Strengthening interparliamentary relations in the UK: first steps and possible future directions

Jack Sheldon and Hedydd Phylip discuss potential improvements to interparliamentary relations among the UK’s four legislatures, in the first blog from our Parliaments: Coming of Age? conference.

Calls to strengthen interparliamentary relations (IPR) among the UK’s four legislatures have been made by parliamentary committees and expert commissions for years. Seen as the ‘poorer and less well-developed relative’ of intergovernmental relations (IGR), Brexit has provided an impetus for greater use of IPR given its major implications for devolution.While IPR takes various forms, here we discuss the work of the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit (IPFB) since 2017 and possible ways this might be built on. Our analysis draws on research conducted for the ESRC Between Two Unions project, including discussions with those involved in IPR and observation of meetings.

The Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit

In July 2017, the House of Lords EU Committee recommended that ‘inter-parliamentary dialogue and cooperation be strengthened’, with a focus initially on ‘the Brexit negotiations themselves and the accompanying domestic legislation’. The product of that recommendation was the IPFB, which has met eight times since October 2017 and become the standard bearer for IPR. Forum meetings are hosted on rotation by the different parliamentary chambers (except Northern Ireland at the moment). Its Terms of Reference indicate that its primary purpose is to:

provide a mechanism for dialogue and cooperation between parliamentarians from all the UK Parliaments on issues of common interest and concern, and to consider a number of scrutiny challenges arising from the new constitutional arrangements which will be required post-Brexit

Participation

Participants are drawn from committees with remits covering domestic constitutional issues, EU affairs and statutory instruments. This collective experience is valuable for information and experience-sharing, and in fostering mutual understanding of the perspectives on devolution issues within different legislatures.

The exact composition of the forum has varied from meeting-to-meeting. While there have been some regular attendees who have become key actors in the development of the IPFB, others have attended less consistently. It has proved most challenging to secure consistent participation from members of the House of Commons.

Sheldon and Phylip table 1

Table 1 IPFB Participation

Agenda

Participants update each other on the scrutiny work of their committees and discuss topical issues. Initial meetings focused on scrutiny of the devolution aspects of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which was the subject of extensive intergovernmental negotiations and several committee inquiries. Later meetings have focused more on the longer-term implications of Brexit, including the role of legislatures in negotiations on the future relationship with the EU, any international trade deals and UK-wide common frameworks.

The forum usually meets with a government minister. These are, however, not formal evidence sessions and are held in private. The private and informal nature of the meetings is generally valued by participants. Behind closed doors it is possible for both ministers and committee members to be more frank than would be possible in public, and to use the meeting as a chance to canvass each other’s views.

Sheldon and Phylip table 2

Table 2 IPFB meetings and outputs

Outputs

Following each meeting the IPFB issues a statement that outlines the issues discussed. Some have also focused on IGR arrangements, which several of the component committees have published reports on. The forum has described the existing Joint Ministerial Committee structure as ‘not fit for purpose’ and ‘in urgent need of substantial reform’.

A year into its work, the forum began to send letters to UK ministers. The first was to David Lidington, then Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster, relating concerns around IGR and the need for ‘clearly-defined structures and processes for taking decisions on common frameworks’. This is a notable development in the IPFB’s outputs, indicating that the forum is becoming more confident in seeking to influence ministers on issues its participants can coalesce around.

Sheldon and Phylip table 3

Table 3 Strengths and limitations of the IPFB

The future of IPR

 To maximise the potential of IPR in the UK it will be necessary to go further – as the IPFB itself has recognised. As part of our research, we have been considering the institutional forms that strengthened arrangements might take. UK and international experience suggests four broad categories of IPR activity that serve as a useful starting point for this discussion, ranging from informal interactions to more elaborate institutional structures.

Sheldon and Phylip table 4

Table 4  Examples of different institutional forms of IPR

Drawing on this evidence base and existing proposals for IPR reform in the UK, we have identified three (potentially complementary) institutional directions that merit consideration in the specific UK context:

1/ Small institutional steps to facilitate IPR?

Committee reports have often proposed institutional steps that would be intended to facilitate more frequent co-operation of the informal and ad hoc types. Common suggestions include:

  • Amending Standing Orders to explicitly provide for interparliamentary meetings, and potentially outputs.
  • Introducing mutual recognition of parliamentary passes.
  • Fixed meeting dates for IPR forums.
  • Encouraging more secondments to the different parliaments for staff.

Steps of this type could be a strong signal of intent to strengthen IPR. Importantly, changes to Standing Orders would require legislatures as a whole to endorse IPR, affording such activities greater legitimacy and could go some way to addressing the lack of consistent engagement from the House of Commons. However, we do not believe that such changes would be transformational. Where there is sufficient will, it is already possible to work around Standing Orders to hold joint sessions (as the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Social Security Committee of the Scottish Parliament have done in the past).

2/ Further development of ad hoc IPR?

There are other steps that could be taken, building organically from the relatively ad hoc and informal model of the IPFB. For example, an informal interparliamentary body could:

  • Issue recommendations more systematically. These could be reached through a bottom-up approach of endorsing recommendations made by component committees, or a top-down approach of proposing recommendations which could then be endorsed by component committees.
  • Meet in public for a portion of its time in order to take evidence from ministers and other relevant witnesses. This could feed into the work of component committees.
  • Establish sub-forums to provide for co-ordination and joint working between committees involved in specific policy areas.
  • Have its own website and social media presence to draw more attention to its activities and outputs.

The advantage of  proceeding this way is that these things could be done without having to address the many tricky issues associated with moving to a more formal model. However, a body with no official status, and which is ad hoc in its composition, might struggle to achieve enhanced legitimacy in the eyes of parliamentarians, ministers and the public.

3/ A formal interparliamentary committee or conference?

A more ambitious option would be to establish an interparliamentary committee or conference on a formal basis (i.e. through Standing Orders or even legislation). This could potentially provide the setting for joint scrutiny of issues such as IGR and common frameworks, and could produce recommendations and reports.

There is some willingness to consider this. The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the House of Lords EU Committee have both called for officials from across the UK’s parliaments to work up options for more formal IPR. And the IPFB has itself concluded that ‘at some point, consideration of more formal interparliamentary structures will be needed’.

If this approach were to be taken, some major organisational questions would need to be addressed, including:

  • Would members attend in their own right, or as delegates speaking on behalf of a particular parliament or committee?
  • How should the membership be divided between participating parliamentary chambers?
  • How far should party balance be considered?
  • How would members be selected?
  • How often should it meet?
  • Should it have sub-committees focused on specific issues?
  • Should it meet in public?
  • How would it be staffed and funded?

A formal IPR body would also need to be very clear on the relationship between it and the individual legislatures, and be sensitive to the devolution settlements. It would remain the role of each legislature to scrutinise their respective governments, and it is therefore essential that any such body should complement and feed into the work of each parliament rather than superseding them.

Conclusions

Strengthened IPR mechanisms could play a key role in ensuring that the UK’s parliaments are not marginalised by an increase in the volume of IGR. In the immediate future continuing to build incrementally on the relatively informal and ad hoc structures that have been established is the most likely and most readily achievable route. However, there is also a strong case for giving full consideration to more formal options. If well designed, a permanent focus for IPR could represent a very important step in the coming of age of parliaments across the UK 20 years after devolution.

Notes

Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. He works on the ESRC-funded Between Two Unions project.

Hedydd Phylip is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University. She was previously a Research Associate on the ESRC-funded Between Two Unions project.

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