Is Rishi Sunak transparent or naïve in promising a government of integrity, professionalism and accountability? His re-appointment of Suella Braverman has been widely condemned but shadow home affairs minister, Yvette Cooper neatly summed up a more general problem with the government when she slammed the minister for “Running away from accountability”.
Conservative governments of the past 12 years have shown little respect for representative parliamentary democracy. Instead, they have undermined MPs’ capacity to hold them to account: the primary duty of parliament.
How have Conservative governments undermined democracy?
Conservative governments have minimised the number of days that the House of Commons has sat. Twenty weeks is not a record to brag about. Cutting time available for proper scrutiny of legislation is cynical and erodes the power of MPs to hold government accountable.
During the first and second Covid waves, the leader of the House rejected online parliamentary scrutiny of government on somewhat specious, health and safety grounds. Suspending the house, extending ‘recess’ over the summer while a new leader of the party was selected, even swearing an oath to King Charles III, cut the time for MPs to do what they are paid to do: hold the government to account.
Similarly, prime minister’s question time (PMQs) thrives on time-wasting answers to planted, egregious Conservative MPs’ ‘questions’, and evasive dissing of Opposition questions. PMQs is often no more than a charade in a chamber which used to boast that it was the mother of parliamentary democracy.
Yet the chief purpose of an elected parliament is to contain any executive tempted to abuse power and ignore the public interest. The evidence of the government ignoring the public interest is all around us, from the contentious response to supplying sub-standard PPE, underfunding the NHS, ignoring sewage in our waterways, and perpetuating Brexit lies. Indeed, the Hansard Society’s annual surveys of political engagement show the public to be increasingly disengaged and disillusioned with the government.
How has it come to this?
The government appears to be getting away with whatever it wants to do because parliament hasn’t been in a position to stop it.
Obviously, it is hard for MPs to prevent a government with a big, supine majority pushing through whatever bills it wishes. Worse, the system of ‘whipping MPs’ – getting them to vote as a block for what their party wants – means they rarely vote according to their conscience. So much for integrity and professionalism when faced with critical issues.
Recently, on Parliament Live we saw that Labour MP Chris Bryant, chair of the privileges committee, had a valid point in querying Conservative MPs seemingly being encouraged roughly to go through a particular door in the lobbies – the MPs’ arcane way of voting in the 21st century. This revealed more than a crack in the decline of parliamentary democracy.
What is the purpose of parliament?
According to the Hansard Society:
“A core function of Parliament is the holding of government to account through effective scrutiny, including of policy-making and implementation, and the use of public money. At Westminster, scrutiny mechanisms include parliamentary questions and select committees.”
Parliament is supposed to be able to ensure that governments behave within limits and abide by rules produced and honoured by those having the people’s confidence.
Parliament is supposed to hold government to account; to ‘control the executive’; facilitate law-making by initiating, voting on and passing legislation; and act as the voice of the people, seeking and obtaining information to convey to the electorate, and getting informative answers from government to legitimate questions, including about ministerial appointments, ‘mistakes’, and the content of draft legislation.
When, for whatever reason, it fails to do so, the whole legitimacy of the polity is brought into question. That’s why the charge against the succession of prime ministers since the summer is that the government is out of control. A charge leading to the UK being ridiculed at home and abroad.
The impression of Conservative governments out of control is boosted both by their behaviour and recent legislation. When parliament is denied time to scrutinise draft legislation effectively, government escapes control and poor legislation gets adopted. This includes the steps on stricter immigration controls estimated by the Office for Budget Responsibility to cost the economy some £12bn in terms of lost growth; the bill to negate the Northern Ireland protocol; and, most recently, the Retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill.
Retained EU law bill
To minimise disruption owing to Brexit in 2016, the UK converted EU law into domestic law and called it retained EU law. Now the latest leader of the Conservative government perversely wants to remove all traces of EU law by erasing some 2,400 pieces covering workers’ rights, the environment and much more that UK governments have shaped and adopted to improve our lives since 1973. Sunak wants the lot gone by June 2026, and preferably wants the bill passed this year.
The Commons has just called for written evidence to be submitted as soon as possible (you can do so by emailing [email protected]).
The REUL is unnecessary. As the Welsh Counsel General says, the bill could give UK ministers “unfettered authority” to legislate in devolved areas, and lower standards. It will inflict myriad administrative costs; waste years of MPs’ scrutiny time; create uncertainty when stability is needed; and echo the dogma of the Conservative governments’ hardliners. It does not correspond to any known pragmatic need. And parliament cannot, it seems, unpick or stop one of the most destructive bills of all time that clearly is not in the UK’s interest.
That, the unrepresentativeness of an elite, entitled cabinet and the braying from the banks of the parliamentary parties makes the Commons look more like the football terraces of yesteryear with hooligans shouting insults at each other. It’s hard to believe that this equates to parliamentary democracy in 2022. It’s harder to accept that this is how a government should behave in the 21st century. Are either fit for purpose?