Do we need a Peoples’ PMQs?

UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently floated the idea of a weekly “public question time” where an audience representative of the country would question the prime minister on any issue of the day.

Miliband was a bit short on details regarding how this would work. Apart from stating that the audience should be representative of the country, the only other details he provided was that the public PMQs should be held in parliament at least every two weeks, but preferably weekly.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, how would these people – representative of the country – be selected? Would it be a completely random process, you know, sort of like being chosen for jury duty? Or would interested persons be invited via a website or social media to put their name in? If the latter, self-selection, then you’re not going to end up with an audience “representative of the country.” You’re going to end up with an audience full of political partisans and people with specific causes and agendas.

As Dan Hodge rightly notes in this column:

The vast majority of British voters have zero interest in Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor, once the initial novelty had worn off, would they have any more interest in watching People’s Questions. It’s only politicians who think the weekly interrogation of politicians is of major national significance.

This is the reality of our times: most people – most ordinary people “representative of the country” just don’t care enough – or at all – about politics. They’d have no interest in participating in a Peoples’ PMQs. The only people who would be keen on participating, as I stated above, would be partisans and people with vested interests. The sad truth is that people who are really keen on politics aren’t the majority. And if you end up with an audience full of partisans, the questions won’t be any more enlightening than what you currently get in PMQs. Case in point: when this story came out in the UK, the Guardian put up an open thread column asking “What would you ask David Cameron?” If you’re not familiar with the Guardian, suffice it to say that the vast majority of its readers do not like the Tories. The paper is strongly associated with the Labour Party, and its readers are decidedly left-of-centre. A quick perusal of some of the suggestions quickly demonstrates what sort of questions partisans would ask.

I admit that I am very leery of “real people” questions. There has been an extremely annoying trend here in Canada regarding leaders’ debates during election campaigns, where the normal practice of having the party leaders face questions from a panel of seasoned journalists has been replaced with asking questions from “ordinary” Canadians. The problem with this is that, as I’ve said, most people aren’t really into politics, and the questions that are asked often tend to be rather non-specific, and often inappropriate. A lot of “ordinary” people will ask federal party leaders questions about education and healthcare, which aren’t federal responsibilities. Yes, the federal government provides funding to the provinces to be used for education and healthcare, but Ottawa’s ability to do much in those areas is quite limited. I do miss the days when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would simply sneer at those questions and dismiss them with “That’s not a federal responsibility, it’s provincial” and refuse to say more, while the other federal leaders would try to wax poetic about grandiose plans over something they really couldn’t do much about. I would think any sort of “Peoples PMQs” wouldn’t be much better.

Another issue is simply that this idea looks like an attempt to by-pass Parliament. MPs are elected to represent people – it is their job to hold the PM and the Cabinet to account. If citizens have certain concerns about a government policy, they can (and should) contact their MP and that MP should try to get answers on behalf of his or her constituents from the relevant government minister, including the PM. There are a number of UK MPs who, once they learn that they’ll be allotted a question during PMQs (because the names of MPs are drawn in a lottery), ask for suggestions for questions on Twitter and other social media. Whether or not they actually use any of the questions suggested to them by their followers, I don’t know, but I do regularly see them on Twitter inviting people to suggest questions.

UK party leaders are already quite accessible to the public (especially compared to Canadian party leaders). Before he became PM, David Cameron held a regular number of Q&A sessions in marginal ridings. He has continued this practice since becoming PM (here’s a recent one from this year). Yes, these aren’t always public events or televised, so not the same as a Peoples’ PMQs, but my point here is that at least the PM is regularly going out and talking to people, being questioned by them. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has a weekly radio call-in show.

Every single minister regularly appears before his or her department’s select committee for questioning (including the PM, who appears before the Liaison Committee a couple of times each session – you can watch his most recent appearance here. More and more of these committees have also turned to Twitter and other social media to invite “ordinary people” to submit questions to be put to the Minister. They will often reserve the last 20 or so minutes of the session for questions submitted by the public. Here’s an interesting assessment of the very first time this was attempted back in 2012, by the Education Committee.

I don’t disagree with Ed Miliband and others that there is too often a disconnect between elected officials and the general public, but I don’t think that a Peoples’ PMQs will really do much to change that. My gut feeling is that a lot of people, probably a majority of people, will never be that interested in politics in general, and gimmicks won’t change that.

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More on electing committee chairs

In my previous post, I wrote about the recent election of the new chair of the Select Committee on Health which occurred last week in the UK House of Commons. Dr. Sarah Wollaston was elected by her fellow MPs, winning on the fourth count over four other contenders for the post.

The BBC’s Parliamentary correspondent, Mark D’Arcy’s recent column warns that some Conservative MPs aren’t too happy that Dr. Wollaston won the election. Ms. Wollaston, he explains, “has never been an identikit party trooper.” She was the first Conservative MP chosen via open primary, and has always been very independent as an MP. In fact, she was highly critical of her Government’s original NHS reforms as proposed in the Heath and Social Care Bill back in 2011. Some Conservatives, according to Mr. D’Arcy, fear that having such an independently-minded Conservative heading the committee could be embarrassing for the Government should any major issue involving the country’s health services arise over the course of the final year of this parliament. They also think that this independence is why Dr. Wollaston has so much support from Labour MPs. Because of this, some Conservatives:

are starting to suggest that their party should have some kind of primary process to decide its favoured candidates before the election is thrown to the whole House, or that the election itself should be restricted to MPs from the party which holds the particular committee.

Now for the non-regular readers of this blog, and for those not familiar with how the UK House of Commons chooses committee chairs, let me explain why the above quote is worrisome. Chairs of select committees (the equivalent of Standing Committees here in Canada) are elected by the whole House – by MPs. The chairships are divided amongst the major parties at the outset of a new parliament, in proportion to each party’s share of seats in the House of Commons. This in itself is a major departure from how we do things in Canada. In the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. This isn’t the case in the UK House of Commons. There are 38 select committees in the UK House of Commons; the Conservative Party chairs 20 (53%), Labour chairs 14 (37%) and the Liberal Democrats chair 4 (10%). This is comparable to their representation in the House where the Conservatives hold 47% of the seats, Labour 40% and the Liberal Democrats 9%. The parties decide amongst themselves which party will chair which committee, although traditionally, the Public Accounts Committee is chaired by the Official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats always take International Development.

The Health Select Committee was allocated to the Conservative party, and thus when the former chair stepped down, only interested Conservative MPs were eligible to put themselves forward as candidates to replace him. However, following the election of two very independent-minded Conservative MPs, Dr. Wollaston at Health and, earlier this year, Rory Stewart at Defence, some within the Conservative party want to control the process of who becomes a committee chair. One way, according to Mr. D’Arcy’s article, would be for the Conservative caucus to decide by some process which of their MPs could stand for election for the post of committee chair. This would, in theory, allow the party (aka the party leadership) to weed out any MPs who are less keen on toeing the party line. Alternatively, any Conservative MP could put themselves forward as a candidate, but rather than the whole House voting to elect the Chair, the vote would be limited to  Conservative MPs (and one assumes they’d want the same process to apply to the election of chairs from other parties – limiting the vote to members of that party only). That would prevent the other parties from backing a candidate that they favour. Suffice it to say that either option completely undermines the entire point of having elected committee chairs and would reverse this very important procedural reform by putting the committee system back under the control of party whips.

However, not all Conservative MPs want the process to change. Mr. D’Arcy heard from a fair number who said they voted for Dr. Wollaston because she is independent-minded and won’t hesitate to criticize the government (and their own party) if that criticism is warranted.

Canadians may not be aware that a Canadian Conservative backbencher, Brad Trost, has successfully moved a motion ordering the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study the matter of elected committee chairs. Trost was inspired by the reforms adopted by the UK House of Commons; however, his proposal falls short (in my view) because he does not also recommend distributing the chairships more proportionally among the parties. I don’t know why the government party has almost complete control of the committees here in Canada, but this is something that should be changed. As I mentioned above, in the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. If the chair positions were divided more proportionally, the Conservatives would chair 14 committees rather than 22, the NDP 8, the Liberals 3 and the Bloc Quebecois 1. But of course, in our system, the BQ can’t chair a committee because they aren’t “recognized” as a party, failing, as they do, to have the magic number of MPs required to be considered a party in the House. And because they don’t meet this magic number, not only are BQ MPs denied the right to chair a committee, they can’t even be members of a committee. This is another thing that we do horribly wrong – the entire concept of “officially recognized party” needs to be tossed out the window.

But that, my friends, is perhaps a post for another day.

(Note: for those interested, Mr. Trost’s motion on electing committee chairs was debated on two occasions, first on October 21 2013, and then again on January 29 2014.)

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New committee chair elected

SarahWollastonMPThe UK House of Commons today elected a new Chair of the Select Committee on Health.

Regular readers of this blog will know that chairs of select committees are elected by the whole House. This is a relatively new development – the reform was adopted at the end of the previous Parliament and implemented for the first time in May 2010, at the start of the current Parliament. By all accounts, it has proven to be a very positive change; select committees have gained a lot of respect and they are seen to be more beholden to the House rather than to party whips.

Committee chairships are allocated among the three main parties roughly in proportion to their representation in the House, unlike here in Canada, where the party which forms the government chairs all but three committees. The Health Committee is chaired by a Conservative, and thus the House had a choice of four Conservative MPs who put themselves forward as candidates: Charlotte Leslie, Dr. Phillip Lee, Dr. Sarah Wollaston and David Tredinnick.

The House uses the Alternative Vote to elect Committee chairs, meaning MPs rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference. It took four stages of counting before one candidate ended up with the required 50% + 1 of the votes in play, and in the end, Dr. Sarah Wollaston was elected Chair.

Dr. Wollaston is a very interesting person for another reason. Before becoming the Member of Parliament (MP) for Totnes in 2010, she was the first person to be selected as a parliamentary candidate for a major British political party through an open primary, in which she emphasised that she was an outsider to politics, who had worked a ‘real job’. She won the nomination for the Conservative candidature and at the general election won the seat with an increased Conservative majority.

This is how the announcement of the results played out in the House this afternoon:

Mr Speaker: I will now announce the result of the ballot held today for the election of a new Chair of the Select Committee on Health. A total of 433 votes were cast, with two spoilt ballot papers. The counting went to four stages and 421 valid votes were cast in the final round, excluding those ballot papers whose preferences had been exhausted. The quota to be reached was therefore 211 votes. Dr Sarah Wollaston was elected Chair with 226 votes. The other candidate in that round was Dr Phillip Lee, who received 195 votes. Dr Wollaston will take up the post immediately. I warmly congratulate her on her election. The results of the count under the alternative vote system will be made available as soon as possible in the Vote Office and published on the internet for public viewing.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell) for his exemplary leadership of the Health Committee for more than four years. That leadership has been widely respected. I thank him for everything that he has done on behalf of patients, acting, as he has done, as their voice. The NHS touches people’s lives a million times every 36 hours. It is the most extraordinary achievement and also the most extraordinary challenge. The new chief executive of NHS England has called on everyone in the NHS to think like a patient and act like a taxpayer. The role of the Select Committee is to ask those challenging questions on behalf of patients and taxpayers so that this most cherished institution can continue to be there for all of our constituents when they need it the most.

Mr Speaker: I thank the hon. Lady for her words.

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on her success in the election. I know that she has the knowledge and, above all and perhaps more importantly, the wisdom to be a very good Chair of the Health Committee and I wish her all the very best.

Mr Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gracious words.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you know that parliamentary procedure says that we should not be allowed to applaud in this Chamber, but might not this be the kind of occasion when the Speaker abolished the rule and allowed applause?

Mr Speaker: There is an old adage that was taught to me by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) some 30 years ago that if one is intent upon a particular course of action, one should never give a bureaucrat a chance to say no. I think that I will leave it there for today.

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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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