Corbyn's 'Save Our Steel' e-petition shows why the rules governing the recall of Parliament need to change

31 Mar 2016
The Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot
The Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot

In a time of crisis Parliament is hamstrung if it is in recess. MPs are not masters of their own House because, in accordance with House of Commons Standing Order 13, only government ministers - in reality the Prime Minister - can request a recall of Parliament.

Dr Ruth Fox, Director , Hansard Society
Director , Hansard Society

Dr Ruth Fox

Dr Ruth Fox
Director , Hansard Society

Ruth is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of the Society and leads its research programme. She has appeared before more than a dozen parliamentary select committees and inquiries, and regularly contributes to a wide range of current affairs programmes on radio and television, commentating on parliamentary process and political reform.

In 2012 she served as adviser to the independent Commission on Political and Democratic Reform in Gibraltar, and in 2013 as an independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee Review Group. Prior to joining the Society in 2008, she was head of research and communications for a Labour MP and Minister and ran his general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005 in a key marginal constituency.

In 2004 she worked for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the battleground state of Florida. In 1999-2001 she worked as a Client Manager and historical adviser at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), after being awarded a PhD in political history (on the electoral strategy and philosophy of the Liberal Party 1970-1983) from the University of Leeds, where she also taught Modern European History and Contemporary International Politics.

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At the time of writing, a bizarre situation has developed in the last 24 hours. The Leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition has resorted to launching an e-petition on the House of Commons’ own e-petitions site in order to build public support for the recall of Parliament so that it can debate and hold the government to account for its stance on the future of the steel industry.

Now that the petition has reached 100,000 signatures the Petitions Committee will consider whether it should be debated. But here’s the problem. The Committee is not scheduled to sit again until 12 April. Committees can and do meet during recess periods if they wish so it could choose to meet in the coming week to consider it. But even if it did, it can’t recall the House of Commons to debate the issue, any more than the Leader of the Opposition can.

So, regardless of how many signatures the e-petition attracts, a debate can only be held once Parliament is sitting again (it is scheduled to return from recess on 11 April), by which time the specific action sought in the e-petition, namely the recall of Parliament, will be irrelevant.

It is nonsensical that any MP, let alone the Leader of the Opposition, has to resort to the e-petitions system to generate public support for recall because they have no route within Parliament itself to get the matter properly considered.

Fifteen years ago our Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny argued that if Parliament was to be an effective forum at times of crisis, and retain its significance to public debate, then the rules governing recall had to be revised.

We suggested that the Speaker be granted the power to recall Parliament at times of emergency if one or more MPs requested it and following consultation with the party leaders. But if MPs don’t want to vest the power of decision entirely with the Speaker then an alternative formula could easily be devised: for example, the support of a set percentage of MPs might be required to instigate a recall, perhaps with the additional requirement that there be evidence of cross-party support with representation from at least three parties in the House.

Parliament has been recalled on 28 occasions since 1948. The most recent was in September 2014 to debate military intervention in Iraq. Indeed, the majority of recalls are brought about because of international crises and military action. Recalls because of an economic or domestic situation are rare but not unknown. The steel crisis may not rank as a national emergency on the scale of the devaluation of sterling in 1949 or the fuel state of emergency in 1974. But it is arguably a much more pressing issue of urgent national importance than the death of Margaret Thatcher in April 2013 and the Queen Mother in April 2002 for which Parliament was recalled on both occasions in order to pay tribute.

The disparity in importance of the national events underpinning previous recalls of Parliament reinforces the case for taking the issue away from the government of the day and vesting it with the legislature, where open and transparent consideration of the case for recall in each instance can be made and Members held accountable accordingly.

The key point is that the request should come from the House and be decided by the House through the Speaker. It should make the decision not the government.

Although the use of an e-petition may be understandable in the circumstances, if MPs resort to using them for campaign purposes such as this then there is a risk it will undermine the purpose and integrity of the system. The parliamentary e-petitions system exists so that the public can petition their elected representatives, not so that MPs can petition their colleagues.

In our report on reform of the e-petitions system we recommended that because MPs have plenty of mechanisms through which to make their views known they should not be permitted to register petitions on the parliamentary site. The House of Commons adopted many of the recommendations in our report when they revised the e-petitions system at the start of this Parliament but they did not endorse this one. Given this week’s events that may need to be revisited sooner rather than later.

The optics of this in terms of public perceptions of Parliament are horrible.

As our annual Audit of Political Engagement showed last year, only one in four people (26%) think Parliament holds government to account, and only one in five (19%) think it debates and makes decisions that matter to them. This far from positive perception of the institution is hardly likely to be enhanced by this week’s events.

We also know from the Audit that the further away from Westminster citizens live, the less likely they are to regard Parliament positively. If Parliament fails to respond in a timely way to problems like this then to thousands of people affected across the country - many of them in Wales and the North of England – it risks looking desperately out of touch and irrelevant to their lives.

If it is not recalled, Parliament will look even more cut off from the cares and concerns of ordinary people when the National Assembly for Wales reconvenes next Monday (4 April). The Assembly has been recalled by the Presiding Officer at the request of the First Minister because she considers the ‘current situation facing the Welsh steel industry to be of urgent public importance’.

The Assembly does not officially dissolve for the elections until 6 April, but in practical terms business ceased in the middle of March and many Assembly Members have already abandoned their offices and dispensed with using the Assembly IT and communication systems. And they won’t be able to meet in the Chamber next week because the seats and desks have been taken out so a new IT system can be fitted – instead they will meet in the Siambr Hywel, their former debating chamber in the next door Ty Hywel building.

The juxtaposition of images will not favour Westminster. On the one hand AMs pitching up in a temporary residence, the gravity of the situation facing their constituents outweighing the practical problems facing the Assembly in reconvening in these circumstances. And then MPs, still ‘on holiday’ in a time of crisis. It will be unfair criticism, as the decision not to reconvene will have been made not by MPs collectively but by the resident in Downing Street alone and the majority of MPs will be busy in their constituencies, not lying on a beach. But it will be MPs and Parliament collectively that suffer the reputational consequences.

Fox, R. (2016) Corbyn's 'Save Our Steel' e-petition shows why the rules governing the recall of Parliament need to change (Hansard Society: London)

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