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Tim Ambler: What is Parliament for?

Civitas, 16 April 2021

A guest post by Tim Ambler

Parliament passes and revises legislation, of course, but it also should give teeth to democracy by holding government to account. Ministers make decisions but they are shielded from the public by their civil servants. Anyone who has written to a government minister, and been lucky enough to get a reply, will have noticed that a civil servant must have been the author. An MP cannot ask any written or oral question of a Minister; the Table Office has to approve it, and possibly pasteurise it in the process.

When an MP, noting that the Scottish government could afford a 4% pay increase for nurses when Whitehall could only afford 1%, wanted to ask if the Barnett formula (which caused the English to be paying through the block grant for the larger Scottish increase) should be reviewed, the Table Office did not approve that and the question became:

“To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with reference to the briefing note published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on 31 March 2020, and its finding that public spending per person in Scotland is over 30 per cent higher than equivalent English funding, if he will review the Barnett formula to take account of (a) recent trends in the level of Scotland’s population growth and (b) the cost of living in that country.”

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury replied:

“The government sets out funding arrangements for the Devolved Administrations in the Statement of Funding Policy (SFP), which was most recently updated at the 2020 Spending Review and is kept under review. The 2020 SFP states that the Barnett formula continues to perform a key part of the arrangements for pooling and sharing risks and resources across the UK. This means that a downturn in one area can be supported by other areas, rather than being dependent on local economic conditions – and a windfall can be shared with other areas. It ensures the devolved administrations receive a population share of changes in relevant funding consistent with the wider principles set out in the SFP.”   

The point about one part of the UK getting 30% more than the rest was totally avoided.

This avoidance is standard practice, and, as a result, ministers are not being held to account.  The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wasted an hour of everyone’s time in the chamber of the Commons on 13th April time by ducking questions on the recent Northern Ireland troubles and, in particular, on the Protocol which is partly responsible. He gave MPs no news or explanations or understanding of how the troubles would be cured.  The quotes are all from Hansard.[i]

John Redwood asked if goods should “be able to move as easily from Liverpool to Belfast as from Liverpool to Birmingham, and should that not be under the direct control of the UK authorities?” The Minister’s reply was “Obviously we want to do that in partnership and agreement with our friends and partners in the EU, and that work is what we are doing at this very moment”, i.e. no specifics.  In contrast, we had learned that very morning, via Dublin,[ii] that the UK government had submitted a list of proposed solutions to the EU two weeks earlier and the EU had responded with a proposal on mutual recognition of veterinarians which, they claimed, would remove 90% of the problems. Dubliners can be told but not, it seems, our MPs – still less what that list of proposed solutions contained. Remarkably, the Secretary of State would not even confirm the veterinarian issue when raised by Fleur Anderson MP later.

A Labour MP suggested that there had been a breakdown in trust because “the Prime Minister said that the Northern Irish protocol must not place “barriers of any kind” down the Irish sea” and the opposite had taken place. The Secretary of State responded “It is interesting that, in talking about a complex and multifaceted situation, the hon. Lady goes straight to talking about Brexit.” Er, no she was not, Mr Lewis.

Felicity Buchan (Kensington), who may not have been listening to what everyone had been saying for the previous 30 minutes, then contributed this gem: “Does my right hon. Friend agree that the violence we have seen is utterly unacceptable and that the only way we can make progress on these issues is through peaceful and inclusive dialogue?” Urgent questions are pre-screened and one wonders why that was waved through.

Paul Blomfield got to the nub of the issue in this way:

“The Secretary of State knows that there were only three options: all-UK alignment with the customs union and the single market, a land border between north and south, or a border in the Irish sea. The Prime Minister chose the sea border, but then he promised that it would not involve the checks that he signed up to in the protocol. I think he either did not understand the agreement he signed, or did not care about telling the truth. Which was it?”

The Secretary of State replied, “Given that this was outlined earlier today, it is interesting that Opposition Members continue to want to talk about nothing else but leaving the EU.”  Er, no he was not, Mr Lewis.

Better things happen in the sessions run by the select committees but written and oral questions are too often a waste of time and fail to hold government to account. The Speaker should demand that questions deserving respect should receive it and be answered. Ministers  should not be allowed to continue until they have done so.

This does occasionally happen. For example, the next day, in response to a question about inappropriate lobbying and sleaze, the Prime Minister went chuntering off into police numbers and vaccinations until interrupted by the Speaker with these words “Order. Prime Minister, I think we ought to at least try and address the question.”

My point is that the Speaker’s insistence that questions are answered should not be a rarity but standard practice. Likewise, a member of his team should monitor responses to MPs’ written questions and reject those that fail properly to answer them.  In short, government should be answerable to Parliament.




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