Rishi Sunak needs to realise his new pledge to allow proper scrutiny of long-term policy decisions, argues Hannah White
On 19 September, at the Institute for Government, Liz Truss gave her first major domestic speech since leaving office – marking the one year anniversary of her disastrous mini-budget. The speech, followed by a 45 minute Q&A about her approach to economics and government, exposed the former prime minister to a greater level of public scrutiny than she was ever subjected to in her 49 days in office. One big take away from the event was the importance of proper scrutiny of government policy. But just a few days’ later, Rishi Sunak’s net zero announcement demonstrated his failure to learn from the Truss premiership.
Sunak has failed to learn from his predecessors’ mistakes over scrutiny
The prime minister’s hastily brought forward speech on net zero, which outlined a weakening of ambition on his government’s ask of the public, both sidelined institutions designed to promote long-term policy making (in this case the Climate Change Committee) and avoided giving parliament a proper opportunity to debate a major political decision.
If Sunak overlooked the significance of Truss’s failure to engage parliamentarians in major policy decisions – she gave MPs just half a day to debate her mini-budget before they left for recess – then the prime minister could instead have learned from Theresa May's approach. She made no effort to debate and build consensus in parliament around her Brexit deal, then repeatedly failed to get it signed off by warring MPs. And she has more recently been subject to retrospective criticism for her original decision to sign the UK up to the 2050 net zero target without allowing for any substantive debate, in the dying days of her premiership.
Sunak’s rhetoric did not match his actions
Sunak’s failure to allow for parliamentary scrutiny was particularly striking given the grandiose way in which he framed his policy shift. Claiming he wanted to move to “a wholly new kind of politics” he argued that “in a democracy, we must also be able to scrutinise and debate [policy] changes, many of which are hidden in plain sight – in a realistic manner.” But his speech and press conference were the opposite of the measured, long-term debate he said he wanted. Sunak announced a series of short term changes – frustrating industry’s hopes for policy certainty – and declared a series of ‘reversals’ that had never been stated government policy – a partisan approach unlikely to create the conditions for serious, evidence-based debate.
The fact that he did so in a speech while the House of Commons was in recess – and not due to return for over three weeks – heightened the dissonance between his words and his actions. Until MPs come back from the conference recess, scrutiny of Sunak’s new policy will be limited to debate on social and traditional media – subject to hot takes and comment pieces (like this one) rather than the sustained scrutiny that can happen via parliamentary questions and in select committee hearings. This was one of the problems experienced by Truss, who lost control of the debate which exploded after the mini-budget partly because it was happening in the media and on Whatsapp groups rather than within the boundaries of parliamentary process.
Of course, parliamentarians don’t always step up to the challenge of scrutinising government policy when given the chance. Sunak was right to highlight the limited attention that parliament has hitherto paid to net zero questions, noting the cursory scrutiny that MPs have exercised over the carbon budgets produced by the Climate Change Committee, and promising that “when Parliament votes on carbon budgets in the future, I want to see it consider the plans to meet that budget, at the same time.”
The prime minister needs to invest in parliamentary scrutiny
This is a sensible aspiration. But if Sunak wants to shift the way the UK tackles hard policy choices, and give parliamentarians more say over tricky decisions like how to meet net zero, his government will have to change the way it approaches parliamentary scrutiny. First it must adhere to the convention that policy announcements are made first before parliament – which has severely slipped in recent years, much to the chagrin of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle.
But, while important, simply announcing policies in parliament is not enough. Policies like the carbon budgets – involving technical detail, economic analysis and future forecasting – are tricky for parliamentarians to get to grips with, and scrutiny of financial matters in the Commons is notoriously poor. MPs often show little interest in scrutinising complex, technical matters. But this is not inevitable. The government needs to ensure that parliamentarians have the time, information and support they need to conduct meaningful scrutiny – in committees as well as on the floor of the House. This means supporting enhanced resourcing for select committees, making pre-legislative scrutiny the norm rather than the exception (particularly for complex and controversial legislation) and allowing time for a select committee stage in the passage of legislation, as the IfG has argued elsewhere.
This is not the natural inclination of most ministers – who tend instead to focus on how quickly they can get their measures over the hurdle of parliamentary scrutiny. But if Sunak wants to use parliament to explore the trade-offs around net zero and other tricky policy challenges – and he is right to see this as a means to engage the public in the difficult decisions facing politicians – he will need to invest in scrutiny. This is especially important for an issue like net zero which is not just technical but also highly political in the trade-offs it creates – between current and future generations and the global North and South, as well as different groups within the UK population. This is where participative techniques can play a role: the citizens’ assembly on climate change sponsored by six select committees in 2020 was an attempt to understand the public’s views on climate adaptation. But parliament needs to do more work to ensure such exercises feed back in the wider work of MPs and peers, including their scrutiny of government, and to support and normalise their use by parliamentarians.
Sunak’s speech demonstrates that he sees net zero as a potential ‘wedge’ issue between Labour and the Conservatives at the next general election. But he needs to listen to his own rhetoric and raise his sights beyond short-term party-political point scoring. Net zero is not just an emerging partisan dividing line. The formalisation of groups of backbench Conservative MPs – such as the Conservative Environment Network and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group – illustrates the important divisions which exist within the Conservative Party over how to reach the UK’s climate goals.
Sunak should see the benefit of using parliament as a tool to manage divisions within his own party. These reflect the uncertainties of the UK public – which is still waiting for the sort of grown-up debate on net zero which the prime minister has advocated in theory but is yet to foster in practice. Unlike Truss, proper scrutiny of Sunak’s decisions should not begin only once he has left office.