Summary

Our Parliamentary Monitor report, the first in an annual series, shows what the House of Commons and House of Lords have done in the 12 months since the June 2017 election.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) has focused public attention on the work of the country’s elected – and unelected – representatives. Parliament must take the key decisions required to give effect to Brexit and ‘take back control’ of areas of government previously delegated to the EU. The Government’s loss of its Commons majority in the 2017 election has increased the influence of backbenchers and excited the media’s interest in Parliament’s role.

Parliament has a many-sided role in the UK’s system of democratic government. The main facets of this role include:

  • representing constituents
  • passing legislation
  • agreeing government proposals for taxation and expenditure
  • holding government to account
  • facilitating national debate.

In this report we explore how Parliament has spent its time and taxpayers’ money in the year from the June 2017 State Opening of Parliament. We explain the key activities undertaken by MPs and peers, what they are trying to achieve and what affects whether or not they are successful. These factors include broad historical and constitutional shifts in the relationship between government and Parliament, and the raw political calculations driven by each party’s strength in the House of Commons.

There are limits to what data can tell us about Parliament. Many elements of its role – including its value as an institution of democracy – cannot be measured. It does not generally make sense to talk about Parliament as a whole ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’. Think of the prospect that Parliament might refuse to pass a Brexit deal reached between the Government and the EU; in some people’s eyes, that would constitute success in its role of holding the Government to account, but in others’, resounding failure in delivering the Government’s policy programme.

All the same, it is possible to say how parliamentary processes – such as the scrutiny of secondary legislation, or the work of select committees – are working, and to judge whether they are fulfilling their purpose.

This report should help people understand how Parliament is working, help parliamentarians in proving their value to the public they represent, and show where reform is needed. We have found that:

The cost of running Parliament was £550.8m in 2017/18

  • The total cost of running the UK Parliament – which scrutinises the whole of central and local government – is equivalent to administering a mid-sized government department (Chapter 1).

The June 2017 election created a six-month gap in Parliament’s scrutiny

  • Delays in the re-establishment of Commons committees following the election meant that the Government avoided routine scrutiny and having to respond to recommendations made by committees in the last Parliament (Chapter 5).

Lack of a Commons majority has heavily constrained the Government in making laws

  • 19 government bills became law – broadly in line with previous sessions – but the policy objectives of those bills have been unusually limited for the first session of a new Parliament.
  • In the calendar year from the State Opening of Parliament, the Government avoided all but one defeat in the Commons by not introducing any flagship non-Brexit legislation that might run into difficulties (Chapter 3).

Brexit has consumed Parliament’s time

  • One in eight select committee inquiries have focused on Brexit (Chapter 5).
  • The EU Withdrawal Bill took nearly a year and more than 273 hours of debate to become law. Meanwhile, other Brexit-related legislation has been slowed down by political conflict over the form of Brexit (Chapter 3).
  • The Government used the EU Withdrawal Act to give itself wide-ranging secondary legislation-making powers, including ‘Henry VIII powers’. It has said it plans to use these to pass at least 800 pieces of secondary legislation before exit day. The breadth and scope of these powers caused significant debate in Parliament, and the shift in the balance of power from the legislature to the executive that they represent remains a source of concern (Chapter 4).

Concerns are rising about whether Parliament’s procedures are working well enough

  • Debate over the secondary legislation-making powers used by the Government has highlighted longstanding concerns about Parliament’s processes for scrutinising secondary legislation. This led to the creation of another new scrutiny committee in the Commons – the European Statutory Instruments Committee (Chapter 4).
  • Only a handful of the 236 backbench bills introduced in the year from State Opening will become law. The rejection of a Private Member’s Bill on ‘upskirting’ brought criticism from MPs and media, as did the breaking of a ‘pairing’ arrangement for crucial votes on the Trade Bill by a Conservative MP. Such events raise 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 (Chapters 2 and 6).

Parliament has been very active

  • MPs and peers in the UK Parliament have sat for more days than many other legislatures around the world (Chapter 2).
  • In the wake of the election – as after previous elections – there has been a considerable increase in the number of parliamentary questions asked by MPs, with over 55,000 tabled (Chapter 6).
  • Reforms to Parliament’s approach to petitions, urgent questions and emergency debates have increased the topicality of Parliament’s work (Chapter 6).
  • Some select committees have had high-profile impact, such as the Home Affairs Committee’s work on the Windrush scandal (Chapter 5).

Conclusion

Our analysis raises wider questions about Parliament which we set out at the end of this report. Does it have the people and the money that it needs to do its job? Does it have the time it requires to undertake all its work? Are its formal powers sufficient (for example, those of select committees to call witnesses)? Are its procedures working as intended? Is it modernising rapidly enough and doing enough to ensure it is understood by the public it represents?

These questions need to be considered urgently by parliamentarians, by government and by all those with an interest in supporting Parliament as an institution. The answers will shape Parliament’s ability to fulfil its multi-faceted role.