Based on unprecedented access to the UK Parliament, this book challenges how we understand and think about accountability between government and Parliament. Using data from a three-month research placement, over 45 interviews and more, this book focuses on the everyday practices of MPs and officials to reveal how parliamentarians perform their scrutiny roles. Some MPs adopt the role of a specialist, while others the role of a lone wolf; some are there to try to defend their party while others want to learn about policy. Among these different styles, chairs of committees have to try to reconcile these interpretations and either act as committee-orientated catalysts or attempt to impose order as leadership-orientated chieftains. All of this pushes and pulls scrutiny in lots of competing directions, and tells us that accountability depends on individual beliefs, everyday practices, and the negotiation of dilemmas. In this way, MPs and officials create a drama or spectacle of accountability and use their performance on the parliamentary stage to hold government to account. This book offers the most up-to-date and detailed research on committee practices in the House of Commons, following a range of reforms since 2010. The findings add new dimensions to how we study and understand accountability through the book’s path-breaking empirical focus, theoretical lens, and methodological tools. It is an ideal book for anyone interested in how Parliament works.
This chapter places the book in its wider context through an introductory discussion of the changing pattern of representative democracy and the place of the UK Parliament in British politics. This chapter identifies key debates about accountability for parliaments and the particular challenges that legislatures face, such as the growing and already widespread distrust of politicians and political institutions. The chapter also outlines how Parliament has traditionally held government to account by focusing on the history of select committees since 1979. It shows that, while committees have a long history, much has changed and especially since 2010, when reforms were introduced. This chapter also sets out the main argument and structure of all subsequent chapters.
This chapter offers a unique analysis of the wider literature on parliaments, in order to examine the different approaches that scholars have taken to understand the way that legislatures operate. It identifies lots of different ways, including old institutionalist, historical, rational choice, sociological and interpretive/constructivist. They have shaped the study of parliaments, and inform this book. The chapter argues that the interpretive approach is particularly instructive, and so the remainder of the chapter develops its philosophical foundations and core analytical principles. There are a number of key concepts, including beliefs, practices, traditions and dilemmas, all of which are important for understanding the behaviour of political actors. The chapter also uses insights from dramaturgy to construct an analytical framework around these concepts. The chapter closes with an outline of methods.
This chapter revolves around fundamental debates about the role of politicians in the twenty-first century and the kind of politicians required for effective accountability of government. It situates the chapter in broader debates about the role of MPs before then examining the ‘scrutiny role’ of parliamentarians. The chapter finds that MPs have contrasting and competing visions for scrutiny and enact those roles through a variety of performance styles: specialists and experts, lone wolves, constituency champions, learners, party helpers or absentees. The chapter juxtaposes these interpretations with the pressures that MPs face more generally, such as time pressure, building expertise and multiple loyalties. All of these have a bearing on how MPs subsequently approach their scrutiny work. This chapter gives us new ways to think about the role of MP in the House of Commons, and sparks debates about the effectiveness of accountability in Parliament.
Little detailed research has been published on committee chairs. So, in this empirically unique chapter, analysis begins by locating the role of chair in their institutional context, including important reforms that have taken place in the UK Parliament in 2010 that have renewed chairs’ sense of authority. The chapter discusses the leadership role that chairs have adopted and how this affects select committees. The chapter argues that chairs have adopted different styles, but that this falls along a spectrum: either committee-orientated catalysts or leadership-orientated chieftains. The choices that chairs make affect their ability to lead their committee, building consensus, and representing Parliament. The chapter opens wider debates about institutional roles and leadership within legislatures. Moreover, given the 2017 election result, chairs of these committees are likely to play an important brokerage role that means this chapter will be a timely contribution to understanding their influence for a wider audience.
This chapter explores one of the most understudied actors across legislatures: their staff. Little research has been published on the roles and interpretations of staff on scrutiny in the House of Commons, despite their permanent and vital role to carrying out accountability functions. This chapter briefly places staff in their organisational context, which has undergone significant reforms since 2014–15. It then explores the ways in which staff interpret their role, which is characterised by three facets: first, being hidden, i.e., the belief that clerks should not have a public-facing role; second, unparalleled service, i.e., the belief that clerks are in the service of democracy and must support the institution of Parliament in every way possible; and third, passionate impartiality, the belief that all MPs must be served equally. These facets of their role throw up a number of tensions, which are explored in the final section of the chapter.
This chapter brings many of the elements of the previous chapters together to examine how different interpretations of scrutiny affect the evidence-gathering process. In other words, it looks at how an inquiry is ‘performed’. It looks, first, at ‘the backstage’ or preparations for inquiries. This demonstrates the strategic role of chair as well as the briefing that goes on behind the scenes. Second, the chapter will analyse how scrutiny plays out on ‘the front stage’. This analyses committee hearings as a piece of theatre: the chair becomes the lead actor; the committee members are the supporting cast; the staff act as various backstage support and stage directors; briefing papers act as loose scripts; the public become spectators; and, the committee rooms act as a stage where it all happens. The aim here is to illustrate the often symbolic value of representation and accountability and the impact that this has.
This chapter ties together how contrasting interpretations of scrutiny affect accountability relationships. The core argument of this chapter is that scrutiny is dependent on fragile, although also sometimes very dense and effective, webs of accountability in the House of Commons. The argument develops in three steps. First, it looks at individual relationships between MPs to show that informal practices and networks that are fundamental to making scrutiny happen. It then applies these insights in the second section, where the chapter turns to the development of norms and values of committees. This is critical to establish goodwill on committees as well as – and perhaps most importantly – the construction of consensus in reports. Almost all policy impact on government by committees depends on these reports, and a lot of this influence is derived from their unanimity. The final section looks at the implications of all this to understanding accountability in the House of Commons, arguing that it is ‘webs of scrutiny’ that matter most in conducting scrutiny, rather than the institutional powers that committees have (or, more accurately, do not have).
The book returns to the key themes and questions raised in the opening chapters, and posits the wider conclusions that we can draw from the empirical research. First, and drawing on empirical sections, the chapter reflects on scrutiny in the UK Parliament, and re-emphasises the general themes of the book about the importance of beliefs, practices and dilemmas to explain select committee scrutiny in the House of Commons. Second, the chapter brings out wider cross-cutting themes of the book, including the effect of the Wright reforms to improve the effectiveness of Parliament and what this book tells us about the lives of politicians more generally. Finally, the book closes with the wider relevance of this book’s findings on representative democracy in the UK and the continuing challenges that the UK Parliament faces.