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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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There is a solution to Lord Cameron facing scrutiny, but it cannot become the norm

Lord Cameron (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Former prime minister David Cameron’s return to frontline politics caught everyone by surprise.

The immediate concern among MPs was how they could question the new Foreign Secretary, given he is not a Member of the Commons. In light of this, the Speaker asked the Procedure Committee to explore options for enhanced scrutiny of the Foreign Secretary, and whether there were any historical precedents to draw from.

With an election looming and crises ongoing in Ukraine and the Middle East, it was vital we were quick to report back with a way forward. Our inquiry was swift yet thorough. We held a public evidence session with Cabinet Office Minister Alex Burghart and the Leader and shadow leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt and Lucy Powell, to explore options for accountability. We also surveyed MPs, heard from senior Lords and Commons clerks, and considered written evidence from procedural experts such as the Institute for Government and the Hansard Society.

Some have argued that Lord Cameron already faces questioning in the Lords. He also appears regularly before the Foreign Affairs and International Development Select Committees. The House of Lords does excellent work in scrutinising policy, whilst select committees are an important forum for focussed examination of a department’s work. However, neither allow MPs to question Lord Cameron directly. Furthermore, both the Lords and select committees should complement, rather than replace, regular Commons Chamber questions.

There was a strong feeling on the Committee, and among MPs we surveyed, that it should not be the norm to have secretaries of state in the Lords

Another option we considered was using Westminster Hall – which typically hosts backbench debates – as a location for questioning. A previous committee conducted a similar inquiry in 2010 when Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis held senior cabinet positions, and concluded that Westminster Hall should be used for an experiment to allow oral questions to take place with secretaries of state sitting in the Lords (though this was never conducted prior to the 2010 election). However, space is a key factor: the largest committee room can only hold 85 MPs. Additionally, Commons proceedings have changed significantly since 2010, with Urgent Questions now used more frequently.

This is why the Committee has proposed the Chamber as the best option for scrutiny, with Lord Cameron standing just within the Bar of the House. The Bar of the House marks the boundary of the Chamber – beyond which guests and visitors may not pass – and is represented by a white line on the floor across the width of the room. There is a precedent for non-members to appear within the Bar, as Lord Melville did in 1805 and the Duke of Wellington in 1814. There is no precedent for appearing at the despatch box, another option we considered, and it is our view that inviting secretaries of state in the Lords to appear at the despatch box would risk blurring the boundaries between the two Houses.

As the elected Chamber the House of Commons has a duty to its constituents to ask questions of any senior cabinet member, especially a holder of one of the Great Offices of State. Indeed, Lord Cameron himself wrote to the committee stating he understood the importance of those who hold senior roles in the Cabinet being held to account by the elected Chamber.

However, there was a strong feeling, on the Committee and among MPs we surveyed, that it should not be the norm to have secretaries of state in the Lords. This is why our proposals are time-limited and are aimed at addressing the issue the House is currently faced with. They should not set a precedent for the future.

It is now for the Government to consider our recommendations and take them forward, but our position is clear: all MPs should have the opportunity to conduct thorough, effective, and timely scrutiny of foreign policy.

Karen Bradley, Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee

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Read the most recent article written by Karen Bradley MP - Why parliamentary procedure matters

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