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Karen Bradley MP: Parliamentary procedure may seem archaic, but it is a necessary detail of democracy

4 min read

As we move into a post-Brexit world, the Procedure Committee must continue to ensure backbenchers can hold Government to account, writes Karen Bradley MP

I am immensely honoured to be elected as the first woman to chair the House of Commons Procedure Committee. It is a privilege for me to return to the committee I first served on as a backbencher in the 2010 Parliament.

It feels particularly appropriate that this moment comes during Women’s History Month, a time to reflect and celebrate the great contributions of women to society, to culture and indeed to this House and this Parliament.

The last two Parliaments saw so much change, uncertainty, and, at times even instability. The limits of our democratic system were tested, but through all of the late-night votes, the formation of majorities against the Government, the challenge of scrutinising the proliferation of Brexit-related secondary legislation on top of the usual requirement to check the work of government, there was one constant – procedure.

People often misunderstand the procedure of the House of Commons. It is sometimes portrayed as unnecessarily complex, arcane, or even archaic, but I see it as the necessary detail of democracy.  Procedure comprises the fundamental rules and processes that keep this great this great institution of ours running, day in and day out. Our procedures — described by the great Speaker Onslow as “the rules to go by”, applicable to and understood by all — allow debate, facilitate scrutiny, and encompass the checks and balances whereby the House holds the government to account. If we don’t get our procedure in this House right, then a vital element of our representative democracy fails to function, putting at risk both the government’s business and the House’s function in checking the government’s actions.

All of this demonstrates the value of an active and engaged Procedure Committee. As a former government whip, I’m no stranger to how procedure can be used to help, and to hinder, the progress of the government’s business. In recent years people have seen how procedure can be used to achieve appropriate checks on the actions of government, but also how it can be used to prevent the Government meeting the objectives it undertook to achieve.

The committee - so ably chaired by Sir Charles Walker in the last Parliament - has a number of significant achievements to its name. It established a procedural case for bringing in a system of proxy voting for parental absence, and brought forward amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to give the House a greater role in examining Brexit-related secondary legislation. Arguably its most significant achievement was to establish a new sifting mechanism which gave a committee of the House the power to recommend more stringent scrutiny procedures for Brexit-related delegated legislation which would otherwise have passed into law by default. The new committee established on the Procedure Committee’s recommendation — the European Statutory Instruments Committee (ESIC), chaired by Sir Patrick McLoughlin — secured scrutiny upgrades for over 40 statutory instruments which it considered legally or politically important, meaning that the Government had to explain and defend its proposals in a delegated legislation committee. ESIC made it a priority to seek views from external stakeholders on the Government’s proposals, often against a very tight timetable. Its establishment allowed more thorough and effective scrutiny of Brexit-related delegated legislation, in an efficient and timely manner, than would otherwise have been the case. I expect the new committee will be keen to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this new sifting procedure and to examine whether it could be used more widely.

As the United Kingdom and its Parliament move into a new post-Brexit chapter, we’re going to experience another period of change and development. I can think of nothing more important than ensuring the Procedure Committee is there to continue its work in adapting this great institution, empowering backbenchers to have a voice and hold the Executive to account.

I feel a sense of pride and responsibility to be taking the Chair at such a significant time, following a period where the eyes of the nation have. been focused not only on the House, but on the intricacies of procedure and scrutiny ich sustain our work.

We face many challenges and hurdles in the coming months and years ahead, from the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, to adapting to life outside the European Union. There is no shortage of opportunity to examine how the House’s procedures and practices can be improved. I look forward to chairing a committee which is responsive to the changing needs of the House, so that while the Government may get its business, the House remains properly equipped to hold it to account.

Karen Bradley is Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and chair of the Procedure Committee

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