An effective parliamentary system is central to the success of our democracy. When Parliament fails, or is perceived to fail, to carry out its key roles, especially in making effective laws and in scrutinising the actions and words of the Executive, this has an impact on the lives of ordinary people. A long-standing area of the Society’s research work thus involves looking at how national parliaments work and how they can be strengthened. Our work particularly explores how parliaments can be strengthened vis-à-vis the Executive, how the role of backbenchers can be enhanced, and how legislatures can better engage with the public they represent.
A Year in the Life: the experiences of newly elected MPs, MSPs, AMs & TDs (2005-06 & 2010-13)
What is it like to make that rapid transition from being a member of the public to being
an elected Member of a legislature? How do they learn the ropes in a new and challenging
political environment? How do they decide what they are going to do and how they are
going to do it – defining for themselves a job without a job description? And do they have the resources to carry out their role effectively? How do they balance the expectations and demands of their constituents, their party, the media and others? What are they hoping to achieve, and how does the reality of the experience match up to their expectations?
This comparative study of newly elected legislators in four different parliaments seeks to answer these and many other questions about the work of our elected representatives.
Select committee reforms (2001 – present)
Select committees are one of the great success stories of the WestminsterParliament. Over the last 30 years they have become the principal mechanism through which the House of Commons holds the executive to account and have influenced the direction of government policy and legislation. Reforms in the past decade, particularly the election of chairs and members, have increased their status and sharpened their operation, and events such as the banking crisis and the phone hacking scandal have given committees and their work a higher profile than ever before.
However, these successes mask underlying questions about the functioning of the select committee system. Many new demands have been placed on committees in recent years, their workload is increasing and public expectation of them has been heightened. But resources are finite and will come under increasing pressure in the future as a result of budget cuts. The operation of select committees will therefore need to be kept under review if they are to continue to make progress.
Measured or Makeshift? Parliamentary scrutiny of the European Union (2013)
Britain’s relationship with Europe may be a hot political topic, but Parliament’s scrutiny of European issues receives much less attention. This collection of essays explores how Westminster considers EU legislation and decisions; the processes and the politics, its successes and shortcomings. It also looks at how a number of parliaments in other European countries tackle the challenge of scrutinising the policy formulation and output of Brussels.
Contributors to the publication include Bill Cash MP (Chairman of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee), Lord Boswell (Chairman of the Lords EU Select Committee), Gisela Stuart MP, Christopher Howarth (Open Europe), Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Robert Broadhurst, Dr Ariella Huff and Dr Julie Smith (University of Cambridge).
Measured or Makeshift? Parliamentary scrutiny of the European Union raises challenging questions about the purpose of European scrutiny such as:
- Do parliamentarians want to be better informed, actually shape decisions or make the government change its mind?
- Should intervention take place at an earlier, more strategic stage than at present?
- Should parliamentarians seek to influence the development of policy and provide an early warning system for government as well as holding it to account at a later stage?
- How do other parliaments scrutinise European issues and are there lessons for the UK?
The essays also suggest a range of ideas for how the scrutiny process at Westminster could be improved.
#futurenews The Communication of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World (2013)
The landscape of print, broadcasting and social media is changing rapidly and how it alters affects Parliament’s ability to communicate and engage with the public it serves. #futurenews The Communication of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World explores these strategic communication trends and how Parliament needs to respond in order to keep pace and ensure it has a voice in the political debate commensurate with its role at the apex of our democracy.
#futurenews examines changing patterns of news consumption, the public’s attitude to news about politics in general, and Parliament in particular, and how and where they access such news. The report finds that, given the UK’s position at the forefront of mobile device and smart-phone ownership, and with one of the highest penetration rates for social networks anywhere in the world, Westminster has a huge opportunity to enhance public knowledge and understanding of its work. But if it gets it wrong, there could be serious consequences for public engagement in the future.
What next for e-petitions? (2012)
This briefing paper examines how the e-petitions system was developed, how it works in practice and the roles played by the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons and the Backbench Business Committee. It also compares the Westminster e-petitions system with those in place in Scotland and Wales and concludes that while there are valuable lessons to be learned from the devolved legislatures, the sheer volume of e-petitions received at Westminster demonstrates the need for a custom-made model to manage petitioner expectations and the engagement process.
It makes a number of recommendations for change, including transferring ownership of and responsibility for the e-petitions system from the government to the House of Commons and the creation of a Petitions Committee to engage with petitioners, moderate the process and provide a single route for consideration of both paper and online petitions.
Parliaments and Public Engagement (2012)
Many legislatures around the world face a common problem: their public are neither knowledgeable about nor particularly satisfied with them as institutions. Yet, unless the public are informed about what parliaments are doing they cannot influence the institution; and unless they can influence the institution they cannot hold it and their elected members fully to account. Over the course of the last decade parliaments have had to grapple with the broad political challenges this problem poses, and in an effort to do so, public engagement programmes have become core business for many legislatures.
Our Parliaments and Public Engagement report highlights examples of innovative and potentially transferable good practice in this fast developing field of parliamentary activity, setting out a broad menu of ideas designed to help parliaments consider what options might be the ‘best fit’ for their own public engagement goals.
House of Lords working practices (2011)
In 2010 the Society supported a cross-party group of peers in their efforts to map out reforms to the procedures and governance of the House of Lords. A discussion paper produced by each of the three groups was published under the Society’s auspices and deposited in the House of Lords Library. A year later, we published a briefing paper drawing together the key reform recommendations to help raise awareness of the proposals to reform working practices and the need for these to be considered by Peers as a matter of urgency.
Parliament 20:20 – Visioning the Future Parliament (2010-2011)
Parliament 2020 was a set of visioning exercises to identify how new and emergent technologies could be used to transform the processes of parliament and its relationship with the public. The project involved a number of discussion sessions (face-to-face focus groups and online consultations) with a range of stakeholders, including MPs, parliamentary officials and the public. It was a joint project between the Hansard Society, the UK Parliament and four other national parliaments. The focus of this research was not on the technology but how it might support new models for democratic engagement and what the barriers to implementing these might be.
Photo credit: Commons Chamber by UK Parliament. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament, under the following terms.