Monday, 23 January 2017

Parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit

In her speech last week, Theresa May confirmed that Parliament would have a vote on the final Brexit deal.  But that is years ahead and Parliament is very much concerned with scrutiny of the Brexit process in the here and now.

As 2017 in Parliament gets underway, House of Commons Select Committee business is dominated by the topic.  And that's not just the Exiting the European Union Committee chaired by Hilary Benn.  The Environmental Audit Committee started the ball rolling for 2017 by calling for a new Environmental Protection Act to maintain environmental standards.  The Justice Committee questioned criminal law experts on the implications of Brexit for criminal justice on 10 January, the day after Parliament returned from its Christmas holidays.  One day later, the Education Committee was a Pembroke College, Oxford to hold a hearing on the impact of exiting the European Union on higher education.  A week after that the Work and Pensions Committee held a one-off session on the impact of Brexit on the UK labour market.

There is even more activity in the House of Lords, which has always devoted a great deal of time to scrutiny of European legislation.  The inquiry launched last week by the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee on Brexit: Agriculture is just one example.  Significantly, the House of Lords Liaison Committee has set up a Brexit Liaison Group to work with Hilary Benn to co-ordinate their work on scrutiny of the Brexit process.  It has already met three times and will meet again in early February.

Parliament's scrutiny will ramp up even further once negotiations begin.  So watch this space!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The first two weeks

The new Commons departmental Select Committees for this Parliament were finally set up on Monday 12 July, after what appears to have been a tortuous series of elections. (The Lords Committees, being still unelected, got going much sooner). Some of them set off like greyhounds out of the trap - notably the Treasury Committee which held its first hearing, with three different sets of witnesses, less than 12 hours after the results of the elections were confirmed by the Committee of Selection. Three Committees even met on 28 July, after the Commons had gone into its summer recess, of which more below. Others have adopted - what shall we say? - a more measured approach. Several Committees have not yet held any hearings at all, namely Communities and Local Government, Energy and Climate Change, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Foreign Affairs. The EFRA Committee, alone among all the departmental Committees, has not yet announced its first inquiry, although it has invited the Secretary of State along for an initial hearing in September. Northern Ireland Affairs was not set up until later than the others, because of continuing problems in settling the Labour membership, but has now got under way.

So, which are the ones to watch? Certainly the Treasury Committee under the severe chairmanship of Andrew Tyrie. It is clearly ahead of the rest in terms of activity levels, with five hearings already held, four inquiries on the go and its first report published after only one week of operations. But the new Political and Constitutional Reform Committee under Graham Allen, which was set up to scrutinise Nick Clegg's work and which has also already published its first report, is running it a close second and the Home Affairs Committee under the continuing chairmanship of Keith Vaz is probably third.

The Public Accounts Committee is always in a category of its own. It has started its work by bidding for additional freedoms under Standing Orders to appoint expert advisers, over and above the collective might of the NAO already available to it, and to hold meetings when Parliament is adjourned. It had to postpone a planned meeting on 28 July while other Committees, as noted above, were able to go ahead.

Over the next few weeks, I propose to analyse the more active Committees' work so far in more depth - so watch this space!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

A Milestone on the Road of Reform

A big milestone has been passed in the process of reform of the House of Commons with the election of the Chairs of the departmental Select Committees this week. And it's good news and bad news for those who want to see a real difference in the way Parliament works.

First, the bad news from that point of view. Several Chairs from the previous Parliament have returned to their Committees in this: Keith Vaz (Home Affairs), Alan Beith (Justice) and James Arbuthnot (Defence) are the main examples. Without attempting a detailed appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses as Committee Chairs on this occasion (maybe another time!), the fact that three such important Committees continue under the same leadership hardly implies a wholesale revolution in the way that Committees operate. Secondly, one third of the new Committee Chairs were elected unopposed. The Liberal Democrats were only allocated two Committees and appear to have organised matters so as to avoid an election in both cases. Or perhaps they just did not have enough backbench MPs with the time to spare, what with being in government and all. But it implies a continuing role for the party managers in the new system. Barry Sheerman, indeed, claimed that Labour Whips had operated against him in the election. Perhaps there is bound to be an element of sour grapes in losers' comments. Nevertheless it is the case that in addition to the Chairs who have not changed, several of the winners look like people who might well have been selected by the Whips under the old system: Graham Allen (Political and Constitutional Reform), Tim Yeo (Energy and Climate Change) and Stephen Dorrell (Health) might all fall into this category.

And now the good news: there are some refreshing results in the mix. Margaret Hodge, scraping in as the first female Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, for one. She may have promised to start her work by looking at allegations that the Labour government spent recklessly before leaving office, but it is certain she will soon move on to the way that cuts are made by the Lib-Con government. So no major party will be immune from PAC criticism over the next few months and years. Neither she nor Andrew Tyrie, who beat the favourite Michael Fallon to chair the Treasury Committee, will be particularly comfortable figures for Ministers to face across the Committee room. Andrew Tyrie was a member of the Wright Committee which recommended elections for Committee Chairs. Before he knew that he had been successful, he commented in the Guardian:

"It's been intriguing to see MPs asking each other for support across party lines, rather than simply looking upwards to the whips for patronage. The culture is changing. Backbenchers of all parties are realising that they have a lot to gain from these elections."

Well, something to gain, perhaps. The next step is the election of the members of the Committees, which will take place within the Parliamentary parties, by methods which they will decide. I understand the Labour party for one has not yet worked out how it will do it. Perhaps the Lib Dems will simply come up with a generally agreed list, as they seem to have done for their Chairs. However it is done, it needs to be done soon to keep up the momentum. We need to make progress towards the next milestone. And let's hope there will be more new faces as Committee members.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Don't Try This at Home

The Select Committees may be running down towards the imminent end of this Parliament, but in spite of the fact that they are demob happy (or perhaps because of it) there is still plenty of fun to be had in observing the behaviour of Committee members and witnesses. Take the Public Accounts Committee hearing on problem drug use a couple of weeks ago. Edward Leigh, the Chair, who is retiring, began with the remark "400 [hearings] down; four more to go". We were then treated to the unusual experience of a witness answering back to him. Paul Hayes, Chief Executive of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, told him "I recognise you want me to be brief but if you bring issues that are not within the Report to the table then what do you expect?" Luckily for him, this raised a laugh, in which Edward Leigh joined heartily.

Later, Austin Mitchell suggested that Paul Hayes was wrong about the trend in drug-related deaths. His response: "No, I am absolutely right." Edward Leigh: "Are you ever wrong?" Mr Hayes: "It has been known." More laughs - at least from Committee Watch.

How did Paul Hayes get away with it? It was not just luck. First, he was extremely well-informed, with all the facts and figures at his fingertips. He never looked at his brief - he just knew it. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, he was patently passionate about his job and his subject and he demonstrated authentic concern for drug users, their families and the victims of drug-related crime. Thirdly, he had the ability to hold the attention of the Committee by making the statistics come alive through discussion of the motivations and behaviour of the individual drug user. Austin Mitchell actually referred to the "impressive manner" in which his evidence was delivered.

My advice to any witness tempted to answer back to a Committee is "don't". But if you can replicate Paul Hayes's knowledge, passion, sense of humour and communication skills, you might just get away with it.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Base Camp

The debate on 22 February on the Wright Committee's recommendations was inconclusive (although some fine speeches were made) and only the more minor resolutions were passed without objection. This meant that expectations were not unduly high for the outcome of the votes on some of the more contentious recommendations after the resumed debate on 4 March. But those of us who had given up hope of progress after the long drawn-out agony of the government's handling of the report (see previous posts) were confounded. Finally, the House of Commons more or less got it together. They agreed that from the beginning of the next Parliament the Chairs (no longer "Chairmen") of the departmental Select Committees, the Environmental Audit Committee, the Public Administration Select Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the Procedure Committee will be elected by the whole House. And they endorsed the principle that members of Select Committees should be elected by the parties. They also approved the recommendation in the report for the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee.

So where exactly does this get us? Harriet Harman described it as "the most far-reaching package of reforms ever agreed". Sir George Young was more cautious but he said "I believe that the resolutions represent our best opportunity for decades to start rebalancing the terms of trade away from the Executive and to start strengthening Parliament and making it more effective, more accountable and more relevant to the people outside it". Others, however, took a slightly different line. David Heath, for the Lib Dems, said "An Everest of reform is necessary...if we were climbing Everest, we would simple be at base camp." Michael Meacher described the two main proposals on elected Select Committees and the Backbench Business Committee as "certainly not revolutionary. Actually, they are quite modest". It was Tony Wright, perhaps unsurprisingly, who summed things up:

"We have taken some steps in this Parliament that unfortunately have had the effect of weakening the institution. We all now know that the task is to strengthen it. These measures by themselves will not do that; all they do is provide a set of tools that people in the next Parliament, our successors, can use, if they want to, to make this place a more vital institution. That is our job today; it is their job tomorrow."

All depends, therefore, on the way that the MPs new to Parliament who will make up the bulk of backbenchers after the election respond to the opportunities created for them. Which means in fact that it is up to me and you, the electorate, to make sure that those we elect are the right people and understand our expectations of them. If all goes well, however, the decisions made on 4 March shoudl mean that we can look forward to more effective scrutiny of the Executive in future. Let's continue to scrutinise the scrutineers to ensure that happens.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

"Act courageously"

On Monday the House of Commons will at last debate the recommendations of the Wright Committee report on Rebuilding the House. There was a flurry of activity in this area leading up to the half term recess. After weeks of fending off demands for a debate on the report (as previously discussed by Committee Watch - see A Matter of Urgency on 11 January), Harriet Harman announced a full day's debate. But further protests from Opposition spokesmen and backbenchers followed almost immediately as it was realised that the government proposed to table unamendable motions which would require unanimity to get through. Although Harriet Harman has presented this approach as sensible ground-clearing before focusing on the more controversial proposals (saying "I do not do devious. I am trying to assist the House"), many see it as a recipe for inaction, as lone mavericks block proposals which have general support amongst MPs.

Meanwhile the Liaison Committee published its views on the recommendations relating to Select Committees on 27 January. It noted that many of them echoed past recommendations of its own. It also noted that "some will not...command universal and unqualified support, even within the Liaison Committee". The recommendations referred to here included in particular that on the election of Committee Chairs. But the Committee continued: "doubts cannot be used as an excuse for inaction. We should be prepared to take some risks if the prize to be won is sufficient." And in conclusion it urged the House of Commons to "act courageously".

All of this might look like bad news for those, like Committee Watch, who want to see things move forward. Acting courageously is not necessarily what one would expect from a House of Commons on the brink of an election. One is reminded of Sir Humphrey's description of a risky Ministerial decision as "brave". But then again, many MPs who are planning not to stand again have little to lose. And the Wright Committee has by no means given up. It called Harriet Harman in on 10 February together with her opposite numbers, Sir George Young and David Heath, to explain her approach. At the hearing some Members were clearly impatient with her position. And increasingly, the recommendations on Select Committees are starting to look relatively straightforward compared to the proposal for a House Business Committee with backbench participation, to which the government is opposed.

So there is much to play for in Monday's debate. Let us see whether the House of Commons will indeed "act courageously".

Saturday, 23 January 2010

A Step Forward

A date has finally been set for the House of Commons to debate the Wright Committee report on Reform of the House of Commons. 23 February is not as early as some would wish but it should be early enough for the debate to go ahead before the election is announced. What is more, the Government has signalled support for some of the key recommendations, including the election of Chairs and members of Select Committees. As Jo Swinson pointed out in Questions to the Leader of the House on Thursday, it is not for the Government to accept or reject the proposals. Nevertheless their support is significant becasue they will control the wording of the motion on 23 February. They have made it clear, however, that they will not table the Resolution drafted by the Committee and some recommendations may not get through.

Further, Harriet Harman has laid a lot of stress on reaching consensus before 23 February if any resolutions are to be put into effect before the election (which is essential if progress is to be made on a reasonable timescale). So we can expect a few steps forward, perhaps, but not wholescale reform.

Many will be disappointed by this, but in the looking-glass world of Parliament progress is not always made by the most straightforward means. The key thing is for the House of Commons to take at least one step forward. We will see what then ensues.