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The Foreign Affairs Committee: commentator or influencer? A conversation with Alicia Kearns MP (Parliament Matters: Episode 24)

4 Mar 2024
Alicia Kearns MP, interviewed by Mark D'Arcy and Ruth Fox for the Parliament Matters podcast, Thursday 29 February 2024. ©Hansard Society
Alicia Kearns MP, interviewed by Mark D'Arcy and Ruth Fox for the Parliament Matters podcast, Thursday 29 February 2024. ©Hansard Society

In this revealing conversation with Alicia Kearns MP, Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, we explore the critical role of parliamentary scrutiny in shaping foreign policy and addressing global challenges.

We discover how recent Committee hearings have garnered global attention and influenced diplomatic discourse in overseas capitals and on the streets, particularly when critical information, such as the bombing of Medical Aid for Palestine, has been revealed.

Alicia reflects on the Committee’s priorities and ongoing inquiries, and the need to respond dynamically to pressing global issues such as Ukraine, Russia, the Balkans, China and Taiwan.

She sheds light on how the Committee can help change the tone of diplomatic engagement and how it plays a critical information disclosure role. And she updates us on her discussions with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, regarding the frequency of his appearances before the Committee.

We explore her role as the Chair of the Committee including her regular interactions with ambassadors, the challenges faced during sensitive inquiries, and why the Foreign Office would rather she and fellow members of the Committee did not travel anywhere!

Please note, this transcript is automatically generated. There are consequently minor errors and the text is not formatted according to our style guide. If you wish to reference or cite the transcript copy below, please first check against the audio version above. Timestamps are provided above each paragraph.

00:00:00:00 - 00:00:32:04 You are listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society Production supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn More at hansardsociety.org.uk/pm. Welcome to Parliament Matters, the podcast about the institution at the heart of our democracy. Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox. And I'm Mark D'Arcy. Coming up, how much leverage do MPs have over the UK’s stance on international crises like Gaza? 00:00:32:06 - 00:00:42:13 We speak to Alicia Kearns MP, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. 00:00:42:15 - 00:01:00:15 Well, here we are in the office of Alicia Kearns MP, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. And Alicia, thanks for joining us on the podcast. We’ve come to talk to you about your work on the Committee. So the global situation provides no shortage of issues at the moment to discuss and challenges for you and your committee to consider. 00:01:00:19 - 00:01:21:12 Foreign Affairs has obviously risen up the political agenda significantly. Probably it's as high as it's been since the Iraq war. What for you are the top international challenges the UK faces? So for me, really it comes down to great power competition. Yes, we are seeing in the media appalling crises around the world, appalling bloodshed, but actually it's about long term. 00:01:21:12 - 00:01:40:16 How do we secure the international framework on which we rely, which is the rules based system? Because if that breaks down, don't get me wrong, I have criticised its failures many times, but its fundamental framework is so key and is under attack from autocrats who are on the march who want to undermine it, but crucially, they want to rewrite it in their own image. 00:01:40:18 - 00:02:18:03 Is there a sense that it's not just the bad guys, the Putins, it's also about other states finding this all a bit constraining and wanting to atomize and break away from traditional ties? I mean, potentially America under Trump, I think we're seeing irredentist opportunism popping up all around the world. You know, whether you look at the Sahel and you see all these military coups and military juntas taking over, incredible backsliding as a result, whether you look at Sudan and what you've seen there, again, military individuals refusing to let go power, whether you look at Russia and its irredentist ambitions for Ukraine, whether you look at so many places really around the world, you know, we've got only 00:02:18:03 - 00:02:40:00 recently Transnistria, false claims in Russia that Transnistria is put up a red flag and said, please save us from ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, irredentism is on the march. And obviously China and Taiwan is the long term threat of which we keep talking. Thinking about your committee's role in looking at these issues, I mean, do you consider yourselves to be influencers or are you commentators providing a running commentary on these challenges? 00:02:40:02 - 00:03:05:22 So I'm absolutely determined that we are influencers, that we are shaping. We cannot just be commentators and scrutiny matters. Scrutiny matters that we learn the lessons, scrutiny matters, that we can better protect ourselves in the future. But what I've really tried to do as chair is to move from these kind of year long inquiries to really sharp kind of two month inquiries on an issue that matters where we can change things quickly and that we can really focus and dive in on. 00:03:06:03 - 00:03:28:21 And I think what you've seen with the select committees, we do change things. Sometimes it's as little as having to change the tone of a discussion, I think, on Gaza. So the session with the Foreign Secretary, for example, I think is a good example of where actually our goal was to change tone and to reveal information that was not currently known. To interrogate, but interrogation in order to change behavior of actors, not least our own government. 00:03:28:23 - 00:03:45:13 And what I was told by ambassadors around the world is that our hearing was picked up, that people on streets in countries around the world were talking about it because they felt like that was the level of scrutiny that international countries should be put under. So, yes, sometimes it's about tone, sometimes it's about revealing information that people aren't aware of. 00:03:45:13 - 00:04:02:22 Again, I revealed the bombing of Medical Aid for Palestine. Four British doctors were in a building that had been demarcated by the Israeli government a month earlier as a humanitarian site, they were in al-Mawasi, the safe zone and they were British nationals with no tunnels under their building. It’s sand. It couldn't be, and yet they were bombed. 00:04:02:22 - 00:04:19:06 So revealing things then, of course, is the pure scrutiny and just saying, you know, did we get it right or did we not? And then there's the future forecasting. I spent a lot of my time, and I think some of it comes down to being a woman who's passionate about public policy. But I very rarely stand up in Parliament and just say, tell us this. 00:04:19:06 - 00:04:39:24 I will always say, will you consider this? Have you thought about that? Put forward a solution. And I think as chair, that's been a real priority for me. Too often in foreign policy, you hear this kind of self-indulgent aggrandizement of people's own opinions, but not on reflections, but not putting forward proposals. And that is why I'm in this, because I want to change things. 00:04:39:24 - 00:05:04:14 I want to change our approach. I want to change the outcome. I want to make us safer. And I am fortunate that as a committee chair iou can do that. There's a lot of push in Parliament at the moment to try and get the UK to take a much harder stance on Gaza. I mean, the SNP leader Stephen Flynn was calling for a Commons resolution to tell the government at the next U.N. Security Council meeting to back a cease fire resolution. 00:05:04:20 - 00:05:39:19 So I think with David Cameron we saw an enormous change in the Government's approach and Tariq Ahmad is an incredibly capable minister. But I think what is difficult is that we have seen international humanitarian law broken and we actually need to hear that clarity of thought because it matters whether it comes to water being cut off, whether it comes to aid not being allowed to get through, whether it comes to the bombing of Medical Aid for Palestine, which was a war crime, because we know that they knew that it was a protected humanitarian site and that matters, a breach of international humanitarian law, if we are to have confidence, the international system, but also it has repercussions 00:05:39:19 - 00:06:01:07 in terms of one, we need to stop all arms exports immediately. It has repercussions in terms of the International Court of Justice, and it has wider repercussions in terms of our responsibility to protect. So for me, this is a fundamental and I'm very frustrated that we haven't seen the clarity that we need to see. And you mentioned the Foreign Secretary and of course, we've got a Foreign Secretary in the shape of Lord Cameron, who's in the House of Lords. 00:06:01:07 - 00:06:20:17 He can't directly come, at least at the moment, to be interrogated about his activities in the full House of Commons. So you are MPs’ primary way of getting at him. Have there been discussions about him coming a bit more often than perhaps an MP Foreign Secretary would have to to be in front of your Committee for that purpose to answer questions. 00:06:20:19 - 00:06:38:10 So we as a Committee decided that we wanted him every six weeks, which we thought was more than fair enough, because that's how often Foreign Office questions would have been. He has yet to respond to our requests as to how long he's got, how often he's going to come in front of us, which is deeply disappointing. And as you can imagine, we're currently in pretty tough negotiations about when I expect to see him next. 00:06:38:12 - 00:07:06:18 I do expect us to see that additional scrutiny. I think having seen our session in January, nobody would say that the Select committee has been failing in its job to scrutinise the government, but I do want to see him again, and that is currently something under active discussion. We talked a lot about, you know, vision and challenges, talked about goals and what other sort of inquiries, if you go on your agenda that you're prioritizing and how do you go about deciding on the prioritisation of these short, short inquiries. 00:07:06:22 - 00:07:33:09 So sometimes inquiries fall into your lap because of breaking issues. But actually, I think as a committee, we've been very forward looking. So we announced our inquiry into Middle East and North Africa last September, possibly earlier. And the reason we did was that we were very critical of the integrated review, didn't look at the situation Israel-Palestine enough. The integrated review is this this review of a refreshed review of our foreign policy, defense policy, international development policy, Absolutely. 00:07:33:09 - 00:07:53:00 So it's a strategy that sets out what our security priorities and foreign policy priorities are for the future. And we were very critical committee that Middle East was missing from it as much as it should have been, and particularly the fact that the Palestine-Israel peace process didn't feature last June or July. We had the Liaison Committee hearing, which is when the Prime Minister comes before all the heads of select committees. 00:07:53:02 - 00:08:11:02 And of the three questions I had the time to ask him, two of my three were about Israel, Gaza, and my exact words to him were we are going to see the Gaza crisis of 2023. We are going to see a third intifada. Will you do something during our UN Security Council presidency to do something? So we had foreseen that there was a problem coming. 00:08:11:02 - 00:08:25:23 So we announced our inquiry. Wagner network. We were the first Foreign Affairs Committee in the world to launch an inquiry. We launched it before anyone had ever heard of the network because it was before Prigozhin’s big march on Moscow. But again, as a result of our report, the government were able to proscribe them as a terrorist organization. 00:08:26:04 - 00:08:59:04 And then what the UK did, lots of countries around the world followed and did it over. Our current inquiry, again, unfortunately rather fitting, is on counter-terrorism because I felt the integrated review again was too focused on great state conflict and less on the immediacy of the risks that still exists in counter-terrorism. We've just completed a hostage inquiry into how we deal with hostage taking. Our Central Asia inquiry. And we're currently doing a big inquiry in multilaterals, which is actually a follow up from an inquiry I asked for when I was first elected, which again is about how do we stand up for British interests within multilaterals. 00:08:59:06 - 00:09:23:20 Your Committee's first inquiry at the session and that was before you were chairing it - in fact, it was still under Tom Tugendhat then - was into the withdrawal, which is a rather dignified word for it, from Afghanistan. It was actually a pretty savage report. It accused the Foreign Office of being deliberately evasive and then actively misleading. And that's a pretty stark thing for a committee to say about the Foreign Office. 00:09:23:20 - 00:09:41:12 And it has since has been mended since then. Is the Foreign Office mended its ways? I mean, we also called for the resignation of the Permanent Secretary. So, I mean, that I think shows you how angry we were because we felt the Foreign Office had let down its own people, let alone letting down those in Afghanistan who needed our support. 00:09:41:14 - 00:09:59:10 Fences have been mended to some extent, but at the same time, I think over the last two years and I think particularly under my chairmanship, the Foreign Office has realized that we are not a select committee who are there to indulge our own interests in foreign policy. We are there with a very serious mission, and that is to make our country safer. 00:09:59:16 - 00:10:21:02 And we will push until we get to a place where we think we are achieving that. And I think we've shown that particularly in the Western Balkans, but also in other places around the world, covering a huge range of issues, not just, you know, the policy issues, but also the sort of the threats to the UK and the sort of the targeting of MPs by malign actors, great powers, terrorists and so on. 00:10:21:04 - 00:10:47:17 What kind of resourcing does your committee have to carry out its inquiries in a practical way? I mean, for example, if you're doing an inquiry in China, do you have access on the committee to Mandarin speakers and what kind of sort of security precautions do you have to take? Well, do you take any I guess, is that, you know, without going into the details, I know you can't. I have an amazing team of clerks and their job is to help us prepare for our Tuesday afternoon hearings, which is when we sit down and they are really phenomenal. 00:10:47:23 - 00:11:04:09 But on top of that comes the you know, we just before I met with you, I was sitting down with the Georgian ambassador for half an hour and we were having a discussion. This week, I've probably seen five or six ambassadors for 1 to 1 meetings to talk about the issues in their country. I point out no minister has to look after the whole world, but I certainly do. 00:11:04:11 - 00:11:23:20 But I think in terms of that, you know, it's difficult in terms of security. And I've had an arrest warrant issued this week against somebody who is only seeking to threaten my life because of my foreign policy positions. But we don't have additional security as a foreign affairs committee, and I hope that we don't need it. And I hope that we can continue to receive the support we do from the police. 00:11:23:20 - 00:11:40:20 But it is difficult and I have had to shut down a hearing. So we were going through a very sensitive hearing on Iran and we'd invite someone to give evidence and the Iranian government and their proxies decided to share the home address of the lady that was going to give evidence in front of us all over social media. 00:11:40:22 - 00:11:58:05 And she and her family had to be put into witness protection. As a result, I decided to do a hearing in private, which is not good. It's not what I wanted. But first I went public on TV and I made very clear that we were not going to be shied away from doing it, but that I was going to be doing it in private because I was also unhappy. 00:11:58:05 - 00:12:12:12 The behavior of one of the other guests. And I kicked them off and I refused to have them give evidence. But I made clear that we will not be bullied into doing what people on social media want us to do. But yes, there are threats. Do you have to take precautions when you travel abroad? As a committee representative? 00:12:12:12 - 00:12:27:24 I mean, do you get advice from the Foreign Office, I assume, on this kind of thing? We mainly get told by the Foreign Office not to go anywhere, because I think they think we are a distraction and deeply unhelpful and challenging. So we've had countries in the past, say all British embassies abroad say, no, we don't want you, you're not welcome to. 00:12:27:24 - 00:12:48:24 Which I said, well, we will be coming. And you can either set up the agenda for us or I'll get the host ambassador or I'll do it myself. And I fortunately know that I would deliver on doing it myself. So there is a frustration that sometimes civil servants don't recognize how powerful it can be to have a group of politicians come to your country because we're not coming to impose our own ideas. 00:12:48:24 - 00:13:08:21 We're coming to listen, we're coming to engage and to hear how that country sees the world so that we can challenge our own thinking, challenge the relationship we have. And often we go away with a list of asks to the government that helps that poster helps that embassy improves our bilateral relationship. So it can be difficult sometimes, but we do manage to get to most places we want and of course where we do need security. 00:13:08:23 - 00:13:28:20 Most of the time the Foreign Office will provide some security, but nowhere near what they offer to ministers. And I think that is disappointing. How our embassies in different countries treat us is completely ad hoc and we have had situations like we were in Ukraine, I think two weeks before the renewed invasion where the Foreign Office probably ringing us every 2 hours saying, get back on a plane now. 00:13:28:22 - 00:13:43:23 And I said, we're not going to get back on a plane. And they said, well, we're not going to evacuate you. And I said, No, you're not going to evacuate us if it happens, but the Ukrainians will. So, yes, it can be a bit of a tough challenge sometimes because our job is not to be there to repeat Foreign Office lines. 00:13:44:04 - 00:14:07:18 It's to challenge where the Foreign Office is doing their job or not. Is the route of this at least partly. The foreign policy is a kind of prerogative power. It's something ministers do, and they rather resent Parliament getting that involved in it. Well, I don't know if I'd want to kind of brand or paint all ministers with the same brush, because there are some ministers really understand that the Foreign Affairs Committee can be helpful to them so they can't say things off. 00:14:07:18 - 00:14:22:08 When I go to a country, I will say to the ambassador, Look, I'm going to go into these meetings. I was at the Munich Security Conference a few weeks ago, I was seeing, just because I'm the British chair, it's not because I’m Alicia Kearns, and all my bilaterals were me with presidents, prime ministers and foreign secretaries of other countries. 00:14:22:08 - 00:14:39:03 The access being British gives you is enormous. But I would say to our government and ambassadors all of the things you're struggling to get out of them, where do you need to see them really challenged and pushed that perhaps is difficult for you because you need to protect that relationship. I don't. I can be that bolshie difficult, out of nowhere, 00:14:39:03 - 00:15:00:01 British MP who really challenges them. But also often those world leaders are more willing to be more open with me because they don't have set talking points. They haven't been told by their civil servants "You must land this point with this person". They're genuinely having a more open conversation so you can learn a lot more. So ministers who are smart would use the Select committee more and recognise that we're a great source of power, too. 00:15:00:06 - 00:15:18:01 You know, 25 chairs of Foreign Affairs Committees went to Ukraine together for the anniversary the other weekend. That was a powerful message around Europe that we stand by our allies. I had well over I think we got to over 100 European politicians write a letter with me about why we needed to change the EU US approach to Kosovo. 00:15:18:03 - 00:15:36:12 It has changed the tone across the whole of Europe, because I initiated this letter, because I brought, you know, Foreign Affairs Committee chairs and interested MEPs across Europe together, we had been able to change and challenge the thinking around this entire process towards what I think is a tinderbox. So is about whether you use this right or not. 00:15:36:12 - 00:16:01:20 But I think there's a lot we can achieve and you talked about ministers being able to use your committee, the House of Commons as an institution, really sort of handles and does scrutiny of foreign policy very effectively in the chamber away from the committee? So one of the things I said when I was starting to chair the Foreign Affairs Committee was that I wanted to improve foreign policy literacy because it's difficult. 00:16:01:20 - 00:16:17:00 It is difficult and things come out of nowhere that people didn't expect. But I also remember my first few weeks of being an MP and people saying to me, you can do foreign policy, you can be distracted by that stuff because you've got a safe seat. To which I say one don't treat anything is a safe seat. 00:16:17:00 - 00:16:32:10 And thankfully I stuck to that rule, all the time I've been an MP. But secondly, there is no such thing as foreign policy being a distraction. What have we learned from Ukraine? You cannot have economic security if you don't have national security. That is the way round it goes. Many people believe if you get the economics right, everything else falls in place. 00:16:32:10 - 00:16:53:01 That is just not the case. And with Ukraine, you saw real wakening up by parliament to this. But it is true that particularly on breaking issues where it's a new country coming out of nowhere, where there's a problem, sometimes at the start it can be difficult for MPs to suddenly become an expert in a foreign country. I'm not an expert on every country in the world, and I’m meant to be chair the Foreign Affairs Committee. 00:16:53:01 - 00:17:14:08 Well, I am chair, but I'm not expert in every country in the world, so it can be a challenge. But I've been really pleased how I've been able to help MPs. They've come through with issues. We've been able to hold hearings at the Foreign Affairs Committee that backbenchers have requested. So trying to make the committee feel part of the entire parliamentary body rather than this kind of segregated committee, sat over here doing what they like. 00:17:14:12 - 00:17:36:00 People used to say that there were no votes in foreign policy. It seems to me that you can certainly lose votes in foreign policy these days. I don't know if you necessarily win them, but you can certainly lose them by a stance on something like Gaza, the by election in Rochdale may tell us exactly that. Obviously, there are a few issues that I think hit us emotionally, as obviously Israel-Gaza does. 00:17:36:00 - 00:17:52:19 But, you know, Ukraine mattered. You know, you don't see any politician standing up saying, let's stop our support to Ukraine. I think that's because they recognize the country is behind Ukraine. Politicians in other countries really struggle when I say that, that we don't have MPs standing up saying let's stop supporting Ukraine, they really struggle to believe that that's the case. 00:17:52:19 - 00:18:13:00 But we also united I don't think foreign policy does define elections very often, although Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands, you know, you could argue differently. I think it's very rare that it does, but it fundamentally matters to how and if a government is able to deliver on its domestic commitments, whether or not they're getting the security situation right. The House Commons is only part of parliament. 00:18:13:00 - 00:18:31:01 The other half, the other end of the building is the House of Lords. And obviously a lot of foreign policy professionals in in there. What kind of relationship does your committee have with the Lords? I think maybe you're giving me a learning point to take away, an action plan. We don't really have one, if I'm honest. So we often call the members the House of Lords togive evidence. 00:18:31:01 - 00:18:50:00 We have Baroness Helena Kennedy come and give evidence to us on the Xinjiang genocide taking place that was really good. You know, quite often, obviously we call on previous senior military leaders to come give evidence to us, but we don't really work with the Lords and it is difficult because they now have their own foreign policy committee. I think we probably could de-conflict a little better there. 00:18:50:02 - 00:19:19:11 But no, it doesn't really cross over in any way. A final thought, really, if you had one recommendation from your Committee that you wanted to take, you go in to a Minister's office and say, "this is what you ought to do" and get it done? What do you think it would be? I genuinely don’t know. I genuinely don't think I can answer that because my problem is as soon as you start saying it, four different countries, each with about 12 asks are in my head and it it's very difficult. You know, my current priority is, you know, obviously Ukraine, we need more ammunition, we need a special tribunal. 00:19:19:11 - 00:19:34:14 We need to seize the frozen assets. But then I go to Israel, Gaza, where we need to make sure the Rafah attack does not happen. But we also need to be planning for the ceasefire. If it happens, you know, where is the planning for how many hospitals, you know, operating theaters are still standing, How quickly can we create field hospitals? 00:19:34:20 - 00:19:48:09 How quickly can we get counter IED experts to clear the routes so that the aid can get in? You know, then it takes it all the way through to Transnistria at the moment. And what are we doing to make sure that we're not seeing, you know, Russians kick off in the backyard? And why haven't we taken stronger steps against Serbia 00:19:48:09 - 00:20:05:17 who is trying to kick off in the Balkans? You know, and then in my head, I've got another ten. Jerusalem, What's going on there? China and Taiwan. It's too difficult because also they're interconnected. And if we really want to have deterrence, if we really want to prevent autocrats being on the march in the way that we are, we need to show meaningful resolve. 00:20:05:23 - 00:20:37:12 And then again, hostages. You know, I'm seeing Vladimir Kara-Murza’s wife shortly. I met with Morad Tahbaz earlier this week. You know, how do we transform it so that our passports aren't weaponized against our own people? It's too difficult to pick one thing. And maybe that's also a sign of who I am and how I work. I've always got a million things on the go at once that you will see me continue to push on these things, not because I actually enjoy suggesting that more can be done or done differently, but because I desperately search for ways to make a difference and to shape things and to improve our public policy. 00:20:37:14 - 00:20:59:02 As you can see, as the sirens blare in Parliament Square behind us. Thanks for joining us on. Thank you for having me. A Well, that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters. Please hit the follow or subscribe button in your podcast app to get the next episode as soon as it lands and help us to make the podcast better. 00:20:59:02 - 00:21:16:09 By leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback. Our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost. Tell us more about the algorithm. What do I know about algorithms? You know, I write my scripts with a quill pen on vellum and then send it in by carrier pigeon. 00:21:16:11 - 00:21:57:06 Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting hansardsociety.org.uk/pmuq. We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament. And you can find us across social media @HansardSociety to get more content related to the show and the wider work of the Hansard Society. Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.

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