rarely successfully challenged. A majority government also doesn’t have to concern itself with maintaining the confidence of the House, since it outnumbers the other parties and can easily defeat any non-confidence motion. The only exception to this might be if the party in power faced an open rebellion among its own membership, but this rarely happens because of the make-up of modern political parties, which also unintentionally weakens the authority of the House. Modern political parties – in Canada at least – are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. In many cases, MPs may be expelled from their parties for voting against the instructions of party leaders.

More problematic, however, is the deliberate weakening of Parliament’s authority brought about by changes to the Standing Orders. The Standing Orders are the permanent written rules under which the House of Commons regulates its proceedings. A change in the rules brought about by the adoption of a new Standing Order may represent the creation of a new rule reflecting a long-standing practice of the House of Commons or the permanent adoption of a provisional, sessional or special order. A rule change may also come about as the result of an incident or event that convinced the House to seek a way to avoid its repetition. In many cases, if an opposition party manages to successfully undermine, or at least significantly delay, the passage of a government Bill by taking advantage of a particular procedure, the governing party will often then introduce changes to the standing orders to ensure that such incidents are not repeated.

An example of this from the UK would be Standing Order 14. SO 14 was introduced some time in the 1880s, initially as an emergency measure to allow governments to pass laws during times of national crisis (a campaign of obstructionism in the cause of Irish nationalism) – but after years of use, it became the norm. Standing Order 14 declared that except in certain circumstances “government business shall have precedence at every sitting”. SO 14 was a crucial step towards the executive’s dominance of parliament and is the authority that gives government the right to schedule the business in the House of Commons and arrange things so that important pieces of legislation are never properly scrutinised by elected representatives.

In 2009-2010, the UK Parliament was rocked by the MPs’ expenses scandal. While the scandal aroused widespread anger among the UK public against MPs and a loss of confidence in politics, it also created pressure for political reform extending well beyond the issue of expenses.

Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed to set up a reform of the house select committee under the chairmanship of Tony Wright. In response to pressure from the house, the government agreed to allow the committee to look into the management of “government business”, as well as the important but less-contentious matters of “non-government business”, select committee reform and public engagement. However, as if to prove the need for the Commons to have control of the agenda, the government failed – or refused – for seven weeks, to put the motion, setting it up on that part of the order paper that enables the measure to be debated – rather than simply fall if only one MP objects.

The Wright committee was finally debated and established on the very last day of parliament before the summer recess, but still managed to complete all its work by the end of the session in November 2009. Unlike other committees, the reform committee was elected by each party, and thus had more legitimacy than any other select committee. Its final report (PDF) was agreed to overwhelmingly and recommended better public engagement, cross-house secret ballot elections of select committee chairs, intraparty secret ballot elections of select committee members and back bench control over so-called “non-government business”.

It also recommended that there should be a business committee of the house to ensure that the house decides what parts of government bills need debate and decision on the floor of the house while guaranteeing, of course, that the government gets its business in and out of the Commons at a prearranged time of the government’s preference, just as now. This last recommendation, however, was resisted by the Labour government, as the Guardian’s Henry Porter details in this column, and unlike many of the other recommendations, was not adopted before the election was called.

Following the 6 May 2010 election, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition included the following in their commitments in the area of political reform:

We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full – starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.

On 15 June 2010, the new government made good its commitment to bring forward the establishment of a backbench business committee*, which will give backbenchers the time and the power to schedule debates on the issues that matter to them and their constituents. As the Wright report said, the new committee “will create new opportunities for all members, giving them a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for what goes on in their own house”. It remains to be seen if the commitment to relinquish government control over “government business” will be implemented as promised by 2013. If it is, UK MPs should see the start of something new – a chance to create a stronger, more assertive, more self-confident House of Commons.

*The Commons voted in principle to create a Backbench Business Committee in the last parliament (March 2010), but ran out of time before the election to debate the necessary standing orders to set it up.

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