The Study of Parliament Group: The First Twenty-one Years (3)

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Chapter 3: The Second Decade

The SPG meeting in Oxford of 3rd-5th January 1975 saw the completion of its first ten years. 1974 had seen a number of projects completed. Two further books had been published, Griffith’s Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills and Rush and Shaw’s The House of Commons: Services and Facilities but the opportunities to offer evidence to Select Committees had declined. The subject of Parliament and the EC had also been given preliminary treatment. Just at this time, John Mackintosh, MP, as chairman of the Hansard Society, and Bernard Crick were jointly approached by the Ford Foundation about the possibility of a large-scale study on the future of Parliamentary institutions in Europe. This resulted in a considerable grant being made to the Hansard Society which was controlled by a steering committee of which Crick was chairman. The programme had two projects and the SPG was prominently and deliberately represented on the working committees of each. The full-time executive director was Professor David Coombes. Two books resulted, one edited by David Coombes, The British People: Their Voice in Europe, and the other by John Mackintosh, MP, People in Parliament. During the coming months the relationship between the SPG and the Hansard Society was discussed more than once, the two bodies having several active members in common. However when on 20th February 1976 the Executive Committee considered a draft SPG/Hansard Society Programme for the SSRC, it proved impossible to agree as a cool crisp minute makes clear.

‘Considerable scepticism was expressed about staffing of the project and other related problems and it was agreed that the matter should be left for further discussion between individuals.’

The Group showed its distrust of projects with outside funds and staff and preferred its old methods of low-cost, informal cooperation.

The Committee for Cooperation for European Parliamentary Studies provided another external focus of interest for the SPG during its second decade. The Committee included representatives of bodies similar to the Group from France, Germany, Holland, Ireland and Italy and first met at Oxford in April 1975 with Coombes in the Chair. It had agreed to produce a survey of parliamentary studies in Europe which was done and additionally pinpointed two subjects for coordinated national studies. These were:

  1. The changing role of Parliaments in relation to their legislative function and decision-making in European societies.
  2. The effects on national Parliaments of European and regional institutions.

Two SPG study groups were set up to consider these topics and Ryle was asked to join Coombes as the two UK SPG members of the Committee of Cooperation.

In time the Committee received a grant of £10,000 from the European Cultural Foundation which was renewed for a further year, but from the SPG’s viewpoint the one concrete achievement at this time was an invitation to contribute a 25,000 word essay to a volume of comparative studies which was to be called Parliaments and Economic Affairs, and which was eventually published in 1980. The book was edited by Coombes and Walkland on behalf of the European Centre for Political Studies at PSI, but the chapter Parliament and the Economy in Great Britain was contributed by Members of the United Kingdom SPG. There were further chapters covering their countries by organisations similar to the SPG in France, Italy and the Netherlands on the texts of which the UK editors did a lot of work. The Committee of Cooperation’s second subject of interest which concerned the effects on national Parliaments of European and regional institutions, only really started to be worked on at the end of 1977, when the Executive Committee, linking the main theme of research with the new UK situation regarding devolution, said: ‘they considered that the Study Group should limit itself to the matters that were not covered in the Scotland and Wales Bills, such as the organisation of the proposed assemblies and their relations with Westminster’. The link with the Committee of Cooperation no longer really existed in this area of interest, but the work of the Study Group was completed quite quickly and published by the Policy Studies Institute under the title Westminster and Devolution in late 1978.

Meanwhile the Group was again turning to the question of procedure. First there was to be an assessment of the past. At the beginning of 1975 a Study Group was set up under Richards to review the progress that had been made during the previous ten years with regard to Select Committees. The Study Group’s work spanned the period between the SPG’s first PEP pamphlet Reforming the Commons published in 1965 and the mid 1970s. It included the ‘Crossman reforms’; the ‘Subject’ Committees and ‘Departmental’ Committees 1966-67 onwards, and also the change from Estimates Committees to the Expenditure Committee from 1970-71 onwards. The Study Group’s work included the Committees’ staffing, impact on Parliament, their impact on central government and a note on developments in the House of Lords. It was published in June 1976 as Specialist Committees in the British Parliament: the experience of a decade, PEP. (It is strange how often we inaccurately speak of British Parliament rather than United Kingdom Parliament.) The second task was to prepare evidence following the mention in the Queen’s Speech opening the session 1975-76 that there would be: ‘a major review of the practice and procedure of Parliament’. Convened by Chester, the President of the SPG, names were added to the Study Group during the Annual General Meeting of 1976. Papers were prepared and an all day meeting of the SPG was held at Bedford College on 16th October 1976 to consider these. At this meeting five papers were assessed and a decision taken to submit two main papers and an introduction to the Procedure Committee. The following month a memorandum from academic members of the SPG was sent to the Committee and published as Appendix 1 in the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure 1977-78 HC 588 Vol III. After giving broad consideration to the background of the role of the House of Commons, the evidence concentrated on two issues namely the Legislative Process and Select Committees in the House of Commons. With regard to the Select Committees it concluded: ‘It appears desirable to establish a more systematic distribution of committee work, which would reflect the interests of all Members’. The SPG did not however anticipate the radical recommendations that would be made and the Departmental Select Committee system which was set up during session 1979-80. When the new Committee system was started however, the next Annual General Meeting in January 1980 established a Study Group: ‘for monitoring the use and development of the new Select Committees in Parliament (including the House of Lords)’. This was a major task and a number of non-SPG members were invited to help. Originally convened by Michael Lee the task was transferred to Gavin Drewry, who became the editor of one of the SPG’s most important publications The New Select Committees: A Study of the 1979 Reforms due to be published during the summer of 1985.

Not all the Group’s work has of course been a success story. In February 1972 for instance it had to be minuted that it was impossible to prepare evidence for the Joint Committee on Delegated Legislation because of sheer lack of time. Members of the House of Commons Clerk’s Department promised to give as much notice as possible of future Procedure enquiries. In March 1977 the Study Group set up to prepare evidence for the important review of the House of Lords’ work being made by their ad hoc Select Committee on Procedure and Practice came to a fruitless conclusion, when the Executive Committee minuted that it: ‘felt unable to agree that the draft paper prepared by the Study Group should be presented to the Select Committee in the name of the Study of Parliament Group’. And occasionally other Study Groups found themselves in similar difficulties when for instance the Study Group on Supply Procedure had in 1981: ‘held one meeting but had run into the sand’. Something similar happened with a 1983 Study Group set up to give evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure (Finance). It did not prove possible to produce an agreed text; a paper was subsequently submitted by Ann Robinson ‘after consultation with members of the Study of Parliament Group’ and it was agreed that this formula devised for submitting evidence might be useful in the future. And as in 1983 mentioned above, sometimes members have been stimulated to give evidence to Select Committees as individuals. This reflects among other things the fact that members of the SPG are busy in Departments of Politics and other academic work or working full time as Parliamentary officials. But it is impossible to measure the extent to which information gleaned by SPG work rubs off in other forms be it lecturing or writing about Parliament.

In 1977 a Study Group convened by Richards was set up on Private Legislation. Its work had to be postponed until the outcome of the work of the House of Lords Procedure and Practice Committee was known, but it was resuscitated in 1978. A draft paper was prepared and discussed in detail at a large meeting held at Bedford College on 15th February 1980, attended by parliamentary agents, representatives of local authority associations, officials from the Department of the Environment and others directly concerned with this arcane area of procedure. Although no evidence was given to a Select Committee a major article resulted which was published in Public Law, 1981 under the title Private Bill Procedure: A case for Reform by the Study of Parliament Group.

By 1980, when a number of subjects of study were being concluded, the Executive Committee and the Group itself were reflecting on new subjects to be examined. The last fifteen years had seen many procedural changes, concerning several of which the SPG had given evidence, and most of which had been included in the Group’s book The House of Commons in the Twentieth Century which had been published in 1979. The major subsequent change, concerning the establishment of Departmental Select Committees, was being monitored by a new Study Group and the new edition of the SPG’s successful paperback to be called The House of Commons Today would bring the situation up to date. It was published in 1981. In these discussions about future work the problem of distinguishing between Parliament and Politics as usual came to the fore. The subject ‘Re-selection and primary elections’ was judged to be ‘too difficult and political for the Group’ while ‘party organisation and subject groups’ (within Parliament) was taken up. Philip Norton was appointed convenor and the Study Group was given the possibly pretentious title of ‘Political Sub-Structure of Parliament’. Not surprisingly its membership turned out to be academic members of the Group only and after meeting Conservative Members and changing its title to the more sharply focussed ‘Party organisation of Parliament’ and also after talking to officers of committees in both the Conservative and Labour parliamentary parties, a pioneering article under the name of Norton appeared in Parliamentary Affairs, Winter 1983, entitled Party Committees in the House of Commons. This Study Group then turned its attention to ‘Minority parties in the House of Commons’. The same technique was adopted, namely for the Study Group to hold meetings with senior officers of the minority parties and then to judge whether it was appropriate to prepare a paper for possible subsequent publication. A second quite new area of interest resulted in the establishment of a Study Group on Pressure Groups. To some extent it was a particular aspect of the relationship between Parliament and the Public which had been looked at from various angles over the years. Evidence had been given to the Services Committee on Services for the Public and as Appendix 4 shows over the years journalists had been invited as guest speakers. The House of Commons itself however was concerned about this subject so that the Study Group postponed its work until the Select Committee on Members’ Interests had considered the idea of the registration of some pressure groups.

At the SPG’s meeting in January 1983 it was decided to set up a small Study Group on the subject of Legislation which had last been considered in connection with the 1978 Procedure Committee. By 1984 the Group knew a Procedure Select Committee was to be set up. This was established on 16th March 1984 and its main term of reference was:

‘Procedure on Public Bills in Standing Committees with particular regard to the allocation of time therein’.

The convenor for this Study Group was Norton and preparations were made to give evidence to this Select Committee examining Public Bill Procedure. Written evidence was submitted in November 1984 and on 18th December Norton (Convenor of the Study Group) and Johnson (Chairman of the SPG) were invited to give oral evidence. It was published as 1984-85 HC 49-iv. This was the first time for many years that the SPG had given oral evidence to a Select Committee.

As the twenty-first anniversary of the Group approached, summer 1985, the following Study Groups were continuing work

  • Party Organisation (convenor, Norton)
  • Debate in the House (convenor, Borthwick)
  • Pressure Groups (convenor, Rush)
  • Consequences for Parliament of 10 years’ membership of the EC (convenor, Robinson)
  • Legislative Procedure (convenor, Norton)
  • Developments in the House of Lords (convenor, Shell)

In addition, the Group maintains its links with the Committee of Cooperation for European Parliamentary Studies, its representatives on the Committee contributing to a major study of committee systems in West European legislatures. Thought was also being given to a new edition of The Commons Today, the most successful or certainly the most popular of the SPG publications.

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Prepared by Simon Patrick, 7 February 2001. (Hyperlinks to evidence added 6 June and 24 July 2001.) © 1985, Study of Parliament Group