The analysis in this report raises important questions for Parliament. Many of these have their roots in longstanding debates about Parliament’s role, including its relationship with government. Others are prompted by changing circumstances including the move since 2010 away from governments with large Commons majorities, and the shifting expectations of voters. Key questions include:
1. Does Parliament have the people and the money that it needs?
Given that the cost of running Parliament is roughly equivalent to administering a mid-sized government department, the UK public is entitled to ask whether it is providing good value for money – but also whether it has enough money. While MPs and peers interpret their roles differently, there is a defined quantity of legislation to be scrutinised, committees to be sat upon and other parliamentary processes to be administered, and Parliament needs enough people and resources to do so.
2. Does Parliament have the time it needs to undertake all its work?
The UK Parliament already sits for longer than most other legislatures. But the complexity of primary legislation is growing and the amount of secondary legislation has increased. There is concern about whether Parliament has the time it needs properly to scrutinise the 800 pieces of secondary legislation Government says need to be made before the UK leaves the EU. Meanwhile, MPs have to balance their responsibilities in Westminster with pressures from their constituencies – and if they are ministers, with those portfolios too.
3. Are Parliament’s formal powers sufficient?
The refusal of the co-founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and former Special Adviser Dominic Cummings to give evidence to the DCMS committee flagged the practical limitations on select committee powers. The scrutiny conducted by select committees would be strengthened if their right to use their powers to sanction people for refusing to attend or providing misleading testimony was reaffirmed in statute.
4. Are parliamentary procedures working well enough?
Parliamentary procedure should be a simple and clear means of facilitating Parliament’s work, easily understood by parliamentarians and the public. However, there are questions about the need to reform parliamentary procedures that may be misunderstood or seen as arcane by the public, or do not allow for meaningful scrutiny. MPs’ use in this session of little-known procedural devices such as motions for a humble address and a vote ‘to sit in private’ do nothing to encourage public confidence in, and engagement with, Parliament.
5. Is the pace of parliamentary modernisation rapid enough?
The numerous brakes on change in Parliament are – to some extent – deliberate. It is important that our key democratic institution remains stable and predictable. But they can mean that achieving even widely agreed change can be torturous. For example, the Government has not yet found time for the Commons to debate and decide on proposals originally made by the Procedure Committee in 2013 to improve procedures on Private Members’ Bills. These are intended to give a few well-prepared and widely supported bills the best chance of becoming law.
6. Is Parliament doing enough to ensure it is understood by the public?
Parliament is at the centre of Brexit – one of the most significant changes affecting the UK in a generation. Yet basic facts about Parliament’s role – such as its separation from Government – are not well understood by the public. Even some parliamentarians have struggled with the complexity of the procedures that will be involved in Parliament giving effect to the UK’s departure from the EU.
There will be many different views of the right answers to these questions. But the data we have brought together shows that MPs, peers and others with an interest in Parliament should consider what their answers would be. The questions are not going away.