02 May 2019

The Government’s attempt to play for parliamentary time has no guarantee of working, writes Dr Alice Lilly.

The current session of Parliament, which began in 2017 and was expected to end this spring, shows no sign of coming to a close. And the Government, stuck between the realities of Brexit and a lack of a majority, is now set to make it the longest session in modern history.

In June 2017, Theresa May announced a two-year parliamentary session. If the session were to end now then a Queen’s Speech would mark the start of a new session and set out the Government’s legislative agenda for the years ahead. But the Prime Minister is said to be uncertain that she can win a vote on a Queen’s Speech, with disaffected Tory MPs, the DUP and the opposition parties all liable to vote it down. While the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act makes the formal status of any defeat on a Queen’s Speech unclear, they are historically seen as confidence matters.

Instead the Government will reportedly keep the current session going until it feels confident that it can pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

The Government needs to fill parliamentary time to survive

However, with the Government far from confident that it can get its Withdrawal Agreement Bill through Parliament any time soon, and with the five other Brexit bills before Parliament all being held up for various reasons, including by tricky amendments, the Government needs to justify the delay and find ways to fill MPs’ time.

There is nothing to stop the Government from doing this – there have previously been years without Queen’s Speeches – but there are just six bills currently before Parliament. Two of these are waiting for Royal Assent, and the short list (see below) of relatively uncontroversial bills in progress looks very much like the programme of a government at the end of a parliament.

So the Government needs to find more bills to act as a form of legislative filler – hence the reports that No10 is casting about for new, non-contentious bills to introduce that aren’t related to Brexit.

The Government needs non-contentious bills for a different reason

Non-contentious, non-Brexit, bills have been a hallmark of this government. 

With limited political capital and no majority, the Government has been loathe to do anything too contentious – outside of Brexit – that might risk eroding its authority. Gone were Conservative manifesto commitments on grammar schools and adult social care. Instead the 42 non-Brexit bills that have since been passed were – while important in their own right – relatively limited in their scope and ambition, focusing on areas like data protection and smart meters.

But the role of non-contentious non-Brexit bills has now changed. At the start of the Parliament, they allowed the Government to make progress over Brexit without risk or distraction. As the Parliament reaches it end, they are now necessary to allow the Government to continue stalling over Brexit.

Delay does not make avoiding defeat more likely

MPs have already shown that they are willing to use non-Brexit bills to send signals to the Government over its Brexit policy. Last autumn it was forced to delay a vote on its Offensive Weapons Bill when DUP and backbench Conservatives MPs threatened a rebellion. This was ostensibly over a specific clause in the bill relating to firearms, but was interpreted as a show of strength by MPs eager to send a message to the Government about its Brexit plans.

The non-Brexit bills currently before Parliament may be so uncontentious as not to be used in this way – but the Government will need to be careful in planning any filler legislation and be careful not to create opportunities for MPs to take out their Brexit frustrations on the Government.

No matter what type of bill is introduced, and how long the session lasts, the parliamentary arithmetic remains the same: this is a minority government, whose confidence and supply deal with the DUP remains fragile, and where party discipline has broken down.

Unable to make progress on Brexit, fearful of introducing contentious legislation to the Parliament, but determined to delay a Queen’s Speech, it is a government left asking MPs to debate Kew Gardens leases and taxes on sporting testimonials.

 

Bills passed

Bills in progress

Non-Brexit

Air Travel Organisers' Licensing Act 2017 Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill [HL]
Air Travel Organisers' Licensing Act 2017 Mental Capacity (Amendment) Bill [HL]
Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018 National Insurance Contributions (Termination Awards and Sporting Testimonials) Bill
Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 Non-Domestic Rating (Preparation for Digital Services) Bill
Civil Liability Act 2018 Offensive Weapons Bill
Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019  
Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018  
Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Act 2019  
Data Protection Act 2018  
Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018  
European Union (Approvals) Act 2017  
Finance Act 2018  
Finance Act 2019  
Finance (No.2) Act 2017  
Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018  
Ivory Act 2018  
Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act 2018  
Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Act 2018  
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018  
Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Act 2018  
Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Act 2019  
Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Act 2018  
Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017  
Northern Ireland Budget Act 2018  
Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018  
Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2019  
Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Act 2018  
Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act 2018  
Smart Meters Act 2018  
Space Industry Act 2018  
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018  
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2019  
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2017  
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2018  
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Act 2018  
Tenant Fees Act 2019  
Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019  

Brexit

European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 Agriculture Bill
Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act 2018 Fisheries Bill
Healthcare (European Economic Area and Switzerland Arrangements) Act 2019 Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill
Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018 Trade Bill
Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill [HL]
Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018  

 

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