Editors’ note: This post is based upon a conference paper presented at the UKCLA conference ‘Debating the Constitution after the General Election’ held at the University of Manchester on 24 June 2015.
After the 2010 General Election the world of Westminster was in something of a constitutional disarray. The first peacetime coalition in over half a century led to a whole series of constitutional conundrums and uncertainties. Everything from how the new Government (and Parliament) would be organised, the practicalities of collective cabinet responsibility and the role of an incumbent Prime Minister during a hung parliament became major grey areas. Fast forward to May 2015 and many observers of Westminster will have been relieved by a return to single party Government. Politics at Westminster could now get firmly back on its traditional constitutional footing. Or could it?
It was clear from the very first speeches made in the new Parliament that it would be a time of much constitutional upheaval. The Queen’s speech cemented the government’s plans for greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL as it is sometimes known) and of course the referendum on membership of the EU. In his last speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg told the Commons ‘the warning lights of a full blown constitutional crisis are flashing’. Conservative MP Bill Cash summed up the situation perfectly, describing it as ‘a watershed Parliament for a watershed election’ and suggesting that ‘the question that will predominate throughout this Parliament will be the question of who governs us and how’.
In the couple of months since the election a great deal has been written about the more grandiose type of politics at Westminster, that which predominantly takes place on the floor of the House. This began right after the election when the SNP very rightly requested all of the parliamentary trappings that are afforded to the third largest party in the Commons and which under the last single party government had been bestowed on the Liberal Democrats. This includes two questions at every Prime Minister’s Questions as well as the chairmanship of two select committees. The changes to the Commons chamber as a result of the general election are important, but we mustn’t forget that there are also implications for other areas of Parliament. It’s particularly important for thinking about how effective parliament will be when it comes to scrutinising the nitty gritty of the new Government’s legislative programme in public bill committees. Public bill committees consist of around 15-35 Members of Parliament, appointed in proportion to each party’s size in the House. They consider the text of bills on a line by line (and sometimes word by word basis) following a Second Reading debate on the floor of the Commons and have the power to reject or amend any word, line, clause or schedule of the bill, as well as substituting them for new words or clauses of their own. Examining the committee stage of bills actually tells us quite a lot about what we may expect from the new Parliament.
Let’s think firstly about the composition of these committees. The proportional nature of appointment means that for the last decade (and more) bill committees have always had quite a significant government majority. In the 1997 Parliament the typical committee of around 19 MPs would have a government majority of 3. Under Coalition Government the figures were very similar – around three or four MPs. These sound like small numbers but they are actually quite a comfortable safety net. Bearing in mind that 99.9% of all government amendments are passed in committee, it is very rare for 4 MPs to dissent from the party line in the confines of the committee room. In fact, the 0.1% that aren’t passed are usually ones which the Government has withdrawn voluntarily or where there has been some sort of error. This could be anything from the minister getting confused and voting the wrong way, or government MPs turning up late for a committee sitting. But the chances of government amendments being defeated will be greater in the present Parliament. David Cameron’s working majority in the chamber is just 16 MPs. So in committee, there will probably be only 1 MP separating the government from the opposition. It is more likely that we will see an increase in the number of defeats on individual amendments, just as we may expect there to be more defeats on the floor of the House itself.
Getting these defeats though, requires more than luck. Every now and then a government MP may be delayed and the opposition may be able to call a hasty vote to inflict defeat. But most of the time, defeating the government in committee, or encouraging ministers to change their minds requires opposition members to use the many procedural devices available to them, moving well written amendments, probing particular words or phrases and showing that they have the support of more than just their own party. It is hard enough for most MPs, but it is even harder when you are a new Member of Parliament who hasn’t yet learnt the ropes. This is the situation that many Labour MPs on forthcoming bill committees will find themselves in. But it’s a problem that affects the new third party (the SNP) much more acutely. All but a handful of their 56 MPs entered Westminster for the first time last month. Just like their colleagues from other parties, they have thrown themselves into their new roles, showing themselves to be impressive orators and ambitious parliamentarians. But it will take time for them to become well versed in committee procedures, just as it is taking time for them to find their way around the Palace, as Stephen Gethins joked in his maiden speech.
The SNP refer to themselves as the ‘effective’ rather than the official opposition. But will so may new MPs have the capacity to be effective in the area of constitutional reform? The answer is yes if their first few weeks are anything to go by. For despite their strong election rhetoric about locking David Cameron out of Downing Street, they have frequently professed a desire to work constructively with MPs from other parties. No doubt stemming from their experiences in the Scottish Parliament, they already understand that they will need to work with others if they are to bring about any changes. They are well aware that they do not have a monopoly on good ideas and, as Tommy Sheppard noted they ‘hope very much to find common cause and create a united Opposition across the Chamber’. They have also demonstrated what Dennis Skinner has referred to as ‘frightening’ party discipline, cemented in their almost complete attendance at key debates. This bodes well in committee and should mean that we will see a higher number of amendments being made to government bills.
The changes set in motion so far in this Parliament (The Scotland Bill and the EU Referendum Bill) have had their committee stage not on the committee corridor, but in the chamber itself, in a Committee of the whole House. But we can see the beginnings of how they may work in the confines of the committee rooms. Although there were reportedly a few drafting slip ups during the committee stage of the Scotland Bill (see Angela Eagle’s comments here), they have already had some small successes. One significant one was what Alex Salmond described as a ‘disorganised, spatchcock, humiliating climbdown’ ruling out 5th May 2016 as a possible date for the EU referendum. This was achieved through a rare manuscript amendment, reportedly tabled a 9.35pm on the evening before the Bill’s committee stage.
The SNP have also been true to their word, supporting Conservative amendments, including those from backbencher Sir Edward Leigh and Bill Cash’s attempt to reintroduce the period of purdah in the run up to EU referendum day, as well as several Labour amendments to the Scotland Bill. Even Labour cooperated to some extent – veteran parliamentarian Dennis Skinner voting in favour of several of their amendments during the scrutiny of both bills.
Although there are positive signs then that the SNP in particular will be very effective in bringing about changes to constitutional legislation (as well as other bills), constitutional reform may actually limit it. Most obviously, the recently published plans to introduce English Votes for English Laws may see them pushed out of the scrutiny arena on certain bills. This would compromise the party’s view that it will seek to scrutinise ‘every single piece of legislation brought forward’. This includes, as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out before the election, bills which may be considered ‘English only’ but which affect the interests of Scotland. Rather than making these changes through legislation, the new measures will be brought forward through a simple change to the Standing Orders. It was clear from the debate this week that opposition comes not just from the SNP (who asked Commons Speaker John Bercow to investigate whether or not it breached the principle that all Members are equal), but also from Labour, Liberal Democrat and DUP MPs. The vote on 15th July is likely to be a fractious one.
It is always important for all opposition parties to focus their energies and maintain a high level of scrutiny of any plans for constitutional reform. But it’s even more pressing at the moment. Not only is there a great deal of change happening very early on in the Parliament, but the government have also removed one very visible obstacle from their path; the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee. With the announcement that it will not be reconstituted, it will be more important than ever for the committee stage of this legislation to be effective. One of the big stories of the last Parliament was the increasing assertiveness of select committees. Let’s hope that the story of this Parliament is the growing assertiveness of its bill committees.
Dr Louise Thompson is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Surrey
(Suggested citation: L. Thompson, ‘Committee Stages and Constitutional Reform in the New Parliament’, UK Const. L. Blog (8th Jul 2015) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))