How Parliament would take control

By: Stein Ringen

The experience of COVID is this:

  1. The British system was unable to control and prevent the spread of the virus (see Britain is not a well governed country).
  2. It was later able to treat and manage the pandemic, through the NHS and the rollout of the vaccine, but too late and at colossal cost in life and resources that should not have occurred.

The system of political decision-making was exposed to significant stress and proved unable to cope. It’s time to improve it (see Is the constitution able to learn from mistakes?). A fundamental weakness of the British system is the absence of the balanced partnership between government and legislature that makes for robust public policy. Parliament should assert itself by taking control of its own business.

There is the oddity of the House of Lords, which many British reformers think should be abolished. In fact, the Lords are by and large a positive influence. It is in the elected House of Commons that reform is urgent.

The Commons is unable at present to provide adequate pre-decision scrutiny of legislation and budgetary proposals. It is limited to considering such matters that the government puts to it, and lacks capacity to make more than cosmetic modifications.  Most Members of Parliament simply have no detailed idea what legislation they put their name to or what resources they allocate the government. British governments do not live in fear that their initiatives will be double-checked.

To take control, the House of Commons should

  • put its business under the authority of a Committee of Speakers,
  • abolish the post of Leader of the House, and
  • put Select Committees in charge of scrutinising government proposals in the first instance.

It would work like this: the government makes proposals to Parliament in the form of bills and budgets. Proposals are received by the Committee of Speakers which decides how they are to be dealt with and with what priority, or returns them to the government for further preparation. When accepted, proposals are allocated to the relevant Select Committee to be turned over in detail. The Committee may again return the proposal to the government for further preparation, or report to the House with its recommendation. This may contain amendments to the government’s proposals and may come with majority and minority recommendations. The Committee will be obliged to have scrutinised the matter according to specified procedures, such as to assess constitutional, legal, administrative and economic implications, and to report to the House with a written recommendation. Only at this stage is the matter considered by the House in plenum. It can then debate in the knowledge that the proposals have been subjected to the competent scrutiny of the Committee and with full information on the merits, demerits and implications of the proposal.

When in 2015 then Prime Minister David Cameron put to Parliament a proposal for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the House of Commons was without procedure for subjecting the proposals to sufficient scrutiny. The European Union Referendum Act 2015, which made legal provision for the country to take a monumental decision, passed through Parliament on a nod and without Parliament doing any work to inform itself about and deliberate over its implications and consequences. Legislating in such a shoddy manner should never be possible.

As it stands, too much business is conducted in plenum in the House of Commons and not enough in committee. This impedes its capacity and disables it from considering policies with adequate care. The proposal outlined above, magically, puts more work to the House while at the same time increasing its capacity. When more work is done in committee, the House can work effectively on more matters at the same time. The House of Commons has 650 members, yet so little capacity that it can give most legislation only scant attention, does next to no work on budgets, and still regularly runs out of time in dealing with matters before it.

With the House in control of its own business, legislation could be initiated in Parliament. Furthermore, the Commons would be in control of what it deals with and votes on. Presently, our elected representatives can largely only vote on matters the government allows them to. For example, there is now probably a majority in Parliament against cutting back the development assistance budget, but Parliament does not have the power to initiate a vote on the matter.

In recent years, as it happens, Select Committees have taken on more work and responsibility than they have previously, in the form of scrutinising policies after the fact. That has given them, and Parliament, a new and more active role in policy oversight. The Committees and their members are now doing excellent oversight work, highlighting the quality of work that Parliament can produce once it is given more serious responsibility. If the House of Commons were given similar responsibilities in pre-decision scrutiny, Britain would be a better governed country.

Brits might be surprised to learn that this, radical to their ears, is to propose no more than is standard in better performing People’s Assemblies in many democracies.

This is the third post in a series by Professor Ringen. The first piece ‘Britain is not a well governed country’ can be found here. The second piece ‘Is the Constitution Able to Learn from Mistakes?’ can be found here.

Stein Ringen is a Visiting Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. His book How Democracies Live will be published by Chicago University Press.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.