Sunday, 10 May 2015

Prime Ministerial Accountability to Parliament

Mark Bennister and Alix Kelso discuss Prime Miniserial Accountability to Parliament.

The relationship between parliament and the prime minister is likely to be a focus of much attention during the general election fallout. Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church) and Alix Kelso (Southampton) have been awarded research funding from the Nuffield Foundation to examine this relationship by analysing the prime minister’s appearances before the House of Commons Liaison Committee.[i]

Prime ministerial accountability
The post of prime minister is not formally accountable to parliament. The prime minister’s leadership role is founded neither in constitutional text nor parliamentary enactment, but is instead rooted in convention. The prime minister is therefore able to shape the rules as he or she sees fit. Consequently, the status of the prime minister within the chain of delegation and accountability is problematic. There is no Westminster equivalent of the Scottish ratification of the leader and cabinet (which would of course be most helpful after an inconclusive election), rather the prime minister remains in place only for as long as he or she maintains the confidence of the House of Commons. The prime minister decides how often, and when, to appear before parliament, and the degree of accountability is thus in his or her gift. This complex accountability relationship between the prime minister and parliament is inherently fluid. The prime minister has no department with formal accountability to parliament, and appears in the House largely by convention (answering parliamentary questions, making statements, making formal speeches and intervening in debates).

Liaison Committee evidence sessions
In the contemporary context of declining prime ministerial engagement with parliament, increasingly centralised power, and mediatised political leadership, one accountability reform has bucked the trend.[ii] Whilst public perceptions of prime ministerial accountability centre on Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ), Liaison Committee sessions with the prime minister gain little recognition. In 2002 Tony Blair, after long resistance, agreed to appear twice a year before the Committee, which comprises the chairs of the House of Commons select committees, to answer questions on policy matters. This formal scrutiny function has now operated for thirteen years, questioning three prime ministers. The new forum generated some initial media attention before becoming an established part of parliamentary scrutiny machinery. The Committee has undergone a process of significant institutional learning as a result of its early experiences, and has narrowed the number of topics and the number of questioners, increased to three sessions a year, sharpening the scrutiny blade that it wields. Primarily, the sessions enable the prime minister to be challenged on the government’s record in a less partisan manner than weekly PMQs.[iii] Although some journalists mocked the sessions as ‘bore-a-thons’ without any ‘blood on the carpet’, that is in fact the key point: the sessions are generally informative exchanges on broad government strategy and contemporary issues, which provide for far more detailed prime ministerial justification of policy decision making. When canvassed the public found these sessions positive, but knew little about them.[iv]

Liaison Committee: Up to the job of scrutinising the PM?
These sessions with the prime minister therefore constitute important connective tissue between the executive and the legislature, but have thus far attracted little research attention. The departmental structure of the select committee system has meant that the prime minister traditionally refused to appear before them, and prior to 2002, successive prime ministers argued that secretaries of state and ministers were the appropriate government representatives to answer questions before select committees, and that the prime minister was sufficiently held to account through PMQs. But PMQs can swiftly be dismissed as an effective means of holding the prime minister to account. By contrast, the Liaison Committee sessions provide a different institutional forum. Located in a committee room away from the partisan battle of the chamber, the Liaison Committee sessions provide an institutional environment in which in-depth questioning can be pursued and, crucially, prime ministerial answers interrogated.

Analysis of the Liaison Committee is timely. The Committee is much cited by parliamentarians; the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, for instance recommended strengthening the Committee:

The Liaison Committee has the potential to be a very effective mechanism by which Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account. […]. The fewer the topics, and the questioners, the more in depth and serious the scrutiny will become - a welcome balance to the superficial nature of Prime Minister’s Questions.[v]

In many respects the Liaison Committee is ideally suited to conduct scrutiny of the prime minister. The chairs of the departmental select committees have, since 2010, been elected by the whole House of Commons, giving enhanced legitimacy and autonomy. Being able to draw on the prior policy knowledge of the chair of any of the relevant select committees can help to redress the resource asymmetries between parliament and the executive. It constitutes a considerable repository of parliamentary leadership capacity.

There is much that we just don’t know about this example of executive scrutiny, and our research project seeks to deliver useful insights. What are the goals of those participating in these scrutiny sessions, what do these goals tell us about the nature of parliamentary scrutiny, By combining detailed empirical analysis, interviews with participants, and comparative study, the project will add to our understanding of executive accountability, political leadership, and parliamentary development.

Dr Mark Bennister is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University.
Mark tweets @MarkBennister

Dr Alix Kelso is Associate Professor in British Politics at Southampton University.
Alix tweets @DrAlixKelso

[ii] Bennister, M. and Heffernan, R. (2014), ‘The Limits to Prime Ministerial Autonomy: Cameron and the Constraints of Coalition’ Parliamentary Affairs, 68 (1) pp25-41.
[iii] Kelso, A. (2008), ‘Prime Minister and Parliament: Tony Blair’s evidence to the Liaison Committee, 2002-2007’, Paper to PSA Annual Conference, University of Swansea, 1-3 April 2008.
[iv] Hansard Society (2014) Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions, London: Hansard Society.
[v] HC 351, (2014), The Role and Powers of the Prime Minister, First Report of Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, London: TSO.

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