On the 20th July 2015, with the exception of 48 MPs who were present in the chamber and 184 MPs who were not, the Labour Party supported the Conservative government’s bill on Welfare Reform. Much ink has (and will) be spilt on what this will mean for the Labour Party – but the stakes are much higher than that. What is at stake is the supremacy of parliament itself.
While this may initially sound over-dramatic, the past few months have seen the Conservative Party become increasingly unwilling to hold up their manifesto pledges to parliamentary scrutiny. While standing before the door of 10 Downing Street the morning after the Scottish Independence referendum, David Cameron stirred up English nationalism with a promise for English Votes for English Laws -known more commonly as EVEL. With such a major piece of constitutional reform wide-scale debates in all areas of the UK were needed; a chance to redefine relationships and allow England to be devolved from Westminster and allow the Scottish people to feel equal to their neighbours. Instead the attempt to introduce separate voting rights for English and Welsh MPs was bodged; a tinkering of parliamentary procedure that added yet more ammunition to the already overflowing ‘out of touch Westminster’ stockpiles already being prepared by the SNP to use during the next independence referendum.
Such rhetorical firepower was soon followed by the discovery of the use of very real firepower. The Freedom of Information request by the pressure group Reprieve has shown that British pilots have carried out airstrikes in Syria against ISIS forces as part of the US-led coalition. The House of Commons in 2013 voted against the use of airstrikes in Syria, and since then parliamentary authorisation has only been given to air strikes by the RAF against ISIS targets in Iraq. John Baron, the Tory MP for Basildon and Billericay and a member of the foreign affairs select committee, has called for the immediate end to UK military strikes in Syria, stating :
“Let’s be absolutely clear about this. We voted in 2013, when parliament had been recalled from recess, that there should be no British military intervention in Syria. We were told that No 10 had got the message and that any future intervention would be subject to a vote.”
It seems Downing Street did not get that message. While David Cameron and Michael Fallon (the current defence secretary) claim the operational zone for air strikes has been extended due to the deaths of the 30 British holiday-makers killed in Tunisia in June, and that the government have suggested a vote will be held after the summer recess, air strikes in Syria have begun without parliamentary approval.
The discovery of which highlights the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, one of the newly-laid corner-stones of political accountability. The Act has been a thorn in the side of politicians since its introduction 15 years ago – but it has been a necessary one. To pick one of many examples of its benefits it was under the terms of the Act that the thread of parliamentary expenses was unpicked, pulled and unravelled – exposing the ‘gravy-train’ culture that had become prevalent for a number of Members of Parliament. Requests like those made by the Reprieve pressure group led in June to Michael Gove, the Secretary of Justice, suggesting that it should be made more difficult to gain access to ministerial papers and that a “thinking time” should be added when calculating how much it would cost to retrieve any information – despite David Cameron’s stated desire to create a “new era of transparency in government”
While the workings of the Freedom of Information Act are presided over by a committee, that committee (led by former Home Secretary Jack Straw) has come under criticism by in some quarters. A source speaking to the BBC stated that:
“If the government were genuinely interested in improving the workings of the act [and create greater transparency], it should have chosen a more balanced panel.”
These instances of ‘back-door’ politics, or more accurately an unwillingness to risk being defeated in ‘open debate’ has led to a clause being added into the Welfare Reform Bill that has now been lost in the reams of numbers and pie charts that have made up the analysis of the budget. The importance of which, as summarised by the Guardian:
“[The] clause in the bill allows the government to change the [level of the welfare-cap] in future too – without consulting parliament. This paves the way for the threshold to sink ever lower, consigning children from larger families to the breadline without scrutiny.”
A vote against the Welfare Reform Bill would not only have been an opportunity for Labour to discuss and debate the impact such cuts will have on the most vulnerable in society but also to prove the validity of parliamentary supremacy itself. With such a pattern emerging of how this Conservative government operates, it is not hard to imagine similar clauses being added to future legislation on a variety of topics.
A book has been written on the Strange Death of Liberal England, perhaps one will be written on the Strange Death of a Labour England too. Let’s make sure one isn’t written on the Strange Death of Parliamentary Britain.