What makes for an effective parliamentarian?

Contributing to a panel at the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) 68th Westminster Seminar, on effective parliaments, I identified what I see as the five essential elements for parliamentarians to be effective in carrying out their jobs.

1) Powers. The principal, and core defining, power of a legislature is to give assent to measures of public policy and demands for money. Legislatures are not so much law-making as law-assenting institutions.  The capacity to say no to the executive is what gives them leverage in fulfilling other functions.

2) Resources. Members need resources, both individually and collectively.  They require administrative and research support, independent of their parties and the executive. That usually entails support for their own offices and research support, not least in terms of a parliamentary library and research service.

3) Skills. There is no point in having powers and resources if members lack the skills to utilise them.  This encompasses a grasp of how to utilise procedures as well as to debate, to question and to know how to research sources and understand the importance of information provided.

4) Political will. Members may enjoy powers, resources and skills, but they are of little value if there is not the political will to deploy them.  Members have to be prepared to question and, if necessary, challenge their own party and government to achieve desired outcomes.

5) An understanding of what is expected of them, collectively and individually. To do their job effectively, parliamentarians need to have a clear understanding of what the job is.  Some appear to be extremely busy doing things, but without actually achieving anything.  Without a clear job description, there is the danger of doing a range of activities, but without focusing on what is core to being a parliamentarian.

What, then, is the job of the parliamentarian?

Legislatures are defined by their assent-giving capacity, not by an ability to create coherent measures of public policy

Rather, their tasks comprise principally:

1) Sustaining the government. This is especially important in parliamentary system, where the executive is derived from elections to the legislature and the government rests on the confidence of the parliament, or elected chamber.

2) Scrutinising. Most measures of public policy originate with the executive.  A core task of the legislature is to subject legislative proposals, demands for money, and the administration of government to sustained – and public – examination.

3) Influencing outcomes. Legislatures can say no to government.  That coercive capacity may be rarely employed, but it underpins a persuasive capacity.  Members may deploy their various powers, skills and resources to affect outcomes, to ensure ‘good’ law is enacted, that money is spent prudently and appropriately, and government conducted effectively, efficiently and honestly.

4) Ensuring the views of citizens are heard. Enoch Powell once observed that that the task of Parliament is to ensure that the people, through their representatives, speak to the government and the government speaks to the people. Parliamentarians can ensure that the voices of the people are heard.  Parliaments have a valuable safety valve function.

The challenge to parliamentarians, not least those in the majority party, is to recognise that being an effective parliamentarian does not necessarily conflict with being a loyal party member.  MPs tend to privilege the interests of party over the role of the institution of which they are members.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

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By popular demand…. a caption competition

At a time of bad weather, dark nights and a general election campaign, there may be a case

for  a bit of light relief, so time for another caption competition.  This picture (suggested for the competition by Ken Batty, who is giving the oration) is from the degree ceremony at Regent’s University in July, when I was installed as a Honorary Senior Fellow.

As usual, the winner will be the reader who offers what in my view is the wittiest caption and most appropriate in the context of the picture.  The prize will be one of my recent publications.

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Notes on dissolution

I see people keep tweeting queries about the dissolution of Parliament, so here are a few notes in response to various of the queries that have appeared.

Unlike prorogation, there is no formal ceremony for dissolution.

Parliament was dissolved at one minute past midnight.  Dissolution continues until the new Parliament meets.  The Commons will meet for the election of the Speaker and the swearing-in of Members.  This is expected the week commencing 16 December.  We await an announcement about the Queen’s Speech, which could take place just before Christmas or at the start of the New Year.

During dissolution, all committee room bookings in the Palace are cancelled.   MPs cannot use the facilities because there are no MPs.  Once Parliament is dissolved, those who have served as MPs cease to be such and cannot use the suffix MP.  (They continue to be paid, though, until polling day.)  Peers retain access to their offices – peers remain peers – but cannot use them for campaigning or party political purposes.

The period between dissolution and polling day is stipulated in section 3(1) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.  When the Act was passed, it was set at 17 working days, but was subsequently amended, under the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, to 25 working days.  Parliament is automatically dissolved at the beginning of the 25th working day before polling day.

A working day under the Act means any day other than a Saturday or Sunday, a Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Good Friday, a day which is a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in any part of the United Kingdom, and a day appointed for public thanksgiving or mourning.

I may do notes about candidates and general elections in due course.

 

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Notes on the general election

A few notes on the election due now on 12 December…

Under section 1(2) of the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill (due to receive Royal Assent today), the poll ‘is to be treated as a polling day appointed under section 2(7) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011’. This engages section 1(4) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which means that, with an early election taking place after May, the next election takes place four years from the following May. The next election is thus scheduled for May 2024.

The House of Commons will meet on Monday to elect a new Speaker. Whoever is elected will then have to stand in the election as ‘the Speaker seeking re-election’. They will then stand for re-election as Speaker, assuming they are returned at the general election, at the start of the new Parliament. The rationale for electing a Speaker now is that current MPs know the candidates. At the start of a new Parliament, new MPs are essentially unfamiliar with the candidates. Back in 1972, the Procedure Committee did recommend that Speakers retire mid-Parliament. That has not been the uniform practice.

The House of Commons is expected to assemble the week after the election for the purpose of electing a Speaker and for the purpose of swearing-in, with the Queen’s Speech taking place in January. The election of the Speaker on that occasion should be fairly short and formal. It would be a problem if the House opted to elect someone else in January than the person chosen as Speaker next Monday! There would thus be an MP returned as the Speaker seeking re-election who would no longer be Speaker.

Since the start of the 20th Century, there have only been three general elections held in December, all three in the first quarter of the century – 1910 (the second general election of that year), 1918 and 1922. (The 1918 election followed that of 1910.) There were four held in December in the 19th Century.

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Writings on Parliament….

This has been a good year for me in terms of articles published in Parliamentary Affairs.  I see my 2016 article, ‘The Fixed-term Parliaments Act and Votes of Confidence’, perhaps not surprisingly in view of current events, is again listed as one of the most read articles.  My article earlier this year on ‘Power Behind the Scenes: The Importance of Informal Space in Legislatures’ is one of the Editor’s Choices.  And the latest issue, which has just been published, carries two articles by me.  One is the introduction, ‘Departmental Select Committees: The Reform of the Century?’ to the articles forming a special issue to mark the 40th anniversary of the creation of the departmental select committees.  The other is my 2019 Bingham Lecture in Constitutional Studies at the University of Oxford, ‘Is the House of Commons Too Powerful?, about which I have previously done a blog post and which I like to think has the merit of timeliness.

Complementing these is my article in the latest issue of The Journal of Legislative Studies on ‘Post-legislative scrutiny in the UK Parliament: adding value’.  Again, this is something on which I have done a blog post.

I list these for the sake of completeness – it has not been a bad year in terms of output –  and also because if, in the forthcoming election campaign, you want to have a bit of a breather and read some scholarly pieces….

The priority now is completing Governing Britain.  Once the election is out of the way and the outcome known, I will get the finished manuscript off to the publishers.  That, at least, is the plan.

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The role of the Speaker

On Tuesday, I was one of several witnesses to give evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the House of Commons in its inquiry into the role of the Speaker. You can watch the session here; my panel starts at 11.43.

There is a tendency to look at Speakers in terms of their role in the chamber.  However, as I said my evidence, the Speaker has three roles, relating to three distinct domains: the chamber, the parliamentary estate covering the House of Commons, and the world beyond Westminster. Each requires different skills.

The first requires the Speaker to act as a ringmaster – as I mentioned, not so much in the sense of a circus, but a wrestling ring (the Speaker doesn’t book the acts, but he has to referee and recognise also that there is an audience for the performance).  The challenge has become greater recently because of a minority government and conflict over Brexit.  That challenge is all too apparent.

The second requires strategic skills.  The Speaker chairs the House of Commons Commission, which has a statutory responsibility to set strategic responsibilities and objectives for the services provided by the House departments, employs the staff of the House (other than the Clerk, Clerk Assistant and Serjeant at Arms), lays the budget for House services before the House, and determines the structures and functions of the departments of the House.  The challenges here are greater than before because of the Restoration and Renewal Programme (preparing for the great decant in a few years), security, and the Cox report on bullying and harassment.

The third requires major communication skills.  The challenge is acute now because of the collapse of trust in the House of Commons.  Previously, as I have argued, people did not trust MPs.  Now they do not trust the House of Commons.  The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the House comprises the sum of its parts.  There are different leadership roles in the House, especially the Leader of the House and the Speaker.  There are problems in providing a clear institutional response to criticisms levelled against the House.

The task facing MPs is to elect a Speaker who has the skills to tackle these challenges.  It may be that no one individual has all the requisite skills.  One possibility raised in the session was possibly hiving off responsibility for chairing the House of Commission to another member.  It may be that the House may also need a separate figure to act as spokesperson, or face, of the House, leaving the Speaker to focus on what happens in the chamber.  And as I have argued before, the House needs the collective will to act in the face of public opprobrium.  It cannot be left solely to one person.

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