The Labour Party government elected in 1997 pledged to reform the Westminster parliament by modernising the House of Commons and removing the hereditary peers from the House of Lords. Events have consequently demonstrated the deep controversy that accompanies such attempts at institutional reconfiguration, and have highlighted the shifting fault-lines in executive-legislative relations in the UK, as well as the deep complexities surrounding British constitutional politics. The story of parliamentary reform is about the nature of the British political system, about how the government seeks to expand its control over parliament, and about how parliament discharges its duty to scrutinise the executive and hold it to account. This book charts the course of Westminster reform since 1997, but does so by placing it in the context of parliamentary reform pursued in the past, and thus adopts a historical perspective that lends it analytical value. It examines parliamentary reform through the lens of institutional theory, in order not only to describe reform but also to interpret and explain it. The book also draws on extensive interviews conducted with MPs and peers involved in the reform of parliament since 1997, thus offering an insight into how these political actors perceived the reform process in which they played a part. It provides a comprehensive analysis of the trajectory and outcome of the reform of parliament, along with an original interpretation of that reform and its implications.
The Westminster parliament has attracted attention in recent years in terms of how it can be changed and reformed so as to improve the role it plays in British politics. Think tanks, public commissions, and even parliament itself have all examined the way in which it functions as a political institution and how changes might lead to enhanced public engagement with politics and thus to more robust representative democracy. This book explores some of the history of parliamentary reform in Britain. It draws on a series of interviews with some of the key political actors, particularly MPs, who have been interested in and involved with parliamentary reform in the post-1997 era. It analyses the content and arguments of historical institutional theory; the course of House of Commons reform from 1900 to 1997 in terms of efficiency reforms; how the Labour Party government delivered its manifesto commitment to ‘modernise’ the Commons, with a particular focus on how this process of modernisation affected the legislative process; and the House of Lords reform since 1997.
The Labour Party government elected in 1997 was committed to an expansive legislative programme after almost twenty years in opposition, and was keen to ensure that the most efficient mechanisms were in place to secure that programme. To achieve this, the government established a Modernisation Committee to implement the necessary changes in parliament. A significant proportion of this Committee's time has been spent on efficiency matters similar to those explored previously by the Procedure Committee. The notion of modernisation has been utilised by the government to update and redesign procedures primarily (although not exclusively) for its own benefit. These changes have included alterations to the legislative process, adjustments to House sitting hours, and the creation of Westminster Hall as a parallel chamber. The Labour government's constitutional reform programme included a commitment to establish a select committee for the specific purpose of modernising the House of Commons.
Norton (2000) outlined three conditions that must be met before effective parliamentary reform may proceed. The first necessary condition is a window of opportunity in which reform can take place. Second, there has to be a coherent reform agenda in place that provides a package behind which MPs might organise. Third, leadership must exist to exploit the window of opportunity and promote the reform agenda. In the summer of 1998, Charter 88 complained of the ‘disappointingly slow’ pace of reform and the ‘extremely cautious’ nature of the Modernisation Committee's recommendations. The Liaison Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Terence Higgins, used its 1997 report on the work of the select committees as an opportunity to explore the issues in greater depth. This chapter examines effectiveness in the House of Commons since 1997, focusing on various reports prepared by the Liaison Committee, the Commission to Strengthen Parliament, and the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny. It also discusses the support of the Labour Party led by Robin Cook to institute reforms in the House of Commons.
To understand why parliamentary reform does or does not take place requires a prior understanding of the context in which it does or does not occur. The characteristics of the institution of parliament are a product of its historical development, and that development has fostered the emergence of particular norms and values that continue to shape its functioning and capabilities. Crucially, parliament cannot be understood in isolation from government and, consequently, parliamentary reform cannot be understood separately from its likely impact on government. Parliamentary reform can most usefully be analysed with reference to the norms and values that structure the institutional context in which parliament exists. It is necessary, therefore, to explore those norms and values, and the specific ways that they regulate and restrict parliamentary capabilities. This chapter discusses institutional theory and historical institutionalism with respect to parliamentary reform in Britain, along with ministerial responsibility, parliamentary sovereignty, strong party government, the power of the executive at Westminster, role of parliament and individual MPs within the political system, and approaches to parliamentary reform.
The historical development of the Westminster parliament has bestowed a pre-eminent position on the executive inside the House of Commons. Reforms intended to improve the efficiency of the House of Commons are qualitatively different from those that are intended to improve its effectiveness. The distinction is derived from the historical development of the executive and legislature at Westminster, and has a direct bearing both upon the content of reform and the likelihood of its success. This chapter explores the notion of parliamentary efficiency in Britain. It discusses two strands of efficiency reform — streamlining and expediting — and looks at how government business was expedited during 1900–1930. It also focuses on the Balfour reforms introduced in 1902 to enhance parliamentary procedure with respect to legislation, the 1906 Procedure Committee, increased use of standing committees for the purposes of legislative scrutiny, the 1931 Procedure Committee, the post-war Procedure Committee, parliamentary reform during the 1950s, streamlining of the work of the House of Commons during 1961–1997, and controversy over House of Commons sitting hours.
Successive governments have been able to use their dominant position inside the House of Commons to implement effectiveness reforms, defined as those which seek to rebalance executive-legislative relations. This chapter examines some of the reforms implemented in the years prior to 1997, suggested for and implemented in the House of Commons to enhance its effectiveness. While effectiveness reforms in the early part of the century tended to suggest particularly radical solutions to the ‘problem of parliament’, such as electoral reform and devolution, that tendency was largely replaced in the post-war era by a desire to enhance effectiveness by promoting internal reform of the House of Commons itself. The chapter also considers the creation of investigative committees in the House of Commons, the decline of parliament, the establishment of Commons committees during 1961–1997, the Procedure Committee report of 1965 on parliamentary reform and how to improve the effectiveness of the Commons, the reforms initiated by Richard Crossman, and the introduction of select committees.
Historical institutionalism provides a useful lens through which to view the events surrounding reform of the House of Lords in the past century. Executives have successfully argued for the restriction of the powers of the Lords in order to preserve their own position inside parliament. The democratic legitimacy argument has been inverted in order to prevent reforms designed to make the Lords a more effective chamber, and discourse surrounding the reform debate has been underpinned by the normative argument regarding the pre-eminence of the Commons. The pre-eminence argument reflects the norms and values of the executive in particular, rather than the Commons in general. This chapter looks at the reform of the House of Lords in the years between 1900 and 1997. It also discusses the election of the Liberal Party to government in 1906 and the Parliament Act of 1911, the 1917 Bryce Conference held to consolidate parliamentary reform, the Labour Party's rise to power in 1945 and the Parliament Act of 1949, and the Life Peerages Act of 1958.
This chapter outlines the House of Lords reform since 1997 and the role of the Labour Party government in the reform agenda. It employs historical institutional theory to analyse the events, as well as the language of the attitudinal and contextual approaches in order to understand what did and did not happen. The attitudinal approach, while setting out the conditions required for parliamentary reform to succeed, also places a great deal of emphasis on the presence of political will, which the contextual approach indicates will is often lacking because of the way that institutional norms and values structure political life at Westminster, and shape the logic of appropriateness used by MPs to determine their goals and actions. The chapter also discusses New Labour's commitment to Lords reform, the House of Lords Bill and the amendment proposed by former Speaker of the Commons Bernard Weatherill, the creation of the Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords in February 1999, window of opportunity and political leadership, and the creation of the Joint Committee on House of Lords reform in 2002.
This book has used historical institutionalism because it not only forces us to take the long-term view of an institution's development, but also gives us insights into norms and values, institutional contexts, agents and ideas, path dependency and critical junctures, all of which assist in the analysis of institutional persistence and change. It is in facilitating consideration of the context in which parliament and its reform exist that the application of the historical institutionalist lens provides the most value. The historical development of the Westminster parliament in Britain points to three central norms and values that contribute to its structured institutional context: parliamentary sovereignty, ministerial responsibility, and party government. Parliamentary reform is pursued as a means to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.