Holding a general election only six weeks before the new end-January Brexit deadline, and with a recess to fit in too, could mean the new Parliament facing a tight timetable. The challenge will be especially great for MPs elected for the first time on 12 December.
Originally published in The Times Red Box on 6 November, 2019
For MPs elected on December 12, the bad news is that Brexit might end up stealing Christmas. This is because of what’s involved in getting a new Parliament up and running while trying to meet the new January 31 deadline for Brexit.
The government has indicated that the new Parliament will meet for the first time on Monday December 16. The House of Commons Library puts this (by one day) as the quickest post-election assembling of a new Parliament since 1918.
Taking previous Christmas and new year sitting patterns as a rough guide, and assuming normal Monday-Thursday sitting patterns only, there will then probably be no more than 20 parliamentary sitting days before the UK’s next default no-deal Brexit date at the end of January.
Once the new House of Commons has convened, all 650 MPs will then need to be sworn in, a process that usually takes at least three days. A big question for that pre-Christmas week, affecting both Houses, is whether it will include the State Opening or whether that will slip to January.
The Queen’s Speech debates and votes normally last five or six sitting days. As we saw last month, the government can interrupt the debate for other business. But if not completed before Christmas, the Queen’s Speech debate will take time away from the main parliamentary business in January: determining whether or not the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) will be passed to enable the UK to leave the EU with a deal at the end of the month (assuming the European Parliament also signs off), or whether a new Brexit approach is to be adopted by a new government.
If the Conservatives under Boris Johnson win a working Commons majority, on a clear ‘this deal’ prospectus, the way ought to be clear for passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and UK ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement by January 31.
As the Parliament will be new, the Bill will have to begin its passage from scratch. However, procedurally, passing a bill even of the WAB’s length and complexity in three or four weeks is doable, although far from ideal, and 2019 has evidenced the flexibility of parliamentary sitting and legislative timetables when politics demands.
If Labour secures a majority, it has promised to seek to renegotiate Johnson’s revised Brexit package and hold a referendum. And if neither main party secures a majority, the first post-election days and potentially weeks could be taken up with coalition or confidence and supply negotiations, eating into time in January.
Whatever the election outcome, the situation will be particularly challenging for new MPs. This makes the degree of Commons churn an important factor for January’s proceedings. It can take several weeks before new MPs are assigned offices at Westminster, and it takes time to recruit staff. Most new MPs will also be very unfamiliar with parliamentary and legislative procedure.
Yet, whereas their 2017 predecessors at least had three months to get accustomed to their new role before considering the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the WAB’s possible imminence could thrust the 2019 intake within days into scrutinising one of the most complex and important constitutional bills in decades.
One of the government’s (unsatisfactory) arguments for an accelerated WAB timetable has always been the amount of time MPs have already spent debating Brexit — but that was in the 2017-19 Parliament. An interesting feature of any WAB proceedings will thus be whether new MPs struggle to participate, or on the contrary demand the opportunity to make their voices heard.
Even returning MPs have conducted little detailed scrutiny of the revised Brexit package so far, and it is hard to imagine candidates in any but the very safest seats poring over it during the election period. MPs who get elected on December 12 and wish seriously to scrutinise Brexit policy in January are likely to have to spend their Christmases with it.
Banner image: ‘Saturday sitting in the House of Commons to debate renegotiated Brexit deal 19/10/2019’ by UK Parliament (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Enjoy reading this? Please consider sharing it
Can the government rely on provisions in national security legislation to refuse to provide unredacted documents to a House of Commons committee when ordered to do so by a resolution of the House? Should, or can, resolution of this question be made by the courts, or only within the House? In a current case, Canada’s House and courts face these questions.
Whether football ‘comes home’ on 11 July or not, the holding of the UEFA European Football Championship – like other major sporting events – has been managed in part by using Statutory Instruments, the most common form of delegated legislation.
In a recent report the House of Commons Privileges Committee recommended the creation of a new criminal offence to deal with the rare problem of recalcitrant select committee witnesses. The proposal is narrow and looks workable. However, it remains controversial, and the Committee has invited further views, with final proposals expected later in 2021.
On 20 May 2021 MPs will debate the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, laying down a marker about their future expectations for the project. We set out why MPs should support decant and focus on the long-term legacy.
MPs are debating motions on ‘made negative’ Statutory Instruments (SIs) on three successive days this week. While the debates will give a last-minute boost to the government’s record for the handling of such SIs in the 2019-21 session, they also highlight how the government’s control of time undermines MPs’ role in scrutinising such Instruments.
Most of the UK’s general public law is made not through Acts of Parliament but through delegated legislation in the form of Statutory Instruments. What is delegated legislation and how does the parliamentary scrutiny system for this legislation work?