In last week's pre-election flurry to rush through legislation before Parliament dissolved, few noticed a crucial reform measure being quietly dropped. Yet this development raises serious questions not only about government's respect for Parliament (which is common enough), but actually about the integrity of Parliament, and certainly the integrity of some of those involved.
The measure in question was the creation of a "Backbench Business Committee", to give backbenchers more power over scheduling business in the Commons chamber. The crucial factor, marking this out from the normal grumblings about lack of reform, is that the Commons itself voted for this measure only weeks ago, and indeed did so unanimously. On 4 March it passed a motion to establish a Backbench Business Committee "in time for the start of the next Parliament". And no, this did not sneak through through some antiquated procedural trick while nobody was looking: it followed lengthy debate, with over 300 MPs present in the chamber.
The proposal came from a committee that Gordon Brown himself established, under the chairmanship of Labour MP Tony Wright. Brown explicitly asked the committee to propose ways for backbenchers to be given more power over scheduling non-government business, and this is what it did. The Prime Minister welcomed its conclusions. But thereafter MPs struggled to get progress on the reforms. Now Brown's deputy, Leader of the House Harriet Harman, appears to have colluded in getting them blocked.
The Wright committee reported last November, but months of pressure was necessary before government made time available to debate its report. When this debate finally came, Harman insisted on using a bizarre arrangement whereby proposals could be killed off by the objection of a single MP. Further pressure was therefore needed to extract a second debate. This occurred on 4 March, and the proposal was finally agreed: against Harman's advice, and following defeat of a Conservative frontbench amendment that would have watered it down. It was a rare and genuine victory for backbenchers of all parties against the frontbench machines.
After the Commons had spoken with such a clear voice, Harman appeared to accept that reform must follow. All that remained was for the Commons to pass a 'standing order' putting it into effect, and actually create the Backbench Business Committee "in time for the start of the next Parliament". Repeatedly Harman assured MPs that this would happen, for example on 11 March stating that:
My mandate is the will of the House as expressed in the resolutions. We need Standing Orders to give effect to them - nothing less. There is no suggestion that we should try to do anything less than what the House agreed to in the resolutions, because that would not be right. ... I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election.
There were many similar pronouncements on different occasions. Yet on Wednesday 7 April, a month after the vote and the day after the election was called, Harman set out the final business for the Commons. This allowed no time to debate the promised standing order, which by then was on the order paper. She protested that:
I do not want to take time away from any of the Bills that need to reach the stage of Royal Assent by providing time for the implementation of standing orders that will not apply until the next Parliament
This was an astonishing U-turn, which blatantly contradicted her previous pronouncements, but more importantly contradicted a unanimous decision of the House. In her defence Harman claimed two justifications: first a shortage of time; and second that the standing order could be passed immediately, without debate, if only some members had not tabled amendments to it. She claimed that she "consider[ed] it wrong for hon. Members who lost the vote on the substantive motion to obstruct the clear will of the House by objecting to the new standing orders”, suggesting that "they should withdraw the amendments". She thus tried hard to maintain her appearance as the reformers' friend.
But in an ill-tempered debate that followed, both of these justifications were shown to be hollow. On the first, the lack of time, a Conservative backbencher stood up and offered to withdraw 15 amendments to a government Bill in order to create time for the needed debate, which he declared "much more important" than his amendments. Harman remained silent in response to this offer. The greatest shock came when Tony Wright stood up and reported that he had written to those MPs who had moved amendments to the standing order, asking them to withdraw. One had already done so. But another, who just happened to be former Labour Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, had responded by referring his enquiry to the Labour whips' office. As Wright indicated, this was clear evidence that the objections were actually being engineered by the Labour whips. The usually even-tempered Wright concluded that this was "outrageous", the House was "being treated with contempt", and Harman's credibility was "on the line". Yet no change was made to the agenda, and the Commons broke up without the reform having been put in place.
Was this cock up or conspiracy? It looks suspiciously like the latter. But even if Harman was not in league with Armstrong and the Labour whips, she could have stopped them. Former reforming Leaders of the House, such as Robin Cook or Jack Straw, would not have allowed themselves to be forced into such a humiliating U-turn. And they certainly would have stood up to the whips if necessary to ensure that a clear decision of the Commons was respected.
At one level this is anorakish stuff. But it also cuts to the heart of our democracy. It certainly cuts to the heart of what the Wright Committee was all about, and what Gordon Brown asked it to do: which was to rein back government’s stranglehold over parliament's agenda. It appears that government power may have been used in a blatant and cynical way to block reform precisely aimed at limiting that government power. It is in clear conflict with democratic principle that a small coterie of whips and former whips, with or without ministers’ consent, should be able to block a unanimous decision of the Commons over its own procedures.
Harriet Harman claimed on 7 April that this decision didn't matter because the new parliament can simply implement the standing order immediately it convenes. It would be nice, but naively optimistic given recent events, to take her at her word. If we are to believe the integrity of Labour on this question, no less than an announcement by Gordon Brown that he will press this reform through - should he have the chance after the election - will now suffice.
On the Conservative side Harman's shadow, Sir George Young, has indicated (in an interview on Newsnight on 7 April, but not in the House of Commons) that his party will honour reform within a month of the election, should it enter government. The commitment to a Backbench Business Committee is in the Conservative manifesto. But while Young himself may believe in the reform, he too could be undermined in implementing it by his whips. Again only David Cameron has the authority to ensure for certain that the Commons' decision is honoured by his party should it win. He, like Brown, has previously spoken enthusiastically about these reforms. But he must assure us unreservedly that his henchmen will not be allowed to block them.
In summary, given the events of last week, voters now need assurance through public commitments by all three party leaders that the will of the Commons will be respected – meaning that the necessary standing order will be put to the vote immediately when Parliament returns. Nothing less can now be trusted. All three men claim loudly in this election to support other key democratic reforms. But if they do not speak out for this one we must question their genuine commitment, and certainly their commitment to a democratic House of Commons.
Meg Russell is Senior Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit. This article is cross-published from the Constitution Unit website.
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