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Bernard Jenkin on the future of Parliament

3 min read

As the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee launches a new series of inquiries, Bernard Jenkin sets out why future developments in our Parliamentary democracy deserve careful consideration

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has launched a series of short inquiries into the role of Parliament in the UK constitution. These inquires provide an opportunity to consider how Parliament can best serve the interests of the UK. This series of inquiries are being conducted in the context of what Parliament’s role in the constitution should be for a 21st century UK.

Parliament has been a central and constant feature of the constitutional arrangements of the British Isles since an English Parliament first met under the leadership of Simon de Montfort in 1265.

The role of Parliament has however continually adapted and developed in response to changing circumstances. Through the Reformation, English Civil War, Glorious Revolution, Acts of Union, Great Form Acts, Parliament Acts, Representation of the People Acts, European Communities Act, Devolution Acts, Human Rights Act, and now leaving the EU, Parliament has been central to the continued development of the UK’s politics and society.

This progress is not always smooth or without conflict. Future developments and adaptations in Parliament’s role within the constitution deserve conscious and deliberate consideration, not to just be allowed to happen by accident.

Edmund Burke saw the key to the effective operation of the British constitution as placing it “in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world”, in that at any one time our constitution should never be, “old or middle-aged or young”.

Parliament must continue to combine the traditions and practices of the past with the knowledge of the present and an eye to the future. The overall aim of this inquiry is to consider how this can best be achieved.

PACAC has outlined several initial topics for the inquiry. These include:

  • Recent issues such as Parliament’s role in authorising the deployment of military force, and what role it should play in treaty negotiation and ratification;
  • The changing nature of the status of resolutions of the House, particularly in the context of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
  • Medium-term issues such as the use of delegated legislation, the impact of the reform and expansion of parliamentary select committees, government control of the legislative timetable, and Parliament’s relationship with the courts;
  • Long-term issues such as the continued relevance and utility of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, financial scrutiny by Parliament, and the nature and effectiveness of constitutional conventions.

The committee will begin the inquiry series by looking at the status of resolutions of the House. This is an issue that arose in response to the government’s decision not to act on the basis of resolutions of the House that were passed at the end of opposition day debates, in which government whips ordered their members not take part in the divisions. This has led to a concern that the government is unilaterally rewriting the previous understanding of the constitutional conventions relating to the status of resolutions of the House. The status of confidence motions could suddenly become very topical in present circumstances.

PACAC wants to involve as wide a range of people as possible in this inquiry, as well as to gain a deep understanding of the legal issues which underpin Parliament’s role in our national life. We are keen to hear comments on the range of issues already outlined, further suggestions for discrete topics of inquiry under this theme, as well as comments on the overall role of Parliament in the UK constitution.

Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

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