The Government’s level of control over what is debated in the House of Commons, and when, undermines parliamentary accountability and needs addressing urgently, argues Professor Meg Russell (UCL Constitution Unit), joint author of a new report on the issue.
The House of Commons has been a turbulent and troubled place in recent years. First came the long-running clashes over Brexit. Subsequently, fractious relations between government and parliament have continued over ministers’ response to Covid-19, and how parliament itself should adapt - notwithstanding Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority.
A common theme running through both periods is MPs’ frustration at their inability to decide the agenda of their own institution. Despite the officially "sovereign" status of the Westminster parliament, decisions about what the Commons can discuss, and when, largely rest with the government. On Brexit, Theresa May’s minority government could thus schedule a debate on her deal, then cancel the key vote against MPs’ wishes, and later - once the deal had been roundly defeated - block all other propositions from reaching the agenda. This ultimately provoked dramatic action by MPs, and lurid headlines about "seizing control" of the Commons agenda.
Under Covid-19, both the subject matter and the environment have been very different - the handling of a pandemic under majority government. But at root the same issue is at stake: MPs’ inability to decide what the Commons can discuss. Tempers have grown increasingly heated over the refusal of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House, to let MPs meet and vote virtually during the pandemic. MPs have repeatedly been denied chances to debate and decide this matter, despite protestations from the chamber’s Conservative-chaired procedure committee and senior Conservative backbenchers.
Alongside this have run arguments about parliament’s exclusion from scrutiny of coronavirus regulations. Only six months into the crisis did ministers finally concede that MPs should get a prior vote on UK- and England-wide lockdown measures - and only when faced with a large-scale rebellion led by Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers. In December MPs found themselves shut out from the last-minute changes to Christmas arrangements, and the introduction of Tier 4, as parliament had gone into recess. Mass Conservative demands for a recall went unheeded because - guess what - decisions on recall lie exclusively with the government.
Today the UCL Constitution Unit publishes a new report on MPs’ need to "take back control" of their own institution from the government. It’s simply wrong that ministers should have the almost exclusive right to decide what the Commons - to which they are officially accountable - can discuss and when. Some small pockets of time are reserved for opposition and backbench business, it’s true. But ministers determine when these occur, and in longer sessions (like 2017-19) their number is very limited. These loopholes must be closed.
More fundamentally, we need a major review of the extent to which Commons procedures are controlled by the government. Most importantly, the Commons weekly agenda should be presented to MPs for decision and possible amendment, rather than as a fait accompli. This proposal was originally made by the Wright committee more than ten years ago. Had it been implemented then, many of the recent tensions could have been averted.
The basic principle governing the Commons procedures should be majority decision-making, not government control.
This article was originally published in The Times on 19 January 2021.