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This government is averse to parliamentary scrutiny

This government is averse to parliamentary scrutiny

Johnson’s aversion to scrutiny would not be such a problem if the Commons had more control of its own agenda, writes Alice Lilly. | PA Images

Alice Lilly

Alice Lilly

4 min read

Brexit and Covid legislation has repeatedly been rushed through Parliament, demonstrating there is a dual problem facing the Commons. The government’s aversion to scrutiny, and the Commons’ inability to control its own agenda.

Government has now recalled the Commons from its Christmas recess twice in a week. Just before the new year, MPs were asked to approve legislation implementing the government’s eleventh-hour trade deal with the EU. On Wednesday they will vote on the latest UK lockdown.

Recalls of the Commons are rare—and it is even more unusual to have two within a week. As well as highlighting the crisis that the nation is in the middle of, this situation reflects a dual problem facing the House of Commons: the government’s aversion to scrutiny, and the Commons’ inability to control its own agenda.

Most governments view the Commons warily. They are reliant on MPs to pass legislation, and it is the confidence of the House that allows the government to remain in power. At the same time, though, the Commons is a source of often unwelcome scrutiny. But Boris Johnson’s government seems particularly averse to scrutiny of both its work and its proposed laws.

At the moment, parliamentary reform is unlikely to be top of anybody’s to-do list. But it should be.

In September 2019 Johnson was judged by the Supreme Court to have unlawfully prorogued Parliament, preventing it from scrutinising legislation and asking questions of ministers. A few weeks later, ministers planned to rush the major Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the Commons in just three days—and only changed tack in the face of cross-party anger. This was despite the government’s criticisms of backbenchers who had quickly forced through legislation to prevent a no deal Brexit.

Then, when coronavirus hit, the government continued to treat the Commons as little more than a rubber stamp. Regulations implementing national and local lockdowns have repeatedly been passed quickly, and often after the rules have already come into force—despite the fact that these regulations affect the basic liberties of citizens. Some haste was understandable early, when ministers were urgently having to make and implement decisions. It is far less understandable almost a year into the pandemic.

Government has also evaded the scrutiny of ministers’ work. The Commons has to be recalled to debate the latest lockdown because last week the government sought to extend MPs’ Christmas recess. Both Houses of Parliament have the ability to meet—and vote—remotely. But despite this, the worsening pandemic, disruption at the UK border, and the rollout of a massive vaccination programme, the government have given MPs less opportunity to question ministers.

All too often, the government has made major policy announcements—for example on school closures—in press conferences or through leaks to the media, rather than in the Commons. When MPs do get a chance to ask questions about new policies, it is often several days after the fact.

Johnson’s aversion to scrutiny would not be such a problem if the Commons had more control of its own agenda. But decisions about when and how the House sits, and what business takes place each day, are largely down to the government. The Commons cannot even recall itself.

It is true that MPs must agree to motions setting out recess dates and the timetables for pieces of legislation. But only the government can table these motions—so MPs are forced to either take or leave the government’s proposals. Similarly, although opposition parties and backbenchers are allowed to choose the subjects for debate for small amounts of the Commons’ time, the government decides when to schedule it. All this means that government has a lot of control over how the Commons works, making it very difficult for MPs to initiate or extend scrutiny.

At the moment, parliamentary reform is unlikely to be top of anybody’s to-do list. But it should be.

MPs should seriously consider whether the Commons should have the ability to recall itself, and whether to take scheduling power away from the government—something that has previously been suggested. The problem, of course, is that MPs could not initiate any of these changes themselves—they would be reliant on the government to do this. Given the government’s lamentable attitude towards Parliament, that is very unlikely to happen.

 

Alice Lilly is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government. 

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