Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron must be accountable to MPs
Former prime minister David Cameron arrives at Downing Street for his first Cabinet Meeting as the Foreign Secretary, followed by foreign office minister Andrew Mitchell
It is a long-established practice that MPs and peers speak and vote only in the Chamber of the House of which they are a member. If the government follows precedent, the new Foreign Secretary’s appearances before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee will be the primary - and possibly the only - way in which David Cameron will be held to account by the House of Commons.
Ministerial accountability is normally secured, not just through appearances at select committees, but also through questioning in the Commons Chamber. Andrew Mitchell will lead in the Commons for the Foreign Office, but he is ultimately a deputy who attends but is not a full member of the Cabinet. The sight of the Foreign Secretary being questioned about the latest crisis at the Despatch Box of the House of Lords but not the elected House of Commons may not wash for long.
Ministers can point to precedents set by the previous appointments to Cabinet of Baronesses Amos (2003), Baroness Morgan (2019), Lords Adonis and Lord Mandelson (2009). Lord Carrington also served as Foreign Secretary from the Upper House (1979-82). However, when the Falklands crisis erupted, the absence of the Foreign Secretary from the House of Commons was untenable and was a factor in his resignation.
Today, the Foreign Secretary’s inability to respond to urgent questions, make ministerial statements or participate in debates in the Commons may be problematic.
In 2009, when this issue last reared its head, the government made clear it was not opposed to secretaries of state appearing before the House of Commons in the Chamber if that was the wish of the House.
The Commons Procedure Committee, tasked with exploring how this might be done, settled for an experiment: two question sessions of up to 45 minutes in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon as a complement to normal departmental questions each session. The proposals were never piloted (following ministerial changes after the 2010 general election the reforms were no longer needed).
Allowing peers to speak in the Commons Chamber may be too radical for some MPs
The proposed pilot fell short of what the government was reportedly willing to concede because a significant number of MPs opposed doing anything that might confer legitimacy on the practice of appointing secretaries of state in the Lords.
Thirteen years later the proposals feel particularly inadequate for a Chamber in which the restoration of the Urgent Question has significantly transformed expectations about timely ministerial responses to events.
There are other options. The Foreign Secretary could be invited into the Commons to deal with urgent questions, ministerial statements, and certain debates. Precedent might see him invited to speak from a lectern at the bar of the House – but this would make the House look ridiculous. If he is to speak in the Chamber better that he speak from the front bench.
Allowing peers to speak in the Commons Chamber may be too radical for some MPs. In which case, a variation on the Grand Committee format offers a pragmatic solution: this permits statements to be made and questions answered by ministers ‘whether or not a Member of the House’. The business can still be held in the Chamber, thus enabling all MPs to participate. Alternatively, bicameral conferences could be revived. Either House could decide to sit in a conference to which Members of the other House may be admitted.
There are risks. Peers may seek reciprocal arrangements: this should easily be resisted on grounds of electoral primacy. And prime ministers may see it as a green light to recruit more of their Cabinet from the Lords. But a Foreign Secretary unaccountable to MPs in the middle of a major crisis is equally unpalatable.
Dr Ruth Fox is director of the Hansard Society
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