Bronwen Maddox: How effective is parliament?

Written by Bronwen Maddox on 1 October 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Parliament’s important role of policymaking is not well understood by all civil servants. As its work on Brexit increases, it is time to change that

Photo: PA

One of the most common remarks we hear in parliament is a wish for the civil service to understand it better. We hear the equivalent from officials, too – a wish for parliament to have a better understanding of their work.

We aim to help with the first of those – and to help the entire UK understand parliament better – with our new report, Parliamentary Monitor. This looks at how much parliament costs to run, what it does, and how well it is doing in passing legislation and holding government to account (just two of the many sides of its role).

That matters because of parliament’s central place in our democracy. Brexit has brought that even more to public attention, through the way in which MPs are arguing with party policy, and select committees are calling ministers to explain what they’re doing. The government’s loss of its majority in the House of Commons in the 2017 general election increased the influence of backbenchers and provoked media interest.


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Our report shows for a start that parliament cost £551m to run last year. It includes the cost of the 650 MPs and over 800 peers, MPs’ administrative staff and researchers, the running of select committees, parliamentary staff, and the running costs of the parliamentary estate. Some people might think that sounds a lot of money. It is, of course – but to look at it another way, it is around the same as it costs to run a mid-sized government department such as the education or environment departments.

It is clear that Brexit has consumed parliament’s time. One in eight inquiries by select committees have concerned Brexit. The EU Withdrawal Act took nearly a year and more than 273 hours of debate to become law. That is almost four times as long as the second most debated piece of legislation, the Data Protection Act. More hours have gone on debate that has failed – so far – to yield legislation because of the intensity of disagreements.

Government plans for the use of secondary legislation and “Henry VIII powers” to get Brexit through parliament have raised concerns about whether government control over the process of law-making is too great, outstripping the ability of parliamentarians to challenge proposals in a meaningful way. But backbenchers are making increasing use of other ways to challenge the government, for instance through parliamentary questions and emergency debates.

Meanwhile, select committees (almost 40 years old in the current model) are growing in maturity and influence. The Home Affairs Committee’s questions over Windrush and immigration policy hit home. Many chairs of committees used to be ministers, so have brought new clout and experience to the role. However, the lengthy process of establishing committees following elections meant a six-month gap in their scrutiny of government after the 2017 election: inquiries were brought to a premature end when the election was called, and committees were not able to resume their inquiries until mid-September.

There are concerns that some procedures are too antiquated to be effective or to command public respect. One MP’s ability to bring down a Private Member’s Bill to outlaw “upskirting” – taking pictures up women’s skirts – brought public derision, not just for him, but for parliamentary procedure.

However, whether the public appreciates it or not, parliament has been immensely active compared to its equivalents in other countries. Each House sat for more days than most other legislatures in the world.

There are many sides to parliament’s role. One of the most central – the representation by MPs of their constituents – is not only vital but the one that arguably does most to underpin public faith in the UK’s representative democracy. If that is shaken, so is that confidence. In the end, that is answered best by MPs’ behaviour towards their constituents and their vigour in carrying those concerns to Westminster – as well as the way in which their parties appreciate and reflect those concerns.

But the parts of the role on which we have focused – passing legislation and holding the government to account – also play an essential part in sustaining that confidence. At the moment, parliament is very active, and is challenging the government on Brexit and other fronts. But the cost of Brexit on its time and attention is clear.

About the author

Bronwen Maddox is director of the Institute for Government

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