Today a great many students crowded into a rather small lecture theatre for what, as Professor Norton explained, would be the beginning in a trilogy of events this semester concerning the inner workings of Parliament. Our guest in this first instalment was Jessica Mulley, who became Clerk of the European Scrutiny Committee – which reviews all official documentation from the European Union – last September. She has worked in various clerical roles in the House of Commons since 1993.
Mulley was keen to stress the distinction between scrutiny – a collaborative process between legislature and executive – and accountability – more driven and antagonistic. She set out the three key functions of parliament: to scrutinise government, to make laws, and to authorise money. In the latter case it is the executive which possesses the financial initiative (the right to propose collecting and spending public funds), but the legislature must grant permission. She also discussed the ways in which ministers can convey information to parliamentarians. On the one hand is the ministerial statement, made in the house at the minister’s initiative, with answers given to MPs’ questions later. On the other are various forms of enquiry initiated by parliament. Each department has regularly scheduled questioned periods, though the number of oral questions which can be asked is limited. An MP or peer can also ask written questions, on which there is no limit at all, but Mulley said many found the responses disappointing compared to what could be found through a Freedom of Information request.
The category which most concerned today’s talk was the Urgent Question, which is granted at the speaker’s discretion and to which a minister must reply immediately. These were once granted sparingly, but their usage ballooned following the election of John Bercow as speaker in 2009 and then skyrocketed in the parliament just gone – mostly aimed at the Department for Exiting the European Union. As a group we were asked to discuss whether urgent questions were a good device for scrutiny. The general perception appeared to be that they were more about accountability – and perhaps grandstanding by the opposition. A civil servant from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy was in attendance, and he told us that the short-notice nature of Urgent Questions often meant that the minister could not be properly briefed on the subject before going to the dispatch box, with the result that the answer would be of poor quality. He also said that the questions sometimes covered topics outside of the department’s remit.
At was at this point that I made an intervention, relaying a complaint made by an ex-minister at an Institute for Government conference that the rise in urgent questions was an obstacle to reducing the number of ministers appointed, as departments found they always needed someone to be available at short notice. Mulley agreed that modern ministries were overlarge, but dismissed Urgent Questions as a cause.
Our next segment concerned Prime Minister’s Questions. Mulley noted that big money was made by selling broadcast licences for the occasion around the world. She asserted that PMQs were not a good form of scrutiny, because the premier does not have advance notice for the majority of the questions and so must formulate responses on the spot. This changed a little when Jeremy Corbyn took to fielding questions from members of the public on Twitter, for that was an open platform and so the government could read them. It was noted, however, that nearly all prime ministers in living memory spoke highly of the ritual, for it kept them fully briefed on the workings of government. With no advance warning of which topics would be brought up, they would have to make sure they went to the chamber each week with a complete knowledge of every nook and cranny of the state as it was at that moment.
At this point our congregation rose and went to the upper floor where a buffet table had been prepared. After the disappointments of last month’s events I was pleased to see that the food was plentiful this time. In addition to the usual chocolate brownie squares, halved sausage rolls and triangular sandwich pieces there was a plate of what looked like miniature fruit crumbles, which was new for me.
In the second half we returned to the cramped lecture hall to ask questions of our own. Mulley cited the select committees as the best form of parliamentary scrutiny, due to their evidence-based inquiry work and their operational autonomy. She recalled her horror at seeing an early version of the withdrawal agreement which would have given statutory duties to the committees, thus depriving them of the ability to control their own agenda. She said that she constantly feared receiving the call that The Queen had died, knowing the administrative burden entailed by a demise of the crown.
An attendee asked about the growing clamour in various political circles for Britain to adopt a written constitution. She said words to the effect of “We have a written constitution. What we don’t have is one single document with paragraph numbers.” and was unconvinced that the creation of such a document would, in and of itself, have any tangible benefit. This response was in tune with comments that Norton has made in recent weeks.
Finally she was asked what could be done to eliminate bullying in the Commons. Mulley said that there was a fundamental power disparity in the House between elected members and everyone else, but said that to take the privileges of MPs away would be to undermine democracy and therefore the only workable solution was to have politicians with the integrity not to abuse their position. She did however, acknowledge that relations between officials themselves were very hierarchical and noted that this was often missed by the press.