On Parliamentary Scrutiny

…it would be a good idea. (No, really!)

The nature of the Coalition inevitably meant that there would be a greater focus on Parliament in the news. Ditto with the fallout from the MPs expenses scandal. Civil servants across Whitehall were briefed on the increasing importance of Parliament compared to the Blair/Brown years with a greater need for the strength of argument, soundness of evidence base and consistency of policy when briefing ministers in their engagements with MPs. It’s less straight forward using the blunt instrument of whipping in a coalition.

While the election of John Bercow was somewhat controversial in Conservative circles (despite on paper being a former Conservative MP), I think he’s done a pretty good job. It may annoy some ministers and policy advisers who have got to be continually on their toes – in particular with regards to urgent questions, but let’s recall what Bercow set out in his manifesto. In particular, I draw your attention to the following:

Use of Parliamentary Time

  • the case for a Business Committee of the House with a backbench majority. Its role would be to control a proportion of the parliamentary timetable, deciding how much time should be allocated to each bill and debate
  • making pre and post-legislative scrutiny the norm, not the exception
  • greater use of Urgent Questions and Standing Order 24 Debates
  • a formal power for the Speaker to require a minister to make an Oral Statement to the House


Role of Committees

  • election by secret ballot of the whole House of the chairs of Select Committees
  • more formal powers for Select Committees to call witnesses and to demand the release of papers, with increased resources as necessary to allow for thorough inquiries to produce reports which can then be debated and voted on in the House
  • a role for Select Committees in public appointments, possibly in the form of confirmation hearings
  • requiring the membership of Public Bill Committees to reflect opinion in the House as expressed in the Second Reading debate or vote
  • a stronger role for Parliament, including Select Committees, in scrutinising the domestic budget process and the substantial volume of EU legislation.
  • The Public Accounts Committee does outstanding work but it is retrospective and greater parliamentary oversight of the whole Comprehensive Spending Review process could be invaluable. Likewise, the European Scrutiny Committee is important but it could usefully be bolstered by additional staff and resources

I think it’s fair to say that much of that has been implemented. BBC Parliament interviewed John Bercow at the end of 2011 asking him to review his time so far as Speaker.

I’ve blogged before on select committees (here and here). The more frequent use of Urgent Questions has also been welcome – not least because it makes it that little bit more difficult for the government of the day to control and manipulate the news agenda. Downing Street co-ordinates press releases and the media agenda from across Whitehall. On one side, having a level of co-ordination can give a greater sense of coherence of what the government is doing. On the other hand, there’s a very fine line between co-ordination and manipulation/spin.

On the issue of Urgent Questions, there is the risk that the exchanges could descend into predictable party-political point-scoring. One of the things I’d like The Speaker to make more clear to the general public (as well as to MPs) is what the criteria are for granting such questions. This (amongst other things) would help protect the impartiality of the Office of Speaker as it would become more clear why some were granted and others not.

The one significant shortcoming of the current model of scrutiny we have is that MPs cannot develop an argument through cross-examination unless they are in a fortunate position of being on the select committee that scrutinises their chosen target’s department. This means that there is next-to-no opportunity for MPs to follow-up the points that they try to make. Ministers can pretty much stand up and say “Yah-boo-sucks!” in response to any question that they don’t like (or rather “it was the previous administration that left us with the legacy of run-down public services [Labour post 1997] / appalling public finances [Coalition post 2010])

Once a month the ministerial team must appear before MPs in the House of Commons for its “Departmental Question Time” – where they have to face 2-3 hours of questions from MPs. The problem is that each MP only gets one question, and the shadow ministers only a handful between them. This means that, as with PMQs there is the inevitable risk of soundbite tennis and the “we are dealing with this bad stuff because of the things the previous government did that s/he supported!” sort of line that has regularly appeared over the past decade.

There is also the issue of scrutinising the decision-maker. This became excruciatingly clear when Mandelson and Adonis (in the Lords) were secretaries of state – unable to be cross-examined by MPs in departmental questions. While the junior ministers did a sterling job, MPs wanted to cross-examine the people at the top and Parliament did not have the mechanism to do so. But it’s not just that with ministers in different chambers. What about decisions clearly made by say the Chancellor or the Prime Minister where they overrule what a secretary of state wants? This was a particular problem under the Labour governments of Blair and Brown because their operation was incredibly centralised, leaving a number of their ministers being seen in some circles as little more than glorified spokespeople. Why so? The regular reshuffles for a start. It’s very difficult to get on top of a brief in a short space of time. I found this out the hard way as a Fast Streamer in the civil service, changing posts after less than a year in each – just at the time I found myself getting my head around the detail of the brief I was working on. If it was like that for me, imagine what it must be like for a minister who has to make the real decisions. I go into more detail in this in the blogposts on Reshuffles and Ministerial initiatives and pet projects.

So…what’s the answer?

There are a couple of things that could be done. The first is giving select committees the power to summon ANY Minister of the Crown to appear before them on issues that fall within their remit. The nature of select committees would mean that this really would be a ‘nuclear’ option but it would provide an incentive for Downing Street not to micro-manage things from the centre.

The House of Lords has select committees that cover issues rather than departments, and there has been some talk of evolving the Commons select committees to allow them to work together where issues cut across a number of departments.

Finally, I think thought should be given for Westminster Hall debates on enabling MPs to have the sort of debates with ministers where individual MPs can cross-examine ministers in the manner that we have seen with Robert Jay QC leading the line at the Leveson Inquiry. I can’t see ministers wanting to agree to that – especially as a number of backbench MPs are lawyers and barristers and would relish the chance of cross-examining ministers in the manner that they are professionally trained to do so.

What do you think of the above? Do you have further suggestions of your own or that you’ve seen elsewhere?



2 thoughts on “On Parliamentary Scrutiny

  1. Great post… Just as an aside I’m not entirely certain ministers can get away with shoddy replies in departmental questions quite as much as you suggest. I mean, they can give those kind of replies, but I think it does get noticed in Westminster and judgements are made about how good a ‘performer’ someone is. If they can’t handle their briefs and give decent answers to questions then their career will generally have plateaued.

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