Do ministers ever face detailed policy scrutiny?

Summary

Why the current set up of ministerial accountability to Parliament doesn’t feel like MPs are able to influence policy in the eyes of the public

For those of you who are into public policy research, have a look at this extended piece by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley where they have crunched the data on parliamentary divisions over the past couple of decades to examine MPs’ influence on policy.

The main ways MPs are able to hold ministers to account are as follows:

  1. Through written correspondence to ministers
  2. Securing private meetings with ministers
  3. Asking questions of ministers at departmental questions
  4. Summoning ministers to Parliament for urgent questions
  5. Cross-examination at select committees

Media appearances and articles can put pressure on ministers, but when it comes to asking direct questions, the five above stand out.

There is one thing that is persistently missing in all bar select committee hearings: The ability to ask follow-up questions of ministers. MPs very rarely get the chance to follow-up questions, meaning that all too often ministers can dodge otherwise substantive questions. I’ve seen ministers of all parties do this – even ones that I worked for. I remember one such occasion where for one oral question to the minister I was working for many moons ago. It was what felt like a tricky question from a backbencher that led to my minister going on the offensive about the opposition’s policy, completely ignoring the point the MP made.

If ministers don’t want to answer a question, there is very little that MPs can do to compel them otherwise

As a regular watcher of BBC Parliament, it’s one of the things I find the most frustrating about ministers in Parliament. There are many tactics politicians can use – many are listed here.

Parliament is back on Tues 5 January with questions to the department of health. Then there is the much-criticised Housing Bill which gets to report stage in the Commons – where they consider the changes made in the detailed scrutiny ‘committee’ stage. For questions to health ministers, each MP (other than opposition front-benchers) gets one question to ask of the ministerial team. It’s up to the Government which minister answers which question. This means that unless MPs are incredibly well-organised and co-ordinated, there is no chance for anyone to follow-up any issue. In my experience, party whips and operators focus too much on political point-scoring rather than picking a specific issue and having their MPs working as a team greater than the sum of their parts.

“Does it mean that it’s only journalists outside select committees that get the chance to ask direct follow-up questions of ministers?”

Essentially. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating when broadcast journalists in particular fail to pin down ministers when faced with an open goal.

“Why do you think this is?”

Part of it is the need to be scrupulously impartial – which can sometimes have a dampening effect on questioning. Another is that the journalists have got such a wide subject area to cover that they can never be experts in the fields that they cover.

“What are the alternatives?”

The big one for me is for journalists to start crowd-sourcing questions from their social media followers. Channel 4, Sky and even ITN journalists have started doing this. For whatever reason, big name BBC journalists don’t seem to do this nearly as much. Is it a cultural thing within that institution?

Select committees is where it’s at, while Private Members Bills are a waste of time

Puffles’ chums Isabel Hardman and Mark D’Arcy (both of whom I rate highly) are appearing before the Commons Procedure Committee to discuss Private Members Bills (PMBs). (See Wed, scroll down). The amount of time that is wasted is incredible – and for what purpose? Philip Davies MP has got a reputation for being an expert filibusterer of bills. I sat through one of the speeches he made, which made me ponder about the processes that PMBs have to go through before they are introduced. When I look at the number and nature of them, I can’t help but feel that there are too many too ill-thought-through bills that are introduced.

I can understand why MPs table them – tabling new legislation is one of the few big levers they have. It also makes for a nice headline – though there are only so many times the likes of Caroline Lucas can re-table a bill to renationalise the railways before the process starts getting tedious – irrespective of the merits of her policy behind the bill. It’ll be interesting to see what Ms Hardman and Mr D’Arcy have to say about PMBs.

“What is the best way of scrutinising government policy?”

This for me is a question that parliamentarians need to ask themselves (and of the rest of us) now that we are in this social media age. Changing the culture of Whitehall and Westminster is one thing. Persuading a sceptical public is quite another. And why would anyone want to get involved in democracy if they can’t see how their efforts are going to have an impact?

It also means asking the question of ‘what do we mean by scrutinising government policy?’ I can scrutinise government policy in this blog…and it’ll get completely ignored. MPs can criticise government policy in the Commons and get the same treatment. What we don’t see much of are cross-party ‘blocking motions’ where MPs get together and force the government of the day’s hand on an issue. The Syria vote of a few years ago was a rare example where a government was explicitly blocked on a major policy. Would policy be improved if smaller blocking motions or even amending motions that did not lead to media storms or ministerial resignations were more common?

Given that party whips are machines of their leaderships, is there also a stronger role for parties to have their own backbench policy committees (if they don’t already have them) that provide links from the parliamentary parties to wider memberships as a whole? Otherwise – and as a number of MPs have expressed to me in the past, all too often they take the word of the whips and vote the way their leadership wants them to vote without having had any briefing/advice from outside their party’s leadership structures. The reason why this matters is because MPs have a duty to scrutinise legislation and the government of the day. If – & in particular backbench government MPs are simply taking the direction of party whips, their role in scrutinising the executive is significantly diminished.

 

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