The Study of Parliament Group: The First Twenty-one Years (1)

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Chapter 1: Beginnings

On 24th September 1964 a memorandum calling a meeting was drawn up by Sir Edward Fellowes the recently retired Clerk of the House of Commons, Michael Ryle a Senior Clerk in the House of Commons and Dr Bernard Crick of the London School of Economics. They were concerned about the working of Parliament and set down these concerns as follows:

“For some time it has been apparent that there are surprisingly few studies of the working of our contemporary Parliament, certainly compared to historical studies of Parliament. Part of the reason for this might be a lack of regular contact between academic students of Parliament and those interested in such matters within the Palace of Westminster. The idea arose recently and spontaneously, both from within and without, that this could be remedied as a considerable service to scholarship; and that, at the same time, by coincidence, there was a matter of immediate public importance to which such a group might make an important contribution. If this memorandum has more to say about the immediate short-run topic of possible changes in Parliament, it is only because this needs more explaining, not because it is necessarily more important than the more long-run scholarly object of calling this meeting.

Both the Conservative and Labour Parties have pledged themselves to create a Select Committee on Procedure early in the life of the new Parliament. It is likely that there will be a Select Committee on the Library too. Accommodation facilities and unified control of the Palace of Westminster are topics all likely to come up, either severally or in connection with Procedure and the Library. And whatever the recommendations of the committee on Ministers’ and Members’ salaries, they are bound to involve some of the above topics.

There would seem to be a unique opportunity to persuade such committees of the House to look at the problem of the effectiveness of Parliament as a whole (even perhaps to include the relationship of work done by the Lords to that of the Commons). Certainly as regards procedure in the Commons, there seems a real chance, whichever Party is in power, of changes going considerably beyond those proposed in 1959. But it is relatively unlikely that initiative from within the Parties will lead to these problems being looked at in any systematic relationship to each other. This could best be achieved by some independent body without any Party commitments. For the first time, however, the will to change within the House, or at least the expectation that there will be changes, is greater than clear views within Parties of what should be done.

Therefore there seems a good chance that the character of changes could be usefully influenced if some group outside the Parties studied the problem as a whole and put forward detailed proposals to the relevant committees of a comprehensive, yet immediately practical and politically sensible nature (proposals compatible with the existing practices of Ministerial responsibility and Party government). Such a group might at the same time attempt to stimulate some MPs drawn from all three Parties to give evidence, or to help brief MPs who would be giving evidence anyway.

So partly for these reasons this informal meeting has been called to take advice and to plan. But quite apart from the submission of evidence (directly or indirectly), the suggestion has been made that it would be mutually useful, both for practical and academic reasons, for people in the universities and in the Palace of Westminster interested in the study of the modern Parliament to have the chance to meet each other on some known and regular basis, however informal, to study and to stimulate studies of Parliament. Some of those attending this meeting will be more interested in this long-term aim rather than in immediate prospects of Parliamentary reform; all may have valuable advice at this and later stages, not all, we recognise, will have time to work. (We recognise from the start that no-one active in the group could or should be deterred from submitting individual evidence on special topics, and that not everyone who works with us may be able to sign the submission.)”

Copies of the memorandum were sent to Kenneth Bradshaw, David Pring and Robert Rhodes James of the Department of the Clerk of the House; to David Holland and Dr. David Menhennet of the Department of the Speaker (Library); and to Professor Max Beloff, Norman Chester, Professor John Griffith, Professor Harry Hanson, Professor William J.M. Mackenzie, Dr. Peter Richards, Professor William Robson and Professor Victor Wiseman. All except Mr. Chester and Professors Hanson, Mackenzie and Robson attended the first meeting on 2nd October 1964 at the London School of Economics when those present constituted themselves the Study of Parliament Group. Twenty-one years later, of these 16 ‘founder members’ four have died but many of the rest remain in active membership.

This first meeting set about matters with a sense of urgency. First, invitations were sent out to a number of academics including Peter Bromhead, Basil Chubb, Bernard Donoughue, Norman Hunt, Nevil Johnson and Geoffrey Marshall. Subsequently all but Chubb joined the Group. Secondly, the opportunity presented three weeks later by the General Election which brought a Labour Government to power after thirteen years of Conservative administration was seized. Small Groups were set up to prepare evidence for the forthcoming Select Committee on Procedure which had been promised by both the major political parties. (Harold Wilson, in a speech at Stowmarket, had put parliamentary reform at the front of his programme.) It is worthwhile detailing these as not only do they reflect the thinking of the founder members, but they were to provide the framework for much SPG thinking and work in the coming years. Also their method of examining questions, through small working groups preparing drafts of papers for subsequent presentation to Select Committees and for publication, was to become the usual one for the SPG. Work in preparation for giving evidence to the proposed Procedure Committee was divided as follows:

Parliamentary Committees: Wiseman (convenor), Hanson, Johnson and Pring

Financial Control and Scrutiny: Ryle (convenor), Chester and Mackenzie

Legislation: Fellowes (convenor), Crick and Marshall

Scrutiny of policy and administration: Rhodes James (convenor), Griffith, Hunt and Robson

Research and Information for MPs: Holland (convenor), Beloff, Bradshaw, Crick and Menhennet

In addition Richards contributed a paper on Opportunities for Backbenchers. Finally, like previous instigators of change the founding members capped their first meeting by deciding to write a letter to The Times. On October 29th, exactly a fortnight after the General Election, the following letter appeared:

Sir,–The new House of Commons meets with all parties pledged to some measure of parliamentary reform.

The parties pledged themselves presumably because of much public and parliamentary disquiet with the working of Parliament. This will not have been diminished by the present political situation, indeed the contrary.

In the past enthusiasm for reform has been more manifest in the ranks of Oppositions than of Governments. But since the present Government will almost certainly need to make some changes in procedure or practice to get its legislation through, it is to be hoped that all parties will see that it is in their own interest to attempt to reach some more comprehensive agreement towards improving and modernizing, not least among British institutions, Parliament itself.

One of the main troubles in the past has been the practice of setting up separate bodies to examine particular fields of reform. There have been many Select Committees on Procedure. Accommodation has been considered by a succession of committees reporting directly to the Speaker. The–surely related?–question of Members’ salaries has similarly been considered separately by another body.

If this highly complex subject is to be adequately considered, a single body–perhaps a Joint Committee of both Houses–should be charged with recommending improvement in the working of Parliament. A Committee on the Working of Parliament could consider such apparently disparate, but in reality closely connected, matters as procedural changes, facilities for Members, accommodation, research staff, use of the Library, financial control, cooperation between the two Houses, and the relationship to Parliament of any proposed Parliamentary Commissioner.

The connexions between these things are obvious, but Select Committees have seldom, if ever, attempted to connect any of them at all. Largely to this can be attributed the chronic failure of Parliament to grapple with the whole question of its position, influence, and power in the second half of the twentieth century.

We write as members of a new unofficial body, called the Study of Parliament group, which has been formed for the purpose of bringing together some of those in the universities with some of those working in the Palace of Westminster interested in such matters. We intend in due course to present a balanced and, above all, practical series of proposals to whatever body or bodies Parliament may charge with the consideration of reform. But we take this opportunity to express our conviction that the old system of dividing up subjects among separate Select Committees should be abandoned in favour of creating one body to consider the many matters involved in the effective and efficient working of Parliament.

We have no doubt that the whole question of Parliament’s role has been ignored for far too long, and that a detailed, far-reaching and practical investigation is urgently required.

Yours faithfully,

formerly Clerk of the House of Commons.

Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration, All Souls College, Oxford.

Senior Lecturer in Government, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, W.C.2.

October 26.

This provoked a certain number of private letters from Members of Parliament. To maintain the momentum, a little over a month later the SPG met for a weekend at the Clarges Hotel, Brighton, from 13-15 November 1964, (for some years the Group was dubbed by its critics the “Brighton gang”). Those present concentrated on the urgent tasks of preparing evidence for the Procedure Committee and, starting from papers prepared by the working groups, agreed a number of proposals reflecting their broad approach to what they saw as Parliament’s problems including:

1. Legislation

    Detailed discussion should largely be removed from the floor of the House. More details should be included in Statutory Instruments and the Parliamentary procedures for examining them should be strengthened.

2. Financial Control

    • The Government should publish a Public Investment White Paper and also a separate Public Expenditure White Paper with a four year ‘forward look’.

Early in the session a Select Committee on Expenditure should be appointed to which the White Papers should be referred. The Committee should produce informative analyses of costs and consequences on the basis of which the priorities and balances of expenditure could be debated by the House.

Before the Budget debate there should be a major two day debate on both the total and overall balance of Government expenditure. The two White Papers and the Report of the Expenditure Committee, which should have specialist sub-committees, would provide the basic documents for this debate.

There should be a select committee on Taxation to look at the details of tax law and proposals for raising revenue.

3. Parliamentary Scrutiny of Policy and Administration

    A Parliamentary Commissioner should be appointed and report to a Select Committee in the same way as the Comptroller and Auditor General reports to the Public Accounts Committee. The Parliamentary Commissioner should deal with complaints himself but make reports to the Committee (a) summarising the complaints he has recorded and action taken and (b) drawing the attention of the Committee to cases of particular interest.

4. Specialist Advisory Committees

    • Standing Committees should remain as at present.

The Estimates Committee should be enlarged to make use of more sub-committees which would be specialised so as to cover the whole field of Government operations and report on the conduct of administration and on matters necessary for the understanding of policy questions.

5. Research and information for MPs.

After prolonged discussion it was agreed to recommend to a Procedure Committee that–

The creation of a unified structure of departments serving the House, to include the Clerks Department and the Library Department, should be considered.

Interchangeability of staff between departments should be considered.

Sufficient research staff should eventually be employed to enable one man to specialise in each of the main fields of public administration.

Such research staff should be available, when called on, to assist Select Committees and individual Members.

The possibility of recruiting a proportion of such research staff from the universities, possibly on a secondment basis for a limited number of years, should be studied.

The work at this first Brighton weekend has been described in some detail, partly because it illustrates how bright were the hopes of reform at the time, and partly because some twenty years later such a large number of the proposals then launched have been put into effect.

There had been an instinctive rapport between academics and Parliamentary officers with regard to the need for procedural and indeed broader changes within Parliament and as the years were to show, their touch had been a sure one.

The next stage was to prepare evidence for submission to the Procedure Committee which had been set up on 22nd December 1964. Parliamentary officers, it was noted, would not be able to give evidence, particularly as some of their colleagues might be giving evidence to the same committee in an official capacity. A formula was therefore worked out for written evidence to be submitted in the name of academic members of the Group and for academic members to give oral evidence to Select Committees. This convention has been adhered to over the years.

On this first occasion a postal ballot was held to choose the academic spokesmen to give oral evidence to the Procedure Committee if the SPG were invited to do so and the names drawn were Bernard Crick, Sir Edward Fellowes and Professor A. H. Hanson, together with Peter Bromhead as a reserve. On 19th May 1965 when members of the SPG were invited to give oral evidence for the first time, (on proposals for Select Committees), it was Professors Bromhead, Hanson and Wiseman who actually appeared. Some of the founding members of the SPG also had an opportunity further to urge the reform of Parliament when the Political Quarterly brought out a Special Number on Parliament (Vol 36 No 3 July-September 1965). Fellowes, Marshall, Ryle, Menhennet and Crick contributed to the number as individuals, but the issue which: ‘stems from an underlying anxiety about what is widely felt to be a decline in the status of Parliament’ clearly reflected the concern of the newly formed Group.

From the 1964-65 session to that of 1972-73 there were over thirty reports from the Select Committee on Procedure. The SPG gave evidence to six of these committees including oral evidence on two occasions. These were

Date Form Witnesses Subject Reference
9.5.65 Oral Bromhead, Hanson, Wiseman Public Bill Procedure, Scrutiny of Policy and Administration, Research and Information Facilities 1964/65 HC 303 pp 51-68
Written pp 131-142
7.3.66 Written extracts Financial procedure 1965/66 HC 122 pp 74-75
6.7.66 Oral Fellowes, Crick Times of sitting of the House 1966/67 HC 153 pp 48-65
4.7.67 Written Public Bill Procedure 1966/67 HC 539 pp 88-99
27.5.70 Written Hanson, Coombes, Walkland Scrutiny of taxation 1969/70 HC 302 pp 181-188
26.7.71 Written Hanson, Richards, Walkland The Process of Legislation 1970/71 HC 538 pp 304-309.

The evidence to the 1964/65 Committee led to the SPG’s first publication, Reforming the Commons a Broadsheet published by Political & Economic Planning. After an interesting and broad introduction written by Crick and Ryle giving the background to the continuing work of the Procedure Committee, the written evidence originally given to the Committee and published as 1964-65 HC 303, was republished.

Previous section: Preface and Foreword    Next section: Chapter 2

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 7 February 2001. Links to evidence added 1 and 15 August 2001. © 1985, Study of Parliament Group