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A government without scrutiny is more likely to make mistakes

Boris Johnson’s government will make more mistakes and ultimately deliver less effective policies in the absence of parliamentary scrutiny

Dr Hannah White says that an absence of parliamentary scrutiny at this crucial time is likely to mean Boris Johnson’s government will make more mistakes and ultimately deliver less effective policies.

As ministers focus on implementing one of the most complex and wide-ranging policies in recent decades – the UK’s departure from the EU – an absence of scrutiny might appear a welcome luxury. However, it is one that the government can ill-afford.

In ‘exit-interviews’ to the Institute’s Ministers Reflect project, several former ministers noted that the discipline of being required to explain yourself to Parliament – what you are trying to achieve and how you plan to go about it – can reveal crucial problems, highlight unforeseen consequences and help avoid far greater slip-ups further down the road. Even the process of preparing for a select committee appearance can illuminate flaws in policies, well before a minister gets near a committee room.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are focused on internal politics rather than scrutiny

The current dearth of scrutiny stems in large part from the general election and subsequent processes for making political appointments across a range of areas.

The election not only brought in 140 completely new MPs, who will take time to find their feet in Westminster, but it also created leadership vacancies for both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. With contests underway to replace Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, the two parties are effectively being led by interim leaders. As Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, told the Institute for Government, one of the key roles for the opposition should be questioning the government – in debates, in departmental questions and, in particular, in weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. The current leaders and shadow cabinet members will continue to perform these duties. But Johnson and his team will know that the opposition – in particular the Labour Party – has its eyes on other matters.

This was evident last week when a Parliamentary Labour Party leadership husting was held at the same time that MPs were meant to be debating the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This meant that most Labour MPs were absent from the Commons chamber, so scrutiny of a vital constitutional statute collapsed early due to a lack of MPs wanting to speak. Ironically one of the important issues that MPs could have scrutinised in that debate was the limited provision made by the bill for parliamentary scrutiny of future international negotiations. 

Commons select committee scrutiny may not happen until March

Following any election, Parliament has to re-establish its select committees – the forum for a great deal of ministerial scrutiny. Lords committees – including the European Union and Constitution committees – have rushed to re-establish themselves in order to conduct scrutiny of the government before the UK's scheduled depaerture from the EU, but Commons committees are unlikely to meet much before the beginning of March. 

Boris Johnson’s well-telegraphed plans to undertake a significant Cabinet reshuffle (with accompanying changes to the departmental structure of Whitehall) after 31 January have delayed the establishment of Commons select committees – because Commons committees always mirror the departments they scrutinise. The government has asked MPs to agree to delay elections of select committee chairs to allow time for the restructuring of Whitehall departments to take place. The means a significant gap in Commons committee scrutiny unless opposition parties decide to expend political capital pressing for greater speed.

The current timetable also means any meeting of the important Liaison Committee of select committee chairs is unlikely before Easter. As a result, the prime minister won’t have given evidence to that committee at all during the nine months since he moved into 10 Downing Street in July 2019.

Scrutiny should matter to government – it can help avoid policy failure

Some in government will be sighing with relief at the prospect of an easier time ahead in Parliament, cushioned by a substantial majority. But while getting votes through in the chamber will be less fraught, the majority doesn’t mean ministers have an easy ride in committees.

While committee appearances can carry significant risk for ministers – and even be career-ending, as Amber Rudd found – the government should not overlook the positive contribution that committee inquiries can make to its business. Committees can provide an alternative source of evidence and analysis, challenging the ‘groupthink’ that can pervade government thinking on a policy area. Sometimes committees can spot important but relatively neglected policy areas and can help generate ideas about how government might tackle them or create the consensus needed to take good ideas forward.

Any new government wants to produce an avalanche of new announcements, consultations and legislation, to prove that it is hitting the ground running. Getting parliamentary scrutiny set up so its policies and implementation plans can be articulated in detail, tested and tweaked should be an equal priority.

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