Holding ministers to account

Continuing on my recent post regarding ministerial statements, an interesting exchange occurred in the UK House of Commons today following a ministerial statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Phillip Hammond.

Hammond delivered a statement on the future of the UK’s reserve forces. He announced that the government was publishing a White Paper setting out its vision for the reserve forces and the detail of how it will make reserve service more attractive. An important part of the announcement was that the overall number of Army Reserve bases will be reduced from the current total of 334 to 308. Hammond then said:

“With your permission Mr Speaker, I will distribute a summary sheet that identifies the reserve locations being opened and those being vacated.”

At the conclusion of Hammond’s statement, his Labour opposite (Mr. Jim Murphy) rose to respond, and the following exchange took place between Mr. Murphy and the Speaker:

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State and his officials for giving me advance briefing, but I am disappointed by the fact that we have been given only half a statement. The House does not have the luxury of possessing a list of the bases that the Government intend to close, because that has not been shared with Members on either side the House. It does not appear to be in the Library either, and it is not contained in the White Paper. I will happily accept your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on whether or not I should continue.

Mr Speaker: It is certainly open to the right hon. Gentleman to continue. If it was the Government’s intention that such further details should be available in the Vote Office and they are not, that is at the very least regrettable, and arguably incompetent. If it was not the intention for the material to be available, it should have been.

Order. I do not think that the Secretary of State can respond at this stage. He will have to do his best to respond to questions later, and we shall have to cope as best we can, but the situation is deeply unsatisfactory.

Mr Murphy: Is it your advice that I should continue, Mr. Speaker, on the basis that the House has not been provided with the information relating to the statement?

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Order! I cannot take points of order in the middle of a statement.
The shadow Secretary of State is his own best adviser. He has material, he is a dextrous fellow, and I suggest that he will wish to continue.

Mr Murphy: Under your guidance, Mr. Speaker, I shall of course do so, but I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will, like me, consider it utterly unacceptable that we are being expected to comment on a statement that has not been shared with the House. (…)

At the conclusion of Mr. Murphy’s response and questions for the Secretary of Defence, the Speaker again intervened to admonish the minister for failing to provide the list of bases to be closed to the Members of the House:

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State rises to respond, he said in his statement:

“With your permission Mr Speaker, I will distribute a summary sheet that identifies the reserve locations being opened and those being vacated.”

It was not clear from that wording quite when the intention to distribute was, but clearly significant numbers of Members had not received a copy of the tri-service site summary by location, which is a detailed piece of information on one sheet. It was, however, apparently available to members of the media. I hope that the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Order. I hope that the Secretary of State can clarify the situation, but on the face of it, it is a very considerable discourtesy to the House of Commons, and I hope he can either prove it is not, or if he recognises or accepts that it is, I am sure he will be gracious enough fulsomely to apologise to the House of Commons.

Mr Hammond: I was intending to open my remarks by apologising for the evident delay in distributing these summary sheets. The summary sheet I referred to relates to the basing and structure statement that has been made today as a written statement. However, I felt that Members would wish to have a summary of the most important element of that—the base closures—and it was my intention, Mr Speaker, with your permission to distribute that sheet as I sat down at the end of my statement, and I deeply regret that it was not available until just a few moments ago. I am also not aware that it has been distributed outside this House.

A series of questions from other Members were posed to the Secretary of Defence, and then Mr. Speaker again intervened with yet another sharp rebuke to the minister:

Mr Speaker: Order. I gather—I have just been informed and seen evidence for myself—that the oral statement, or copies thereof, is now being distributed around the Chamber, in what is an unedifying spectacle. I have, in all sincerity and candour, to say to the Secretary of State that, as he will know, the content of statements is not a matter for me and I take no view of them, but the administration of this matter has been woefully inadequate and, frankly, utterly incompetent. I have not known a worse example during my tenure as Speaker. I know that the Secretary of State has expressed himself in his usual, rather understated, terms, but I hope he genuinely does feel some sense of embarrassment and contrition at what has been a total mishandling by his Department, for which he is solely responsible—it is as simple as that.

Mr Hammond: First, I am indeed embarrassed by what appears to have just occurred. As you would expect, Mr Speaker, I will be investigating precisely what has happened and I will write to you to let you know what has gone wrong this afternoon. I understood that copies of the statement and copies of the spreadsheet would be distributed as soon as I sat down, and I apologise for the fact that that did not happen.

Speaker Bercow has come under some criticism for admonishing the Secretary of State for failing to provide the full statement and supporting documentation to the House. Alex Stevenson from politics.co.uk wasn’t impressed, arguing that:

Bercow needs to stop using up his very limited political goodwill on these small-fry issues of administrative incompetence. He needs to concentrate on the bigger struggle for power between the government and parliament.

The relationship between the two institutions is so biased that most voters don’t even realise they are separate. The government dominates parliament. Its Commons majority allows it to trample on the backbenchers trying to scrutinise it. Worse laws and bigger abuses of power are the result.

Stevenson goes on to plead the case for a House Business Committee, which the Coalition Government had promised to bring forward by 2013, but which, as I explained in an earlier post, they’ve been unable to agree on a suitable, workable model.

While Stevenson isn’t entirely wrong, he seems to miss the point that ministerial statements are a key opportunity for these much maligned backbenchers to scrutinise the government and hold it to account. If a minister fails to provide them with the needed information, as occurred on this occasion, then backbenchers cannot do their job properly.

Consequently, in the absence of a House Business Committee, which may never come into being, it is important that all other tools available to backbenchers be protected and enforced by the Speaker. Hammond’s failure to provide important data to the House was not a “smallfry administrative incompetence”; it hampered MPs’ ability to question the minister effectively.

Was Speaker Bercow somewhat over the top in his admonishment of Hammond? Perhaps, but one thing few will disagree with is Bercow’s strong commitment to backbenchers and empowering the legislature vis-à-vis the executive.

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