Today the trilogy of parliamentary outreach lectures concluded with the Clerk of Legislation. Mr Smyth’s spoken words were more difficult than his predecessors’ to compile into a textual summary, but unlike them he supplied lavish visual aids, including four bills and five diagrams.
Smyth noted that his presentation would have been very different four years ago, the referendum having disrupted British politics in almost every way imaginable. Entering the civil service fast stream in 1977 he was eye witness to the decline of James Callaghan and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. He saw the transformation of Tony Blair from a poll-chaser whose view was never known until he had checked with the focus group to a conviction politician who prayed on his knees beside George Bush. Having been born in Northern Ireland he has personal cause to be passionate about the delivery of peaceful democracy. One of his mottoes is “We have to work for people who voted for Section 28 and for people who voted against it.”
There was a brief detour concerning English Votes for English Laws. Smyth said that these were almost pointless in legislative terms – as it is hard to find any concrete example of a bill passing or failing that would have been different had EVEL not been there – but a great political success, for it showed that the government had addressed the West Lothian Question. Notably, no opposition party had made any serious effort to overturn it.
We were shown a diagram of the Chamber Business Team in the Public and Private Bill Office. Smyth was pleased to have avoided the traditional hierarchical display but then pointed out that his office was obviously the largest. That however, would soon change with the parliamentary restoration & renewal process, resulting in a more open-plan approach. Acknowledging that the thirteen-strong team was quite small in proportion to a house of 650 members, Smyth stressed that the team did not carry through every bill that was proposed, nor did they actually write legislation.
Our guest wryly pointed out that three parliaments had dissolved since the passage of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, and that only one of them had run for the full fixed term. He set out the major achievements of the last parliament during the extremely long 2017-19 session: The European Union (Withdrawal) Act, other Brexit-related acts (haulage, healthcare, nuclear safeguards, taxation of cross-border trade, sanctions, et al), the Data Protection Act, various other acts (Offensive Weapons, Smart Meters, Tenant Fees, Ivory), and the aforementioned Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration & Renewal) Act. That last one has an unusual distinction of being given royal assent twice.
He also showed us some examples of the many private members’ bills which were passed, though noted that some were actually written by the government – the giveaway being that the explanatory notes credit the Home Office. Smyth said that since the Roy Jenkins era governments had shied away from private member space and in recent times were more likely to give up their own schedule slots.
Turning back to Brexit, we were told of change in the usage of emergency debates were only for discussion, and would not result in a consequential vote on any substantive motion. This changed on 3rd September when Yvette Cooper secured such a debate to change the House’s procedures so that her private bill could be given precedence in the timetabling, thus subverting the normal working of parliament in several ways. The debate was granted at the discretion of John Bercow, the recently-retired speaker. His conduct, particularly in his last few months, generated a lot of controversy. Smyth said simply that he had responded to the emergence of an anti-government majority, or “The Rebel Alliance” as some were calling it. Smyth joked that whereas previously his department had mapped every outcome possible, in future they would also have to map some which were not.
The Prime Minister held several votes in the House of Commons on a motion for a snap general election. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act required that the motion be endorsed by two thirds of the total membership (434 out of 650) – a bar which was repeatedly missed. Ultimately the 57th parliament was dissolved through a new piece of legislation, whose passage does not have the super-majority requirement. Smyth described the Early Parliamentary General Election Act being “passed in haste” with many MPs trying to tag on amendments which would have invoked more fundamental issues (such as the extent of the franchise and campaign spending) than were meant to be within the scope of the bill.
Included in today’s presentation was a case study about Northern Ireland. The province’s domestic issues are normally governed by a devolved administration based in Stormont, but in early 2017 a financial scandal caused a snap election from which a new executive has still yet to emerge. That meant political control reverted to Westminster, where laws were recently passed to bring major areas of Northern Ireland’s social policy in line with both Ireland and Great Britain despite the objections of some MLAs. Just before dissolution, the outgoing parliament passed the very important Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act. Assent was given in the Lords at the very end of its last sitting day.
Discussion also turned to a raft of “makeweight” bills introduced by the government in a desperate attempt to retain primacy in parliament. The most derided was the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill – quite literally the bottom of the barrel.
After lunch was another general question session. I have attempted a summary below:
How much has Brexit changed the legislative process? Hugely. We have to get used to EU-retained law. This could become difficult in the long term as the law was passed on the assumption that we would still be in the European Union, so domestic and continental courts are liable to interpret the spirit of the law differently. A lot of the change has been caused by the hung parliament. If the next government has a big majority then things may return to normal.
Is there a problem with negative resolution procedures for secondary legislation in terms of scrutiny and oversight? Not really. Humdrum official-level scrutiny is more significant.
Was it right to call the last parliament a “zombie” given it actually achieved a lot? It was felt that parliament was stuck over Brexit. There were many achievements early in the session, but later on they stalled.
With an early sitting before Christmas is there time to pass the withdrawal agreement? The new parliament will assemble on Tuesday 17th December. The Queen will give her speech on Thursday 19th. Parliament could pass the second reading and the programme motion. It might be hard to get a new Chairman of Ways & Means elected in time. Whatever is passed must also be agreed by the European Parliament.
How will the legislative process change after Brexit? Britain will have to make a lot more decisions about agriculture & fisheries that would once have been made by the European Union. There was a process of grieving after the referendum. We’ve spent our entire working lives thinking Britain would always be in the European Community. Future generations will have a much greater scope to make their own policy decisions.