Control of business in the Commons

Writing for the Constitution Unit at University College London, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover report on their research into control of time and scheduling of business in the House of Commons.  

The Commons is often described as a parliamentary chamber dominated by the executive. The authors trace this to Standing Order no. 14, which reads:  

Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting. 

While exceptions do exist to Government control, such as opposition day debates and backbench business, the timings of these are decided by ministers. In addition, the number of these days does not increase with the length of the session. The authors use the example of the unusually long 2017–19 session, which ran for more than two years with no guarantee of an increase in opposition or backbench business.  

The Government also has control over the timings of sittings and sessions. It controls recess dates, the timing of prorogation, and whether MPs are recalled. The authors use the legally challenged attempt at prorogation in autumn 2019 as an example of a controversial use of these executive powers.  

Concluding, the authors present their recommendations for limiting executive dominance over parliamentary scheduling, to better reflect the make-up of parliament. These include:  

  • standing order no. 14 being changed to reflect that parliamentary time belongs to the parliamentary majority; 
  • giving the chamber itself control over its agenda, through the weekly agenda being presented as an amendable motion; and 
  • an automatic mechanism for increased allocations of non-government business in longer parliamentary sessions.  

Read the full article: Meg Russell and Daniel Gover, ‘Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time’Constitution Unit, 19 January 2021 

Referendums and the national conversation  

Referendums have played a vital role in shaping politics over the last decade. Writing for the Constitution Society’s blog, Joseph Ward considers the current place of referendums in the national conversation. He argues that, despite increased attempts to standardise and control their use, referendums remain the preserve of the executive and are inevitably used to bolster the political positions of those who call for them. He cites the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s 2017 report on the 2016 EU referendum, which called the vote a “bluff-call” from then prime minister David Cameron.  

To examine this point further, Ward looks back to the 1970s, and three referendums in particular:  

  • the 1973 border poll in Northern Ireland; 
  • the 1975 European Communities referendumand  
  • the 1979 post-legislative referendums on the Callaghan government’s devolution proposals 

He argues that the same questions about legitimacy that arose after the 2016 Brexit referendum also arose after each of the 1970s polls. He states that any lessons learnt seem to be “the exceptionrather than the rule”, and that the organisation of these votes also tended to be political.   

Ward considers whether a Royal Commission would allow the rules around referendum to be formalised. He ultimately concludes that this could be a “valiant attempt” to solve the controversy, but that the “referendum predicament is a symptom of a more deep-seated institutional malaise within the British state.” 

Read the full article: Joseph Ward, ‘The referendum and the ‘rules of the game’’, The Constitution Society5 February 2021