©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

What would a ‘super-majority’ government mean for parliamentary scrutiny?

When parties have an insurmountable majority, the actual numbers start to become less relevant – government can assume its legislation will go through parliament unopposed. The Conservative party may have proved that adage wrong in recent years as it split apart securing a Brexit deal, but it was a notable exception: most other legislation – from the Automated Vehicles Act to the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Act – went through the commons without detailed discussion of the evidence behind it.

Proper scrutiny of legislation by parliament is vital for wider society to follow, implement, trust and, if necessary, sound the alarm on changes that may dramatically affect the lives of millions of people. That means MPs on both sides of the House must look at the rationale and evidence behind proposals, not just vote bills through on party lines. Too much of parliament’s scrutiny has been left to the Lords in recent years, and any so-called “super-majority” is likely to see this continue, but their role is to make legislation functional, not question the evidence for its aims. The ping-pong of the Safety of Rwanda Bill drew much attention and is a case in point, with Lords amendments largely limited to questioning the feasibility of proposals. 

Fundamental questioning of a bill – how do we know the policy will do what is intended? – needs to be done by the elected members in the commons, and this is only possible if MPs can see the same data and analysis as ministers and civil servants. That is not what has been happening. Sense about Science’s latest review found that 3 out of 6 recent policy measures failed to meet the transparency test of whether a motivated citizen could see what evidence the government had used or assessed in its decision making. This included the Rwanda bill, where the Home Office did a data dump of 700 pages of ‘supporting evidence’ with no clarity about how each document supported the statement made, meaning it is unlikely that MPs would have been able to review the justification for claims made before voting.

The policy choices for the next government are daunting. These include trade-offs that see some services cut so that others can continue, and assessing the evidence for where to invest scant public funds in infrastructure and technology to create future savings or growth. Health services or social care expansion? Hydrogen production or solar? Rail or road? Local enterprise zones or centralised contracts? The new government can’t have it all, and it will need to explain to the rest of us what it chooses, with an open discussion about the strength of the evidence, if it is to secure the trust that the leaders tell us they are fighting for.

Labour has plans to change how utilities including electricity and water are managed, as well as proposing education reform and measures to reduce poverty. These are complex problems where everyone with evidence and insight on developing effective solutions should be welcome. That requires openness about what we do and don’t know, as well as clarity on what policies are meant to achieve for society.

Keir Starmer is predicted to get a so-called “super-majority” without significantly increasing Labour’s share of the vote. That gives the party’s MPs an even greater responsibility to interrogate the government’s plans as they come before the commons. But MPs on all benches are set to fail in this if ministers are allowed to continue to manipulate the evidence that parliament sees. Only a legal challenge forced what was then called the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to release analysis that contradicted the government’s published reasons for approving a new coal mine — a year after the decision was made, and far too late to inform public discussion or MPs’ questions.

Forty five per cent of people now think politicians put party before country. Ministers and departments ignoring rules that require them to publish the evidence for their claims and proposals does nothing to dispel that belief. Farmers were denied knowledge of what Defra knew about the negative impacts of its post-Brexit finance scheme until long after it had been implemented. Carers were denied knowledge of what the DWP knew about problems with their allowances three years ago, allowing them, in the words of Stephen Timms, then chair of the Work and Pensions committee, “to unwittingly rack up unmanageable levels of debt.”

Transparency is not just about accountability, but preventing harms that result from a delay in responding to new evidence and making a better-informed decision. If we can’t see the evidence that government is relying on, parliament can’t question it and experts can’t add to it, while valuable research and analysis by officials (which we all pay for) is lost.

Behind this failure to share the evidence behind policy sit a lot of fears. Fear of misunderstanding. Fear of misrepresentation. Fear of scandal. Communications teams and Special Advisors are haunted by the spectre of reprisals from that unpredictable mass, ‘the public’, who might get the wrong end of the stick. Two popular panic responses to this are either to overcompensate by throwing all the uncurated data into the public realm or to oversimplify in a press release in the hope that the headline is what gets through. Both are doomed to failure. As the chairs of the Health and Science Select Committees pointed out to Boris Johnson’s pandemic government, people need the opportunity to follow the government’s thinking. Controversial topics are always going to be controversial. Over or under-sharing evidence will not change that. But putting forward the thinking, research and evidence behind a policy will go a long way to improving the quality of the public discourse, not to mention the implementation of the actual policy.

With clear direction from the next PM, civil servants would have the mandate and the backup they need to get on with sharing the evidence they have used in creating a policy.

Successive governments have recognised the importance of transparency in theory, and have issued extensive rules and guidance for ministers and servants, from the Treasury Green Book to research protocols and concordats to codes of practice. But these have proved ineffective in the absence of the political will to enforce them. In fact, right now, the Treasury is challenging a ruling by the Information Commissioner that it release analysis from 2021 predicting the negative impact of cancelling the Universal Credit top-up, despite its own guidance stating that “evaluation reports, and the research that informs them, should be placed in the public domain in line with government transparency standards”.

Seventy four per cent of people think it is important that the government shows all the evidence used to make important policy decisions. That is high for an opinion on any subject, and it has been rising year on year. The Ministerial Code requires ministers to be “as open as possible with parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”, but where have we seen sanctions from the prime minister when this didn’t happen? Most small parties at Westminster have committed to ensuring the next UK government publishes the evidence behind policies.

The questions is – would Keir Starmer, with the temptations of a large majority, have the will to ensure that parliament (and the people) can scrutinise effectively? We should take the promises to build trust in good faith, but assess transparency from the very first policy out the gates and start looking at options to make government’s democratic duty to put its evidence before parliament into a legal requirement. Just in case the predicted “super-majority” behaves like every other big majority when making difficult decisions.

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