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IFG - Problems exposed by the Brexit parliament will persist without proper reform

Long-standing problems with how parliament works and how MPs perform their duties have yet to be addressed, says a new report from the Institute for Government.

Published yesterday, Parliamentary Monitor 2020 is an-depth look at the so-called Brexit parliament which ran from 2017 to 2019. The report finds that Brexit, combined with minority government, had a profound and detrimental effect on the relationship between the government and parliament, and pushed parliamentary procedure to its limit.

Battles over parliamentary rules highlighted the need to update and clarify procedures. Questions remain about how much control the government should have over parliament’s agenda, how emergency debates and humble addresses should be used, the meaning of certain parliamentary terms, and the role of the Speaker. Worrying weaknesses in how parliament scrutinises government legislation were exposed once again. Despite the challenging circumstances, parliament largely continued to fulfil its functions beyond Brexit and spent most of its time considering other issues.

The initial phase of the coronavirus crisis has seen parliamentary consensus around radical, but temporary, changes in how parliament works. Despite this, there is real risk that the problems which defined the 2017–19 parliament could re-emerge without proper reform.

As parliament addresses the problems exposed over the past few years and grapples with the coronavirus crisis, the report sets out three priorities for parliament:

  1. Ensure there is adequate parliamentary scrutiny of the government. This is particularly pressing given the extraordinarily broad powers being exercised by the government in response to coronavirus.
  2. Improve and maintain parliament’s technical capability and ability to work remotely. Any moves to return parliament to its usual ways of working following coronavirus reforms should not disadvantage members unable to attend in person.
  3. Review (and where necessary reform) the areas of parliamentary procedure that proved most contentious during the 2017–19 parliament.

During the 2017–19 parliament, the report finds that:

  • The cost of MPs’ security assistance rose to almost 2000% above pre-2015 levels – as MPs faced unprecedented threats to their safety.
  • The government used its control of parliamentary time to avoid scheduling any opposition-led debates over a five-month period between late 2018 and early 2019 – a key period in the Brexit process.
  • Parliament approved extraordinarily broad powers to make secondary legislation to prepare for Brexit – in exchange for only small improvements in parliamentary oversight.
  • Minority government, Brexit and an amenable Speaker gave backbench MPs more influence than usual, which may have had a cultural impact that proves hard to reverse.
  • High Brexit drama sparked public interest in parliament, with a 150% increase in audiences between 2017 and 2019 and over six million signing an e-petition to revoke Article 50 – the most popular petition parliament has ever received. 

Joe Marshall, senior researcher at the Institute for Government and report author said:

“The coronavirus crisis has put the political turmoil of the Brexit parliament into sharp perspective. However, the events of the 2017–19 parliament will have a lasting impact. They raised questions about where sovereignty lies in the UK constitution and highlighted the need to update and clarify contentious parliamentary procedures. If the scars of the last parliament are not addressed, these problems may re-emerge in future.”

Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government and report author said:

“The 2017–19 parliament saw MPs and peers grapple with various important and high-profile issues – including Brexit, allegations of bullying and harassment and increased security concerns. Yet, at the same time, the conditions for reaching consensus – majority government and strong party loyalty – slipped away, making it more difficult for parliament to function.”

Notes to editors

  1. Full report is attached and will be available here:
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact 0785 031 3791.
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