Other reforms of Parliament are more urgently needed than electoral reform

A reader left the following comment on my post about the Reform Act’s proposals for party leader selection:

While there is much to be said for the concept of MPs having more weight than the average party member in selecting a leader, this assumes that the MPs are properly representative of the party’s voters. Because of our skewed winner-take-all vopting system, this is far from the case. As Stephane Dion never tires of pointing out, our voting system “makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.” It “artificially amplifies the regional concentration of political party support at the federal level. This regional amplification effect benefits parties with regionally concentrated support and, conversely, penalizes parties whose support is spread across the country without dominating anywhere.”

The Conservative “equality of ridings” provision ensures that representative from Quebec cast about 25% of the votes in a leadership contest. If the caucus elected the leader, Quebec representatives would cast 3% of the votes. Stephane Dion would be quick to say that this “weakens Canada’s cohesion.”

First things first. Once we have a fair, modern voting system that lets all votes count equally toward electing MPs, the caucus might be entrusted with more weight in selecting a leader. Not until then.

Many others have expressed a similar view, that electoral reform is a far more pressing issue. However, I disagree, and I think the above misses a couple of critical points: first, that the Canadian Parliament does not work properly; and second, that electoral reform will not only fail to address those very major problems, but might even exacerbate them.

Let me begin by stating that I am not against the idea of electoral reform; I have written a number of posts outlining some of the problems inherent with the use of single-member plurality (or First-Past-the-Post – FPTP as it is more commonly known) in a multi-party state such as Canada (and the UK). However, the problems facing the Canadian House of Commons have very little to do with the electoral system. The main problems (in my view at least) are as follows:

  • the absolute control of party leadership over caucus members;
  • the absolute control of political parties over too many proceedings;
  • the abuse of certain procedures such as time allocation by the Executive.

When people talk of the need for electoral reform, most refer to PR — proportional representation — without specifying exactly what they mean by that. Unlike FPTP, proportional representation is not a single voting system — there are probably as many variations of PR as there are countries which use it. Most, if not all, forms of PR enhance the role of the party, in that you end up with some MPs who are not directly elected by anyone. Those who advocate for electoral reform above any other reform regularly criticize FPTP by hauling out the usual “In the last election, 39% of the vote resulted in 100% of power” or “millions of votes didn’t count!” arguments.

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore how our system works. We don’t vote for a government. We don’t elect a government. We elect individuals to represent each riding as an MP, that collection of individual MPs forms a Parliament, and the Parliament determines who will form the government. Rather than view a general election as one election, it really should be viewed as 308 (soon to be 338) individual elections.

This is why the argument that “39% of the vote shouldn’t equal 100% of the power” misses the point. You can’t focus on a “national” percentage of the vote for each party – it’s irrelevant because there is no national party or government vote on the ballot. You have to focus on each individual race in each individual constituency.

If you take this approach to it, then yes, every vote most certainly did count. In a very close three- or four-way race, as in Ahuntsic back in 2011, where the final tally was:

  • Bloc Quebecois – 14,908 or 31.8%,
  • NDP – 14,200 or 30.3%,
  • Liberal – 13,087 or 27.9%

every vote most certainly did count, was counted, and at the end of the count, the BQ candidate ended up with the most votes. Now you can certainly make the argument that no one should be elected with less than 50% of the vote, but it doesn’t change the fact that Athuntsic was very competitive and every single vote mattered and was counted and a winner emerged — the candidate with the most votes. And that was repeated in the other 307 separate elections that were held. Some were runaway victories for one candidate — and in those cases, that candidate would have won the seat no matter what voting system we had in place, while others were like Ahuntsic. Others were even closer still, tight two-way battles won by a handful of votes. How can you argue that in those instances, votes didn’t matter? Each one did — a lot. The winner may not have won with over 50% of the votes cast, but every single vote was counted and mattered.

It’s really not fair (or right) to say “votes don’t count” under FPTP — they do. Even if we had a preferential ballot (where candidates are ranked in order of preference, and votes transferred based on those preferences until one candidate has over 50%), there would be people who would not have ranked the candidate who ultimately wins, or maybe would have ranked that candidate last — yet you wouldn’t say their vote didn’t count. Under most forms of Mixed-Member Proportional, the bulk of MPs are still elected using FPTP — the only difference is that each party’s seat total is then topped up with list MPs (whom NOBODY votes for) based on the party’s percentage of the overall vote.

The problem with most forms of PR, because they involve list MPs chosen by the party leadership to fill seats assigned to the party to ensure its percentage of seats in the House more closely matches the overall percentage of the vote received by that party, is that the party becomes even more dominant. Look at New Zealand, for example. As one extreme example, in New Zealand, party votes — which are most votes in the House — are cast based on the number of MPs that party has. If a party has 10 MPs and indicates it will support a certain bill, the party vote is an automatic 10 in favour – and the MPs don’t even have to be in the Chamber when the vote occurs.

FPTP is not the real problem. The UK uses FPTP and their Parliament — while certainly not perfect — operates so much better in so many ways than does the Canadian Parliament. If you follow UK politics closely, as I do, you will reguarly see both political analysts and readers bemoaning how whipped their MPs are; yet compared to Canadian MPs, British MPs appear incredibly independent and even rebellious. If we had far more independent MPs — and by independent, I don’t mean persons elected as Independents, but MPs willing to act more independently/less like party automatons, then our current system could work better. If backbenchers from the governing party understood that they were not part of government and were willing to actually hold the the government to account and vote against it now and then when they believed it was in the best interests of the constituents to do so, as they do in the UK, then even a single-party majority government wouldn’t be able to exercise the same level of power that they currently do. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for governments with even large majorities to see legislation to pass by only a handful of votes because a good number of the governing party’s own backbenchers vote against it. This has been particularly true with the Coalition government (for obvious reasons — Conservative backbenchers feel less “loyalty” to the government since it’s not a Conservative government), but was also true on more than one occasion during the Labour majorities. Blair suffered a number of important backbench rebellions on key pieces of legislation, which in some cases passed by only a handful of votes, or because there was enough support from MPs from other parties to make up for the number of Labour MPs who dissented. Our problem isn’t so much FPTP, but a combination of excessive and abusive party discipline and a need to reform some of the House of Commons’ current practices to lessen the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature.

What reforms do I think would be needed here in Canada?

First, increase the number of MPs. While the next election will see a larger House – 338 MPs instead of the current 308, I would like to increase the number of MPs by a significant margin – at least by 100, preferably by as many as 150. One of the biggest problems here is that it is too easy for the party leadership to “reward” their MPs with positions, thus ensuring their compliance. In the UK House of Commons, with its 650 MPs, the leadership of the two main parties simply cannot exert the same level of control – there simply aren’t enough positions to hand out. Let me illustrate the problem.

The current Conservative caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa numbers 162 MPs. One of those is the Speaker, which brings the total down to 161 MPs. Of that number, 70 would be what is called the “payroll vote” – the PM, Cabinet and the parliamentary secretaries. That is 43% of the caucus. On top of that, 24 of the House of Commons’ 28 committees are chaired by Conservatives. Now, committee chairs are elected by the committee members, but the committee membership is appointed by the party leadership. There are only 44 Conservative MPs who are NOT members of any committee — those who are in Cabinet (39), the Speaker, and four other MPs — two of whom were elected in by-elections only in November of last year and probably haven’t had a chance to be assigned to a committee yet. That means that there are only 4 members of the Conservative Party caucus who have no role in the House other than being an MP (not counting the Speaker). More importantly, this means that there are only four members of the Conservative caucus who haven’t been “awarded” a role by the party’s leadership. The situation would be similar (and even worse) for the other parties in the House given that they have smaller caucuses. However, it matters more, perhaps, for the Conservatives since they form the government. The Conservative backbench MPs are not part of the government; they are simply MPs whose task it is to hold the government to account — same as the Opposition parties. However, because all but a handful of them have been appointed to one position or another by their party leader, they don’t do this. The issue of the payroll vote is one that is regularly raised in the UK — even by MPs themselves (see this article from 2011 by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston). I can’t recall seeing much, if any, discussion of the issue here in Canada.

This would lead to my second reform: change how committee members and chairs are selected. In the UK House of Commons, the issue of the pay-roll vote is a major one, as explained in detail in this article. That said, however, recent reforms all but eliminated the influence of the party leadership in committees. I have explained these reforms in detail in this post, but to summarize, Select Committee chairs are now elected by the whole House using ranked ballots. Party caucuses elect which of their members will sit on each committee. This has led to Commons Select Committees being far more independent, willing to engage in a series of important inquiries, newsworthy, and, in many ways, far less partisan. There is a greater sense that they are accountable to the Commons as a whole, rather than trying to advance their parties’ respective interests. A Private Member’s bill has been put forward in Ottawa proposing a similar reform for the Canadian House of Commons.

Reform #3: Get the parties out of Question Period. Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons is, at best, a farce. It is completely controlled by the parties. Each party decides which of its MPs will ask a question, in what order they will ask the question, and even write the questions out that the MPs will ask. The Speaker has the power to call on any MP in any order, but rarely does so; he or she follows the lists provided by the party whips. In the UK, MPs submit their questions in advance, and these questions are drawn in a shuffle to determine which MPs will get to ask a question and in what order. What difference does this make? MPs are free to ask questions that matter to them and to their constituents. It is very common to hear MPs in the UK House of Commons ask ministers — including the PM — questions that are about a problem in their riding, or about a problem facing one of their constituents. You never hear that in the Canadian House of Commons. Also, questions in the UK are submitted at least three days ahead of the scheduled departmental question time to allow the ministers to prepare thoughtful answers. This in turn means that the questions do actually get answered, unlike in the Canadian House of Commons where a minister is as likely to answer with an attack on the opposition rather than address the actual question.

Reform #4: Bring in Urgent Questions and UK-style Ministerial Statements. You can read about both of those procedures in this earlier post.

Reform #5: Adopt the proposals put forward in the Reform Act. You can read my various posts about the Reform Act for more information.

The pressing problem here is that the Canadian House of Commons cannot carry out its duties of scrutiny and seeking information effectively. Changing the voting system will not address this; in fact, depending on which form of PR were to be adopted, it could worsen the situation by making the role of parties even more central to everything. The most democratic voting system in the world will mean nothing if the legislative body to which MPs are elected cannot function efficiently and effectively. Parliamentary and procedural reform are needed far more urgently. And the simple reality is that it might be easier to address the party control and discipline issues and need for Standing Order changes than to ever get any type of PR adopted.

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Towards a Parliament 2.0

UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow delivered a speech to the Hansard Society (PDF downloadable here) outlining his plans for a Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.

The first part of his speech highlighted the Westminister Spring – the remarkable revival of the UK House of Commons as an institution since the 2010 general election. Mr. Speaker noted that when he became Speaker in 2009,

the House of Commons as a meangingful political institution, an effective legislature, had been in decline for some decades and was close to reaching the point wher eit had become, to distort Walter Bagehot slightly, a diginified part of our constitution without any dignity.

(…)

Parliament appaered to have been reduced to the status of a small green room in which men, overwhelmingly men, shouted at each othe rfor relatively short periods of the working week and then disappeared from sight thereafter to do Lord Knows What. Certainly, it was not to strike terror in the hearts of Ministers or offer considreed criticism and surgical scrutiny either of proposed legislation in the Chamber or via the Select Committee system of the implementation of executive policy.

However, as Speaker Bercow explains, “the virtual corpse has staged an unexpected recovery.” He attributes this miracle to three facters: procedural reform, fresh blood and the novelty of coalition government.

In the dying days of the previous Parliament, the House adopted many of the Wright Committee recommendations (of which I have written about many times). These reforms were implemented for the first time in May 2010, following the general election. They include the election of the Deputy Speakers, the election of Select Committee chairs by the whole House, the election of Select committee members by their respective caucuses, and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee.

Added to this is Speaker Bercow’s revival of an existing, but almost extinct, procedure, the Urgent Question UQ), which Speaker Bercow describes as a “parliamentary intrument of inquisition.” I explain Urgent Questions in some detail here, but simply put, it is a procedure which allows any MP on any day to petition the Speaker to demand that a ministry send one of its Ministers to answer some issue or matter that has arisen very suddenly. In the 12 months under Speaker Bercow’s predecessor, only two UQs had been allowed. Since becoming Speaker, Bercow has granted 154.

The revival of the UQ has had another unexpected benefit – Ministers are now far more likely to take the initiative and deliver statements to the House “because they know that if they do not the chance of a UQ is now high.”

The 2010 general election saw a very large intake of new MPs – 227 (out of a total of 650 MPs). These new MPs were more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, career background, etc., that had been true previously. They also brought with them a new attitude – not content to simply sit quietly and do what they were told by party Whips.

Add to this mix the formation of a coalition government – the first in some seventy years, which forced both the government and Parliament to “make up new norms as we have gone along”:

The uncertainty as to what exactly is the correct way to proceed has offered the breathing space for backbench creativity and parliamentary originality which the House Backbench Business Committee chaired by the redoubtable Natascha Engel MP has eagerly exploited. It has also, I conclude, further convinced Select Committees that a more forensic approach to scrutiny is not an act of rebellion or disloyalty to their own political party but a civic obligation.

Speaker Bercow acknowledges that there is still more to do, particularly in the area of setting up a House Business Committee, improving Private Members’ Bills, and perhaps reforming Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). And beyond that, one enormous challenge remains, not only for Westminster, but for all legislatures in the 21st century, namely,

how to reconcile traditional concepts and institutions of representative democracy with the technological revolution which we have witnessed over the past decade or two which has created both a demand for and an opportunity to establish a digital democracy.

And this is where the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy comes in. The Commission will have a core membership supplemented by a circle of around 30 expert Commissioners and will solicit input by the public. it will begin its work in 2014, reporting in early 2015, just before the next general election. Digital democracy initiatives could include:

online voting, e-dialogue between representatives and those they represent, increased interconnectedness between the functions of representation, scrutiny and legislation, multiple concepts of what is a constituency, flexibility about what is debated when and how, and a much more intense pace for invention and adaptation.

Speaker Bercow goes on to explain that digital democracy is a form of “in-reach encouraging and enabling the public to become more involved in the work of Parliament and Parliament responding as a result.” In-reach used to consist of voting once every 4-5 years, but this no longer suffices. He concludes by admitting that his plan is ambitious:

The structure is one which is unfamiliar to the House of Commons, the agenda is potentially vast and the timetable for publication is tight. Universities and even our schools, because this should not be an area deemed exclusive to so-called adults, might not necessarily respond to the call to e-arms, although I suspect that they will not need to be conscripted. The recommendations might not make the impact that they should arriving as they will but a few months before a general election, although I believe that when the new Parliament assembles it will be truly interested in what it means to become a new Parliament more broadly. And technology might turn up in 2020 or 2030 that renders all that we thought before redundant.

None of which should be an alibi for inaction. When I was elected Speaker I made it clear that while I would be a non-partisan figure withinour democracy, I would not be neutral about our democracy. Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative has to be re-examined constantly. It is a process, not an event. I am a passionate advocate of democracy. I do not feel that it is stretching the  nature of the office in which I serve to champion that democracy. I am by choice politically celibatebut I am not a political eunuch. The fantastic people who work in and for the House of Commons arenot party political figures and should not be either but from the top downwards they share my desire to see Parliament and the people connected as closely as humanly possible and we recognise that technology can be our best friend and ally in this regard. All those who care about Parliament, and I  appreciate that with this audience I am preaching to the long-time converted, should want to embrace this  cause and deliver us their thoughts on the development of digital democracy. I am convinced that we can really make a difference.

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Revisiting Rebuilding the House – Managing the rest of the House’s time

Background: The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) released its Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms. The Wright reforms are those recommendations put forward by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (aka the Wright Committee, after its chair, Dr Tony Wright). In the spring of 2010, the House of Commons voted to approve and give effect to many of those recommendations, which took effect at the start of the new Parliament following the May 2010 general election.

I am providing a brief overview across a number of posts of the report’s main findings. This is the third installment, looking at Section 4 – Managing the rest of the House’s time. Previous installments include the section on Select Committees, and the section on the Backbench Business Committee.

“There is a strong case for regarding all time as the House’s time. It is not the Government that seeks a debate but the House: what the Government needs are the decisions which enable it to carry out its programme.” (Rebuilding the House, para 129)

One of the main principles set out in the Wright Report was that the House of Commons should have more control over its own agenda, timetable and procedures. Despite the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, the Government still controls a significant majority of Parliamentary time. This reality rests partly “on the argument that governments are formed as a reflection of the popular vote” (p. 23).

The Committee found that the Commons “is as far away as ever from implementing the basic Wright principle that all time should be regarded as “the House’s time’”, and that the present procedure for setting the agenda, normally referred to as “the usual channels”, is inadequate. The usual channels describes the working relationship of the whips from the different parties and the leaderships of the Government and Opposition parties. The term refers to arrangements and compromises about the running of parliamentary business that are agreed behind the scenes. The Leader of the House then delivers a Business Statement in the House (usually on Thursdays), and members are able to question him or her on upcoming House business, the schedule for which has only just been presented to the House.

While there was much agreement among witnesses who appeared before the Committee that something else was needed, two important issues emerged. First, there was a lack of clarity about what a House Business Committee would do, and second, it would be very important to strike the right balance of membership. The Committee noted that:

 The balance of the evidence we received was that a House Business Committee with a limited role, its work clearly distinguished from that of the Backbench Committee, could be set up and could do useful work. (p. 27)

It also noted that the Coalition Government had promised to introduce a House Business Committee by the third year of the current Parliament, but as I discussed in an earlier post, the Leader of the House previously informed the Committee that this would not happen. The PCRC rejected this position and took up the Leader of the House’s challenge by putting forward the arguments for and against six possible models for a House Business Committee, these being:

  1. The Status Quo (“the usual channels”)
  2. More transparency about the business managers’ meeting
  3. An Informal Bureau
  4. A Consultative House Business Committee
  5. A House Business Committee that scrutinises the agenda
  6. A select committee which itself proposes an agenda for the House

I won’t go into the description and pros and cons of each model proposed above; that information can be found on pages 29-32 of the report. The PCRC favours option D, a consultative House Business Committee. This is described in the report as a:

[F]ormal select committee meeting in private, with published summary Minutes: membership established by House with representatives of all sides of House and not dominated by Whips, but separate from Backbench Business Committee; chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means; purely consultative—Leader determines agenda actually announced to House; some House secretariat and access to forward plans to enable Committee to give timely consideration to Government’s proposals. (p. 30)

One final item considered in this section was that of a votable agenda, with many witnesses favouring such a reform. However, the Committee concluded:

111.  The Business Statement as it stands is not an adequate forum for discussion of the House’s agenda. It fails to provide a proper opportunity for Members to consider their future business, let alone for the House to endorse, and therefore genuinely control, its own agenda. We acknowledge the argument that, in certain circumstances, the House might welcome the opportunity to amend or vote down an agenda presented to it by the Leader of the House. However, we believe that a House Business Committee, constituted and operating effectively on the lines we propose, would remove the need for such a vote. (p. 35)

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Revisiting Rebuilding the House – The Backbench Business Committee

Background: The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) released its Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms. The Wright reforms are those recommendations put forward by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (aka the Wright Committee, after its chair, Dr Tony Wright). In the spring of 2010, the House of Commons voted to approve and give effect to many of those recommendations, which took effect at the start of the new Parliament following the May 2010 general election.

I am providing a brief overview across a number of posts of the report’s main findings, beginning with the section on Select Committees. This is the second installment, looking at Section 3 – The Backbench Business Committee.

Much as been written on this blog about the Backbench Business Committee, or BBCom as it has come to be known. It has also been the subject of a very thorough review by the Procedure Committee, the major findings of that report I summarised in this post. For those who are not familiar with the BBCom, it is the result of one of the main recommendations of the Wright Committee. It is a new committee established for the first time at the outset of the current parliament in June 2010 to organize debates on subjects brought forward by backbenchers. The Committee has 35 days allocated to it  per session during which it decides what will be debated. Most of those debates take place in the main Chamber, but some also take place in Westminster Hall.

The main conclusion of the Procedure Committee’s review was that the BBCom has been a success, and this view was echoed by most of the witnesses who testified before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:

Outside commentators, frontbenchers and backbenchers welcomed the opportunities provided by the Committee for Members to raise important subjects. (p. 16)

Based on witness testimony, the BBCom has:

  • provided a “key avenue” for Members to give voice to public concerns;
  • allowed debates to be held on subjects the Government would have preferred to ignore;
  • changed House culture by creating more solidarity among backbenchers across party lines;
  • helped to rebalance the relationship between the House and the Executive;
  • recovered for the House the possibility of changing Standing Orders through a Motion in Backbench Business Committee time;
  • provide time for select committee reports to be debated on the floor of the House.

The PCRC report did identify some areas of unfinished business. Notably, the Government has rejected a proposal put forward by the Procedure Committee to allocate more days to the BBCom in sessions of longer than a year. Some witnesses, notably Dr. Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit, called it “inappropriate” that decisions on what days are allocated to the BBCom are still the domain of the Executive. Another issue raised was that the Government regularly scheduled backbench business on Thursdays, when whipping is light, meaning attendance is lower. Consequently, the report recommends that:

The number of days allotted for backbench, Opposition and Private Members’ business should be regularised, and made proportional to the length of a session. The Backbench Business Committee should have more say over the scheduling of backbench business, meaning both the determination of the day of the week and of the length of the slot on that day. This change would require an amendment to Standing Order No. 14. (p. 19)

Several witnesses brought up the unilateral changes made by the Government to how BBCom members were elected and the method of election of the Chair of the committee. Originally, members were elected by the House as a whole, but the Government’s changes meant elections were now internal party elections, like those for other select committees. The rules governing the election of the Chair were changed to bar any Member from standing for the post if that Member’s party was represented in Government.

Again the issue of the representation of minority parties was raised. In the case of the BBCom, a representative of the minority parties in the House can sit on the Committee, but only as an observer. The PCRC report recommends:

A representative of the minority parties should have full membership of the Backbench Business Committee. An amendment would be required to Standing Order No. 152J. (p. 20)

 

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Revisiting Rebuilding the House – Select Committees

UKcommitteeThe UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) released its Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms. The Wright reforms are those recommendations put forward by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (aka the Wright Committee, after its chair, Dr Tony Wright). In the spring of 2010, the House of Commons voted to approve and give effect to many of those recommendations, which took effect at the start of the new Parliament following the May 2010 general election.

The PCRC launched its inquiry in order to assess to what extend the Wright reforms have succeeded in making the Commons matter more, in particular vis-à-vis the Executive, in giving the public a greater voice in parliamentary proceedings, and to identify which proposed reforms have not yet been implemented and why.

It is a very comprehensive report, and anyone interested in parliamentary reform would do well to read it in its entirety. I will provide a brief overview across a number of posts of the report’s main findings, beginning with the section on Select Committees.

The Wright report recommended many changes to the the UK House of Commons select committee system. These included changing the way committee members and chairs were selected – namely, departmental and similar select committee chairs are now elected by secret ballot by the whole House, while members of those committees are elected by their respective caucuses using transparent and democratic means. Those unfamiliar with this process can read more about it in this earlier post. Another recommendation was the creation of a Backbench Business Committee.

These changes to the select committee system have been examined in greater detail by the Liaison Committee in their report Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers, while the Procedure Committee has reviewed the Backbench Business Committee. During the course of its own evidence hearings, the PCRC found broad agreement that the changes brought about have had a positive impact. The election of committee chairs and members was singled out for reinforcing the select committees’ credibility and authority, making the committees more self-confident, which in turn has led to select committees having a larger media impact. There is now “a greater willingness on the part of some select committees” to undertake forensic inquiries (p. 9) which in the past might have been assigned to a judge or independent inquiry.

One important area which requires further work is that of building better links between the Chamber and committees. Traditionally, there haven’t been specific opportunities for committee reports to be debated in the House. The Backbench Business Committee has attempted to rectify this by providing more outlets for the work of select committees, but “the idea of statements by chairs on the publication of select committee reports is taking time to find its feet.” (p. 10) The report suggests that more Chamber statements by committee chairs on the publication of their reports should be encouraged and that the discussions taking place between the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee aimed at improving this procedure are welcomed.

The report identifies a number of continuing challenges, namely:

  1. lack of diversity of committee membership;
  2. problems with maintaining quorums;
  3. minority party representation.

Despite committee members being “elected” in some way by their respective caucuses, some witnesses testified that “it had not done anything to promote the election of ‘Members who are prepared to challenge the mainstream view and raise issues that do not have widespread support across all the main parties, for example in relation to climate change or international development.’” There was also the problem of finding people to serve on committees when vacancies occurred: “Instead of organising contested elections for committee places, Whips increasingly spend their time ‘trying to find somebody who might be willing to go on a Committee where there is a vacancy.’” (p. 11) Even at full membership, there are so many demands on an MP’s time now that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a quorum.

The issue of minority party representation is a particularly difficult one. The Wright report had recommended smaller select committees; however, if minority parties are to be incorporated, then the larger parties wanted more members. As MP Pete Wishart of the Scottish Nationalist Party explained, the committee reforms were:

an absolute disaster for the minority parties. What we have effectively got now with the Wright reforms is two constituencies: the Government and the Labour Opposition. There is no place for us at all practically in any of the structures of the new Committee procedures in the House of Commons … We represent a huge constituency throughout the rest of the country and our voice is not heard in the Committees of the House. (p. 11)

The options to address this problem are either make the committees larger, or partly suspending the rules on party balance on select committees. The PCRC prefers the latter option. It also suggests that a process could be put in place to fill vacancies on committees with minority party Members.

The last part of this section of the report focuses on the role of select committees and the legislative process. Bills, after second reading, go to public bills committees, but the PCRC found many witnesses who supported a greater role for select committees in pre-legislative scrutiny and made the following recommendation:

35.  We believe that pre-legislative scrutiny must in future be an integral and mandatory part of the process of consideration for every public bill. The only exceptions should be cases in which there is an accepted and pressing need for immediate legislation. This principle should be reflected in an amended or new Standing Order which should contains words similar to these: “No public bill shall be presented unless a) a draft of the bill has received pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of the House or a joint committee of both Houses, or b) it has been certified by the Speaker as a bill that requires immediate scrutiny and pre-legislative scrutiny would be inexpedient.” (p. 14)

The PCRC also looked at the situation in respect of the public bills committees mentioned above, as well as the ad hoc committees on draft bills. Membership of these committees is appointed the “old” way – by the Committee of Selection – and many witnesses testified that this should be reviewed and modernised. The report recommends:

36.  It is unacceptable that appointments to public bill committees and ad hoc committees on draft bills are not even approved by the House, and often ignore the claims of Members with specialised knowledge. As a minimum the House should be asked to endorse, and where it so wishes amend, the proposed membership of public bill committees. An amendment would be required to Standing Order No. 86. Ideally the membership should be elected for such committees on the same basis as for select committees. We welcome some of the ideas recently put forward by the Hansard Society, and await with interest the results of the Procedure Committee’s current inquiry into public bill committees.

37.   Similar considerations apply to the Commons membership of joint committees on draft bills; we see no reason why elections should not be held for membership of these committees.(p. 15)

As noted at the end of point #36 above, the Procedure Committee has just launched a new inquiry into into the Committee of Selection and membership of General Committees.

My next post on this report will look at the Backbench Business Committee.

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Coalition government gains traction

The UK House of Lords Constitution Committee has launched a new inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The reason for this inquiry is “the increase in the general election vote share for parties other than Conservative and Labour means that government by coalition may become more common in future as single parties are unable to secure an absolute Commons majority.”

The Committee’s inquiry is focusing on three key questions:

  • The impact of coalition government on the principle of collective ministerial responsibility.  Examples of disagreements within the current coalition that have raised questions in this area include those announced at the onset of the coalition, such as on the renewal of Trident, and some which have emerged during the course of the Parliament—for example the amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 which delayed the constituency boundary review.
  • How democratic legitimacy is secured under coalition governments.  The classic model of a majority government implementing its manifesto as endorsed by the electorate does not necessarily translate to a hung Parliament. This raises questions about the practices and procedures that should be adopted to secure democratic legitimacy, including the status of coalition agreements drawn up following a general election and whether manifestos should be changed to reflect the possibility of a hung parliament.
  • The organisation of the executive under coalition government.  The Committee will explore what is the most effective and accountable way to run a coalition government, including areas such as the appointment of ministers and the structure of the Cabinet and its committees.

(Side note: you don’t have to be a UK citizen or resident to contribute to this inquiry. If you are interested in the topic and want to contribute your thoughts on the above, download the call for evidence guidelines (PDF). The deadline is 30 August 2013.)

The next general election, in 2015, will more than likely again result in a hung parliament. And unlike in Canada, there is growing acceptance in the UK that the proper response to a hung parliament is coalition government, not single party minority government. This inquiry is just one example of that acceptance. Another is the news that the UK Conservative backbench have set out certain “red lines” for their party leadership – policy areas on which they will not compromise in any future coalition negotiations. The same article mentions that the Liberal Democrats will likely do the same – spell out their own red lines for joining a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives.

Of course, the next election is still more than a year away, and polls can – and most certainly will – change between now and then. Combined with the vagaries of First-Past-the-Post, one of the major parties could very well eek out a majority mandate on its own. But what is encouraging is that the idea of coalition government, despite the ups and downs of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, has gained acceptance and parties are preparing for that possibility.

Now if only Canadian political parties could start thinking more boldly as well…

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Update on the House Business Committee

In a recent appearance before the UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Leader of the House, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Lansley admitted that:

the Coalition programme commitment to the establishment of the House Business Committee in the third year of Parliament will not be met. From my point of view it is not the abrogation of the commitment to pursue the principle of a House Business Committee, but what I am saying is we are now exercising a reality check and recognising that we are not in a place to do this yet.

Establishing a House Business Committee was one of the reforms proposed by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee (more commonly referred to as the Wright Committee) in its 2009 report, Rebuilding the House (PDF). The House Business Committee would assemble a draft agenda to put to the House in a weekly motion. The Wright Committee considered various models and favoured the following (see pages 59-62 of the report for complete details):

  1. There would be two committees, a House Business Committee and a Backbench Business Committee;
  2. The task of assembling a draft agenda of House business would be undertaken by a unified House Business Committee, comprised of representatives of all parts of the House: backbenchers, Government and Opposition;
  3. The members of the committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated by the three party leaders;
  4. It would be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker);
  5. It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials who currently support the usual channels.

Lansley explained to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that it was the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, which occurred in June 2010, which complicated matters. Given that the Backbench Business Committee was something new, it was necessary first to understand “what the impact of the Backbench Business Committee is and how it works” and until that was clear, it wouldn’t have been practical to shape a House Business Committee.

Lansley studied the Scottish Parliament’s Parliamentary Bureau, which is their equivalent of a House Business Committee and noted that it was put in place in the expectation  that there would never be a single-party majority government in Scotland (because Scotland uses proportional representation to elect its MSPs). Because the Scottish Parliament would most likely end up with hung parliaments and coalition or single-party minority governments, there would be a need for some sort of mechanism to find a consensus to get business through the House. However, the last general election in Scotland resulted in (to most people’s surprise) a single-party majority government and the Parliamentary Bureau:

literally rubber stamps what has been decided beforehand, but not just Government business; it actually controls the backbench business. It has a substantial control in relation to the selection of Members for participation in debates. There is  a degree of control happening in the Scottish Parliament that would not be contemplated here.

Lansley added that the backbenchers in the UK House of Commons have far more autonomy than do their Scottish counterparts, and had they set up a House Business Committee as proposed by the Wright Committee,

it would have undermined the decisions made independently by the Backbench Business Committee by subjecting them to what is effectively another control, which the Whips of the main parties might be held to have control over.

(…)

The conclusion I have reached, and which I think is reflected in much of the evidence that has been given to you, including from those who were directly involved with the Wright Committee, is that as it was presented in the Wright Committee report the model of a House Business Committee is not practical and workable.

Lansley was asked by one member of the Committee if it would be accurate to say that there is a House Business Committee, but it is called “the usual channels”. Lansley agreed, saying that it was between the Whips, himself, the Shadow Leader and his opposite number in the House of Lords, and that they use the terminology “business managers”. When asked by the Chair if there wasn’t then a need for a House Business Committee as such because the business managers currently fulfill the objectives of a House Business Committee, Lansley replied:

I would not characterise it like that. There are a lot of conversations and discussions that take place between the parties through the usual channels and from my point of view, and indeed my opposite number in the House of Lords, on a basis of discussion with Members across the House, I try to establish where expectations in the House lie in business. That includes, for example, meetings with the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee and meeting the Chair of the Liaison Committee and so on. From that point of view, I see my role as achieving that, and sometimes I do not get it right and sometimes the Members have a bit of a go at me about it. Sometimes, like they did on the Crime and Courts Bill, they say, “Actually, you got it wrong.” We put forward a motion to the House and fortunately the alternative approach did not secure the majority.

In the end, Lansley indicated that the door is not shut on a future House Business Committee, but that “I am looking for further guidance, not least from the report of this Committee.”

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Proposal for elected Commons committee chairs

For the past three years now, this blog has explored some of the more interesting developments in parliamentary procedure in various jurisdictions (primarily the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Regular readers know that I am a big fan of many of the reforms introduced in the UK House of Commons in 2010, as per the recommendations of the Wright report.

One of those reforms involved select committee chairs being elected by the whole House, as I’ve blogged about in detail in other posts. For example, back in April 2011, I wrote one of my Fixing Ottawa posts, this one focused on Committees, wherein I explained in detail how UK select committee chairs and members are now elected. In another post written later that same year, I discussed the findings of the UK House of Commons Procedure committee’s report reviewing the elections held, for the first time, in most cases, to fill various positions in the House, including, of course, the election of committee chairs and members. If you read either or both of those posts, you will see that I am quite fond of this reform, and would very much like to see it adopted here in Canada.

Consequently, I was very pleased to read, via Kady O’Malley’s Inside Politics Blog, that a Conservative backbench MP, Brad Trost, will be putting forward a motion proposing something very similar to what the UK House of Commons – that is, have the House elect committee chairs via a preferential ballot.

As Kady O’Malley points out, if this motion passes, “it would be binding, as it would constitute an instruction to the House.”

If you are interested in parliamentary reform, I would strongly encourage you to contact your MP and ask them to support this motion. It has made a huge different in the UK with committees becoming far more independent, less partisan, and generally more effective.

Further reading

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Coalition government is not a marriage

On 7 January 2012, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg held a joint press conference, which you can watch here, to promote the Coalition government’s Mid-Term Review. That review lists what the government says it has achieved in meeting its coalition agreement and outlines further reforms to come. Both Cameron and Clegg stressed that the coalition would last the full five-year term.

One of the stranger questions asked during the press conference was if the coalition was like a marriage. Indeed, when Cameron and Clegg held their first press conference together back in 2010 to launch the coalition, some of the press coverage read as if it should have been on the Society pages rather than in the Politics section (see for example, this piece, or this one). Cameron answered that question thusly:

“To me it’s not a marriage, it’s a Ronseal deal, it does what it says on the tin – we said we would come together, we said we would form a government, we said we would tackle these problems, we said we would get on with it in a mature and sensible way, and that is exactly what we’ve done.”

This prompted the BBC’s political editor to write a column entitled: Coalition: Official – it’s not a marriage. The column starts:

It’s not a marriage. It never was. They were never in love so they are not renewing their vows.

That, in summary, is the reaction inside Downing Street to how the media, including me, have spoken about today’s joint news conference to be held at Downing Street by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Robinson goes on to explain:

The reason this debate about terminology is revealing is that both sides of this coalition have concluded that all this talk of marriage is toxic as it invites hacks like me to conclude that the Tory and Lib Dem partners are still “in love” – something which infuriates many of their natural supporters – or preparing to “divorce” in the run-up to the next election.

The Cameron/Clegg talk of their strengthened “shared purpose” was, of course, always going to make it hard to resist the temptation to ask whether both men are protesting too much. I doubt that many hacks today will resist.

It’s not surprising that the UK media haven’t known exactly how to cover the coalition – it is a rarity in First-Past-the-Post jurisdictions such as the UK. Indeed, the UK media, almost from day one, has regularly speculated not on if the coalition would collapse – that seemed to be a given, but when this would occur. At times it seemed that every single policy was “the one that will tear the coalition apart”, bring about the aforementioned “divorce”.  What the press have failed to understand is that, in the words of the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell, is that the UK has a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have not merged their two parties, therefore it is not surprising – or at least, should not be surprising – that the backbenches of each party often disagree. Such disagreement in the House does not mean that the coalition itself is coming apart at the seams. Indeed, even the parliamentary splits aren’t always divisions between the Lib Dems and the Tories, but divisions within the Conservative Party itself, as this other analysis from the Constitution Unit explains. A coalition is not merger of two parties; it is an attempt by two parties to find common ground in order to govern jointly.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was questioned by the House of Lords Constitution Committee on 9 January 2012 and addressed many of the issues surrounding the workings of the coalition, in particular how it impacts the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. It’s an interesting discussion and I recommend watching it.

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