Parliament Matters: Urgent Questions #1 (Episode 3)

13 Nov 2023
©UK Parliament / Roger Harris

Periodically we’ll have special ‘Urgent Question’ episodes to answer your questions about how Parliament works.

In this episode we answer questions about whether Ministerial announcements to the media before they are made to MPs amounts to a contempt of Parliament, how parliamentary reform can be secured, and whether we really need a second Chamber.

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.

Urgent Questions #1

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 - 00:00:34:00

You are listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society Production supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more at Hello and welcome to Parliament Matters, the new podcast from the Hansard Society about the institution at the heart of our democracy - Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox and I'm Mark D’Arcy. Every week we're going to be analyzing what's going on behind the Gothic facade of Westminster.

00:00:34:02 - 00:01:02:02

We'll be explaining how the system works and hearing about the latest research on the workings of Parliament from politics and looking back at key moments of parliamentary history. Hello and welcome to Urgent Questions. Your chance to ask the team here at the Parliament Matters Podcast. Anything that occurs to you about the running of Parliament, the functioning of the Westminster community, the way legislation is treated?

00:01:02:04 - 00:01:24:13

Ruth The first question, so we've had a question mark from from Richard on social media, and he said at what point does the government commit a contempt of Parliament by making policy announcements to the media rather than to the House of Commons? Of course, this is one of the big irritants that really annoys speakers. Generations of speakers have railed about this.

00:01:24:15 - 00:01:46:04

MPs are supposed to hear first when there's a big change or development in government policy. Almost invariably they actually hear it first on the Today program or in the newspapers, and that really gets up the nose of generations of speakers. So when does it become a contempt? Is there some kind of cumulative process where he gets all three strikes and it's contempt?

00:01:46:06 - 00:02:07:16

The answer to that is no. My suspicion is, even though this seriously annoys speakers and even though it seriously annoys backbenchers and select committee chairs and people to whom it hasn't been mentioned first, this doesn't ever become a contempt because the only way something becomes a contempt of Parliament is if there is a vote in the House of Commons declaring something to be a contempt of Parliament.

00:02:07:18 - 00:02:29:19

And so, however annoyed people may get with a minister who's going out there making those announcements, the chances are that there's never going to be that vote because essentially that would mean the Prime Minister and the Government being prepared to throw out one of their ministers to the wolves, which is, at any rate, inelegant. Yeah, I mean, essentially what we've got at the moment is Lindsay Hoyle getting pretty angry every week admonishing the Minister.

00:02:29:19 - 00:02:51:13

They take it on the chin and they're back the next week doing exactly the same thing. And I think it's really instructive to ask the question the Opposition get annoyed about this as well. But once they're in government, if they get into government after the next election, what will they do? And I would wager quite a hefty amount that they will be doing exactly the same thing, because you've got a real issue here.

00:02:51:15 - 00:03:11:21

You know, modern communications combined not very well with parliamentary sitting times, you know, No, no communication director for the government Worth a Soul is going to say to the to the minister, Yes, Minister, don't make your announcement until 230 on a monday afternoon or parliament doesn't sit every Friday. So they can't do anything. You've got to wait till the following Monday.

00:03:11:21 - 00:03:30:24

It's just not going to happen. This has been going on for decades. The speaker is trying to enforce the ministerial code. I mean, parliament, you know, the House of Commons has never actually said itself in a resolution of the House that it doesn't want ministers to do this. It's actually enshrined in the ministerial code, which is issued under the Prime Minister's signature.

00:03:31:01 - 00:03:48:15

So that, you know, Lindsay Hoyle keeps standing up and reminding ministers that, you know, they should be adhering to the ministerial code. But if M.P.s really, really, really care about this, they should pass a resolution of the House or they should take one of the issues and refer it to the privileges committee. But that, of course, is very unlikely to happen.

00:03:48:15 - 00:04:07:15

And absent that, a speaker of the House doesn't really have any great power other than to deliver a stinging rebuke. I mean, John Bercow used to make a habit when he was Speaker of allowing an urgent question on something that had been announced elsewhere than in the Chamber of the Commons and then letting it run for quite a while.

00:04:07:15 - 00:04:38:14

And I can remember I think it was Greg Clarke when he was a junior minister before he entered the cabinet was kept on his feet in the Commons for a really quite disturbingly long time. I can't even remember the issue now, but he was kept up there facing questions for a really long time. And at the end of it all, when Bercow finally drew to a close, he tears of Jeremy Paxman like, Yeah, and if the minister doesn't want to go through that again, you should make sure he follows the proper protocol and announces things here first and then the next.

00:04:38:19 - 00:05:03:19

And then of course it, you know, rinse and repeat. The whole thing started happening again. Yeah. I mean, I think this is this comes back to, you know, what solution is that MPs could ask for an inquiry. They could get privileges committee to look at it, Procedure Committee could look at it. But in the end, unless there's a change in sitting arrangements or some new mechanism to enable ministers to make statements earlier, it's just going to carry on.

00:05:03:21 - 00:05:25:18

And, you know, you could maybe say, well, we'll refine it, you know, does this apply to all all announcements? You know, is it a separate sort of approach to major announcements or mini announcements? You know, maybe it's that the House actually cares about the really sort of big financial or legislative announcements where the government is assuming before exiting parliament.

00:05:25:18 - 00:05:45:06

Its view is assuming that parliament is going to agree. And, you know, there's arguably a constitutional question there about, you know, whether it should be making such assumptions. So maybe those things should have a different approach to them. But you could, you know, can you imagine having a sort of debate with a minister who's he's making the case that the announcement is quite a minor matter and they should be allowed to get away with it.

00:05:45:08 - 00:06:15:04

So it's it sounds easy to say that they should make those statements to Parliament, but actually the context might mean it's quite difficult. And I think the opposition will do just the same when they get into government. Yeah, and that's the pungent irony about this. Of course, the self-same opposition shadow ministers who complain vociferously about the outrageous affront to the privileges of the House of someone making an announcement elsewhere as soon as they become ministers, as soon as their party's in government, they will do exactly what they're complaining about.

00:06:15:06 - 00:06:35:10

And the people who are doing what they were complaining about before will equally quickly and with just as much aplomb, take the other view and start complaining about the outrageous behavior of ministers in not making these announcements in the chamber. And everyone will hear, hear furiously on all sides. And it will just, I think, undermine everybody's credibility because it's such an absurd fandango to perform.

00:06:35:10 - 00:06:59:13

Yeah. And this is this is the endless problem that organizations like that society face when you try to persuade people about the case for parliamentary reform. The opposition get it when they're in opposition, as soon as they enter the doors of number ten and the sort of ministerial offices, it's like, we can't do that now. I suppose that's kind of a there's just a brief moment before the reality of office catches up with the new government and they decide they don't want more scrutiny than they were getting.

00:06:59:14 - 00:07:19:17

Yeah. And how quick will it be before all those people currently in ministerial offices if they end up back in opposition, How quickly will it be before they actually sort of decide really, you know, we do need some reforms to ensure better ministerial accountability. It won't be long. And speaking of parliamentary reform, you've got another question on that very subject.

00:07:19:19 - 00:07:38:22

Yes. So on next question is from John. And he said Governments routinely dismiss calls for electoral and other constitutional reform as a non-urgent second term issue on the grounds that there's little overt public clamor for it. But of course, there's no guarantees that governments going to get in for a for a second term. So how can they be persuaded?

00:07:39:01 - 00:08:04:20

That's like other policy areas such as transport. It's a form of derived demand. The failure to invest in it will prevent or inhibit the successful delivery of money if there are other policy goals. Gosh, I mean, it's a very well might point. The machinery of government issues are not something that the public directly cares about, but the public feels the result of government not working well.

00:08:04:22 - 00:08:28:17

Having said that, the mechanics of big league constitutional change in this country all say big league, constitutional change, big league, Donald Trump, big league, constitutional change, reforming the House of Lords into an elected Senate of the nations and regions of something of that scale. The mechanics of doing that are so vast that they could crowd out an awful lot of other parliamentary business.

00:08:28:17 - 00:09:06:24

I mean, the last serious attempt at this, if you remember, was the Nick Clegg attempt to reform the House of Lords back in the Coalition years, and that was defeated, in effect, by procedural means. Labor wouldn't agree to a timetable motion and there were enough Tory rebels who wouldn't agree to it either. The government of the day was faced with the prospect of a sort of endless kind of Schrodinger's committee stage debate that never, never ended, ate up vast amounts of parliamentary time, generated nothing but bad headlines, produced no results, and at the end of it all, they'd have been lavishing this vast chunk of political capital on something that the voters didn't care about,

00:09:06:24 - 00:09:25:08

and so it grind to a halt. So you need an enormous head of steam and you need some level of consensus to get things through. And if those two things don't exist, it's not going to happen. Yeah, I mean, that's the challenge we're experiencing as an organization. We've been trying to put the focus on the need to reform delegated legislation, which will perhaps pick up in a future podcast.

00:09:25:08 - 00:09:45:02

But yet how do you persuade the government to do something that is, you know, there's not a clamor on the doorstep when they're out, you know, doing their canvasing what the voters want. House of Lords reform is not a sort of top two three issue when you're dealing with cost of living crisis schools, hospitals, war fees, you know, so it's just not up there.

00:09:45:04 - 00:10:03:22

But on the other hand, it is a it is a path of the jigsaw of how you deal with some of those issues. Because you look back over the last few years, you know, some of the problems, they're not all about individual failings of ministers. They're not all about, you know, problems within the Conservative Party. Some of it is also about institutional failure.

00:10:03:24 - 00:10:25:00

The way the country is governed has got to be part of that discussion. But we've we've we've got to have a sort of a think about how we convey the need for democratic reform. I think a lot of a lot of reformers talk about it in the context of sort of democratic and constitutional principles. And, you know, these are these being naturally good things to have.

00:10:25:02 - 00:10:42:11

But that doesn't convince a government that's got all these other pressures bearing down on it. So we've got to think about sort of how how what the incentive structure is. There's got to be something in it for government that they're going to get out of it to be worth investing the time and effort to do it, because the cost benefit analysis has got to change.

00:10:42:15 - 00:11:07:00

Exactly that point, though, that the last really mega constitutional change giving the House of Commons the ability to override the House of Lords back more than 100 years ago now with the first Parliament Act that only came about because the Asquith Liberal government of the day was basically unable to govern, the House of Lords struck down a lot of its legislation and then struck down its budget.

00:11:07:00 - 00:11:27:11

The famous Lloyd George People's budget. And so when that happened, they were faced with the choice of either just letting the House of Lords strike down anything they tried to do or getting constitutional change in the head of steam behind them was enormous. And this proceeded through several general elections until eventually the House of Lords cracked and allowed itself to consent to a mechanism for overriding itself.

00:11:27:13 - 00:11:48:03

But that took an awful lot. And there isn't that kind of head of steam. The pressure necessary to force through, for example, an elected senator of the regions, or perhaps even a change in the electoral system. A change in the electoral system might come if someone uses the leverage of a hung parliament to get it done. But big league constitution will change.

00:11:48:03 - 00:12:15:24

And there I go again. You know, big league, big league constitutional change requires a certain level of consensus just to get it through the machinery of parliament, and without that, you're in trouble. That raises an interesting question. Then after the next general election, were Labor to win it cos in terms of the House of Lords, obviously we've had the big Gordon Brown report with proposals about, you know, sort of an elected Senate of the nations and regions.

00:12:16:01 - 00:12:35:13

If Labor's not going to proceed with that and we're looking at sort of smaller reforms, there is an issue because they don't have a majority in the House of Lords. So are we going to see a situation where they're appointing lots of peers to catch up with the Conservatives so that they can get the legislation through, which is going to look terrible?

00:12:35:13 - 00:13:14:21

I mean, the optics of that are horrendous for the party. But you know what? We need to do something because because otherwise they could face opposition from conservatives, The conservative numbers are so much greater than Labor's difficulties getting some of the legislation through. Yeah, this is always the central difficulty getting Parliament to vote to reform itself when some people in Parliament will inevitably lose out from such reforms is quite a difficult balancing act and some of the most significant constitutional reforms we've had since that Parliament Act have actually been almost add ons that people have hardly noticed at the time that they extended the Parliament Act so they could the House of Lords could be

00:13:14:21 - 00:13:36:22

overridden more rapidly and they actually Labor government that were life peers were brought in, the most of the hereditary peers were excluded and most things didn't seem gigantic mega changes at the time, even though over a longer period they did change the nature of the House of Lords quite a lot. Yeah, and we're looking at a house just to contact for listeners, House of Lords.

00:13:36:22 - 00:13:56:03

Now that's well over 800, just over 800 members and the Commons is 650. So if you're in the if you're in the territory of having to appoint new Labor peers to catch up with the numbers and sort of strike a better balance, I mean, that that's just it's quite a ratchet effect. And this is the most to top up its numbers because of recent prime ministers.

00:13:56:03 - 00:14:26:00

Only Theresa may really sort of did not appoint significant numbers to the House in the way that other prime ministers have done. So I think they're going to have to do something or there's going to be a sort of recognition that if the if we're not going to get the big bang reforms because it's going to take up so much parliamentary time, so much legislative time, and you know, there's going to be big disagreements about how to do it, then we're going to have to have smaller ameliorative reforms and perhaps perhaps that's one of the things we actually need to touch on in a future episode is getting somebody who can talk to us about

00:14:26:00 - 00:14:41:15

Lords reform and how it might be done. I think we can probably think of a few people who can help with that. the alternative is LEAP is going to have to do a deal in the Lords with the the Conservatives and the crossbenches about how they deal with the short of appointing new peers. So watch this space.

00:14:41:16 - 00:15:01:10

Well, indeed. I mean, it's not as if there's a great shortage of proposals for House of Lords reform. I mean, know it's more the kind of the grand designs question will we be in by Christmas? Will it be doable? Can it be done on any reasonable timescale and without crowding out much else that the government might like to do that the voters actually directly camera about?

00:15:01:12 - 00:15:19:06

And also these sort of smaller reforms where, you know, the parties themselves have got ideas and want change. I mean the irony here is that the House of Lords itself recognizes the problem and the peers recognize it. The Lords Speaker recognizes it, and they've got a whole sort of set of proposals themselves about how they'd fix some of these issues.

00:15:19:08 - 00:15:54:17

And the Commons, they haven't got sort of government support to do it and it's sort of stalled so. Well, of course, our third question on something of the same ground here, because we've got a question, who's asking if there's actually a need for a second chamber of Parliament? Couldn't all the work be done by the Commons? Yes. So this this question was if each of the three devolved legislature bodies works perfectly satisfactorily, which is, I think, a question that we might we might that we might think, but without a second chamber, why does Westminster have to be different other than in countries with a federal structure?

00:15:54:17 - 00:16:22:18

What useful function does bicameral ism serve? Well, as you say, the first the first Parliament question that the premise that you need to accept there is that all the devolved legislature is functioned well, which I think probably people in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland who might be moved to question that. But leaving that aside, I think that the most important thing that a second chamber does in a parliamentary system is provide a moment for second thoughts and revision.

00:16:22:20 - 00:16:49:23

If you think that perfect law sort of spring fully armored from the Browse of Ministers and just have to be rubber stamped by the Commons and get out there and enough of this fooling around with two houses of Parliament, then fine. But certainly my feeling is that you do need to take two looks at the law of the land where you are dipping into people's pockets to pay for stuff where you're imposing actions on people you know, possibly in pain of imprisonment.

00:16:50:00 - 00:17:07:08

Take a second look. It's quite an important part of the process to have some kind of backstop there. Yeah, I mean, that's that's the Lords function revising chamber, but it gives it's the opportunity to ask the House of Commons to think again. Are you sure this is what you want to do? And essentially that's what we do through the legislative process.

00:17:07:10 - 00:17:27:07

I put alternative proposals, alternative ideas, alternative drafting in the legislation back to the House of Commons and say, you know, we'd like to consider this, and the House of Commons then says yes or no, and frequently no, they back it, but it back and forth. But it is that opportunity, no question and probe and say, are you absolutely sure?

00:17:27:07 - 00:17:54:12

And then eventually they reach reach agreement And another point worth bearing in mind was were you to sweep the House of Lords the way the House of Commons had better up its game, because at the moment an awful lot of law is sort of voted through the House of Commons with amazing rapidity and not much consideration, and certainly not the kind of trawl through the detail that you do get in the House of Lords and the House of Lords often comes up with quite serious problems that have to be rectified as part of this process.

00:17:54:14 - 00:18:19:01

So unless the House of Commons was to get an awful lot more intensive in its scrutiny of legislation, we'd end up with an awful lot of bad law on the statute book, and that would not help anybody. Yeah, not that the peers are doing a lot of the very technical scrutiny that the Commons either doesn't have time for or at the minute doesn't have the resources for particularly things like, you know, delegated legislation, regulations and peers don't have constituencies.

00:18:19:01 - 00:18:44:05

So they, you know, they spend an awful lot more time on the really detailed technical scrutiny of legislation, which the Commons really doesn't want to really do. But I think going back to the devolved legislative experience and one of the problems with a single chamber is that they are obviously quite small, much smaller than Westminster. So there were capacity issues and the Welsh Parliament is looking to expand its numbers.

00:18:44:07 - 00:19:06:02

But there is an issue where once you leave office in one chamber and you go onto the Opposition benches, I mean certainly in the early periods when you're, you know, committees for example, are scrutinizing legislation, scrutinizing policies, they're scrutinizing the things that they were doing not long ago. And it's sort of a new position. It's quite an uncomfortable experience.

00:19:06:02 - 00:19:24:19

Yeah. You sort of reluctance in those early months of a new parliament to do that. You don't have that issue quite the same way in the in the House of Lords and they can take a different approach to their scrutiny. You know, in the Commons this scrutiny is done through committees on a departmental basis, primarily in the Lords.

00:19:24:19 - 00:19:40:13

Like a different approach tends to be sort of more, you know, a broader look at policies on a on a cross-departmental basis. Well, I think that Lordships were quite like the fact that we've been praising their work to the skies. I mean, no one is suggesting that the House of Lords is a perfect instrument of scrutiny at all.

00:19:40:13 - 00:19:58:15

But the fact is that if you want to look at the detail of a law, the House of Lords is the place where that is done to a much greater extent than it is in the Commons. The Commons doesn't, as you say, have a lot of the time to do it and would have to completely change the way it works if the Lords was just swept away.

00:19:58:15 - 00:20:25:12

The idea that the House of Lords is an unnecessary sort of ornament on the Constitution I think is a mistake because I think it genuinely is a very important backstop to the, to the activities of MPs. Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Ruth. So those are all three questions for this edition of Urgent Questions from the Parliament Matters podcast on Dancing On on Socks.

00:20:25:14 - 00:20:48:13

Make sure you subscribe to the podcast so you get the next episode to share your thoughts by reviving us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you've got any questions you'd like us to talk about in our special Urgent Questions episodes, go to Hansard Society, dot org dot UK Forward slash PM. You can put your questions there or you can follow us across social media app Hansard Society.

00:20:48:15 - 00:21:18:04

Thanks for joining us. See you soon. Goodbye. Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit or find us on social media @HansardSociety.

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