Ben Yong: Exposing the hidden wiring of Parliament

‘Who runs the House?’ While most people were watching the Johnson government stumble from one crisis to another in early December 2021, peers in the House of Lords repeatedly asked this question in a rare debate on House governance. How the House of Lords (and Parliament as a whole) is run and the arrangements underpinning that may seem mundane, but ‘mundane’ issues can tell us something about the UK’s constitutional arrangements which are lost in theoretical frameworks such as political and legal constitutionalism, or separation of powers theories which focus on relationships between the branches of government.  

The Lords debate was in part prompted by a House of Lords External Management Review (‘EMR’), published in early 2021, which looked at how the House of Lords is governed and services and support administered. The EMR concluded, amongst other matters, that the accountability arrangements for the administration of the Lords were far from clear. Ultimately, the EMR recommended that the House of Lords Commission needed to be put on a statutory basis; there needed to be a clear statement of the governance arrangements; and a Chief Operating Officer should be appointed.

The debate highlighted that peers’ knowledge of the EMR and the general principles of House governance in the Lords was spotty. Indeed, some peers expressed surprise that the Leader of the House did not, in fact, lead the House (a misconception also common among MPs). Lord Davies’ comment summed up the view of many who attended the debate: ‘The governance of the House is … a mystery to me.’ Other contributions were evidence of Yong’s Law: the longer a debate on House governance continues, the greater the possibility that someone will mention catering, and its cost. Significantly, several Peers expressed fears about the imposition of bureaucratic structures upon a House which had traditionally seen itself as self-regulating.

Anyone with a knowledge of previous reviews of Lords governance would be unsurprised by this, or the EMR’s conclusions and recommendations (for a more in-depth discussion of House governance, see Ben Yong, ‘The Governance of Parliament’ in Alex Horne and Gavin Drewry (eds), Parliament and the Law (2nd edn Hart 2018) 75). Indeed, weak House governance and the confusion of parliamentarians has been a persistent issue in both the Commons and the Lords. 

So what are the governance arrangements of the Houses and why does it matter? Each House has an administrative organisation responsible for providing infrastructure and support for parliamentarians so that they can carry out their constitutional functions. This administration sustains and strengthens the House as an institution. The governance arrangements set out who is in control of the administration; and provide a line of accountability for the provision of that administration. 

One part of the governance arrangements is led by members; the other by officials. In the House of Lords, for instance, on the member side, there is the House of Lords Commission, responsible for political and strategic direction for House administration. The Commission is chaired by the Lord Speaker, and consists of (amongst others) the Leaders of the three parties, the Crossbenchers Convenor and the chairs of certain domestic Committees. Below the Commission are a number of domestic committees which scrutinise the internal working of the House (as opposed to select committees, which scrutinise the work of the executive), and support the Commission. On the official side, there is the Management Board, led by the Clerk of the Parliaments, which is responsible for implementation of Commission policies and day-to-day administration.  

Together these groups work to support peers in their work and maintain the institution. But there are problems. A key one is that the Lords House Commission is structured to be insulated against executive interference: it is cross-party in nature, and there is no government majority. Moreover, the Commission usually meets monthly and membership turnover is uneven (in the Commons, it is less than two years for most members). The result of all these factors is that political will is often lacking, or slow to crystalise. The Commission decides by consensus, if it decides at all. And even where the Commission does agree upon a course of action, it may still require agreement from the House itself. In such a political vacuum, the official-led Administration often cleaves to the status quo. 

There is also a lack of clarity about who is in charge, and therefore, who is accountable. In the debate, peers were quite confused about this. But they are right to be. There are multiple actors with claims to represent institutional interests. Even the titles of key actors suggest conflicting jurisdictional claims: there is a Lord Speaker and a Leader of the House—who is leading or speaking for the House? There is the House of Lords Commission, but as already noted, it is not the most strategic of actors. Nor is it the most visible: meetings are held in private with limited minutes often taking several weeks, if not months, to be published. It has no statutory basis. By contrast, the Clerk of Parliaments does have a statutory basis as Corporate Officer of the House (the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992); and in practice is responsible for the day-to-day administration. But as the EMR noted, it is not clear how the Clerk is accountable to the Commission, or indeed, anyone. It is unsurprising there is confusion about who does what in the Lords.

The House of Commons has similar problems. One disgruntled former Clerk of the House gave his book on the House of Commons a harsh subtitle: ‘The Story of an Institution unable to put its own House in order’ (Barnett Cocks Mid-Victorian Masterpiece (1977)). In 2014, an ad hoc committee led by Jack Straw published a review (‘the Straw Review’) on House governance in the Commons. It was the first MP-led review of House governance in over 40 years. The Straw Review found a haphazard set of governance arrangements which lacked clarity; and a Commission which failed to provide adequate direction. 

In a way, the dilemma of governance is the problem of legislatures in condensed form: how can a group of nominally equal members collectively act together when they do not owe each other formal allegiance? With legislation, this problem is usually resolved through party majorities. But where the issue concerns not party, but rather what the institution needs, it is not easy to secure agreement. That is because firstly, it is difficult to turn parliamentarians’ minds to the institution; and secondly, there can be reasonable disagreement about what the institution does need. Without party and a clear set of governance arrangements, inertia and inaction become the obvious default. 

And so the Houses of Parliament are often slow to act on matters outside legislation, because of limited political will and a lack of clarity about who is responsible for what. The 2009 Expenses Scandal was caused in part by a failure of Commons governance to get a grip on the issue. Bullying and harassment of staff by parliamentarians in both the Commons and Lords were also failures of governance. And then there is the ongoing saga of the multibillion Restoration and Renewal (‘R&R’) project of the Palace of Westminster. The Palace is crumbling, and has been for well over a decade. This is in spite of a Joint Committee recommending a full decant from the Palace and sponsor and delivery bodies set up by statute. The Houses continue to dither and delay on timing (on R&R, see the untiring and ongoing work of Dr Alexandra Meakin).

So what? Why should we care? For one thing, the Commissions are primarily responsible for their respective House budgets—which together amounted to just under a billion pounds in 2020-1. This is not small money (although dwarfed by the budgets of the large Whitehall departments: the Home Office budget, for instance, was £16 billion in 2020-1). The governance arrangements can determine what resources are given to parliamentarians and committees. The Houses’ budgets matter, therefore, because they shape the capacity of Parliament to carry out its functions (Colin Lee and I discuss this in a chapter in the forthcoming third edition of Parliament and the Law). 

But more importantly, one reason for executive dominance over the legislature is that Parliament finds it difficult to act coherently: it is hobbled by a lack of clear leadership. Mainstream public lawyers have focused so much on the courts and issues like the location of sovereignty or legislative intent that they neglect the concrete institutional particularities of Parliament. This is not about political versus legal constitutionalism, and prioritising the ‘political’ over the ‘legal’. Rather, this is about recognising that there is more to each branch than its relationship with the others; that each branch has its own internal issues which may impede its effective functioning. Failures of governance can impact on the institution’s performance and ultimately, its legitimacy. ‘Mundane’ issues such as House governance and administration may be ‘constitutional’ matters as much as parliamentary sovereignty or legislative intent. 

My thanks to Arabella Lang, Alexandra Meakin and Patrick O’Brien for their comments on an earlier draft.

Dr Ben Yong, Associate Professor of Public Law and Human Rights, Durham Law School

(Suggested citation: B. Yong, ‘Exposing the hidden wiring of Parliament’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (10th January 2022) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))