The Future of the Union, part two: Inter-institutional relations in the UK Contents

3Inter-parliamentary Relations

The current level of inter-parliamentary relations in the UK

79.Despite the weaknesses of intergovernmental relations (IGR) listed in the preceding chapter, inter-parliamentary relations (IPR) in the UK is arguably the poorer and less well-developed relative of IGR. At a formal level there is no direct parliamentary equivalent to the JMC. The closest comparable body is the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA), established in 1990 as a link between the UK and Irish Parliaments and, since 2001, expanded to include members from the devolved legislatures and the legislatures of the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey.

80.As with IGR, IPR in the UK has largely relied upon informal, bilateral and ad-hoc arrangements. At committee level, the Welsh Affairs Committee (WAC) has, since 2004, had the power to hold joint evidence sessions with committees of the National Assembly for Wales.105 Since the first formal joint meeting in 2004, when WAC held an evidence session with the National Assembly’s Economic Development and Transport Committee to discuss the Draft Transport (Wales) Bill, WAC has exercised this power on a number of occasions. The most recent example was a joint evidence session with the National Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Wales Bill, on 9 November 2015.106

81.In addition, the then Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales, Dame Rosemary Butler AM, suggested that there was a lot of individual and informal contact between the Chairs of Committees in the National Assembly for Wales and their counterparts in Westminster and between the devolved legislatures, while the Director of Assembly Business, Adrian Crompton described a range of networks that existed at a staffing and clerking level. 107

82. Perhaps the closest that the post-devolution UK has come to formal IPR arrangements has been at Speaker and Presiding Officer level. In 2002, the then Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Lord Alderdice organised a Conference of the Speakers, Presiding Officers and Clerks of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands and in recent years a system of regular quadrilateral meetings between the Speakers and Presiding Officers of the four UK legislatures has been established. Dame Rosemary Butler AM described these meetings as valuable, particularly in providing opportunities for knowledge exchange. For example, she explained that, as a result of these meetings, the National Assembly for Wales’ professional development system was now being taken on by the other Presiding Officers and Speakers.108

Proposals for greater inter-parliamentary cooperation

83.In light of the underdeveloped nature of IPR, it is perhaps unsurprising that there have been repeated calls for inter-parliamentary cooperation to be enhanced in recent years. For example, commenting on the “strange” absence of a formal forum for parliamentarians from all four UK legislatures to meet, other than BIPA, the House of Commons Justice Committee in its 2009 report, Devolution: a decade on, recommended that “one way of securing a greater interchange and understanding would be to develop a format similar to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, bringing together Members of Parliament and of the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies”. Among the functions that such a body could have would be holding the Joint Ministerial Committee to account and sharing experience and best practice. While the Justice Committee noted that there would need “to be reasonable confidence in the value which could be added by such a body for the idea to be developed”, they nonetheless considered the idea worthy of debate.

84.Also that year, the Commission on Scottish Devolution (Calman Commission) recommended a series of reforms to inter-parliamentary relations in the UK. These included the creation of a joint liaison committee of the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, “to oversee relations and to consider the establishment of subject-specific ad hoc joint committees”, and the removal of barriers limiting the ability of committees of the UK and Scottish Parliaments to work together, including:

a. Any barriers to the invitation of members of committees of one Parliament joining a meeting of a committee of the other Parliament in a non-voting capacity in specified circumstances should be removed.

b. Any barriers to committees in either Parliament being able to share information, or hold joint evidence sessions, on areas of mutual interest, should be removed.

c. Mechanisms should be developed for committees of each Parliament to share between them evidence submitted to related inquiries.109

85.Further proposals for enhanced inter-parliamentary relations were produced by the Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland (the Strathclyde Commission), in its 2014 report. In particular, the Commission proposed the creation of “a Committee of all the Parliaments and Assemblies of the United Kingdom” to “consider the developing role of the United Kingdom, its Parliaments and Assemblies and their respective powers, representation and financing.”110 Later that year, and following the Scottish independence referendum, the Smith Commission, established to take forward the promises made during the referendum of further devolution to Scotland, proposed that “formal processes should be developed for the Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament to collaborate more regularly in areas of joint interest in holding respective Governments to account”.111

86.Also published in 2014, the second report of the Commission on Devolution in Wales (the Silk Commission) recommended improving the level of inter-parliamentary cooperation between the National Assembly for Wales and the UK Parliament. For example, the Silk Commission proposed that Assembly Members should be given parliamentary passes112 and that “Members of Parliament representing constituencies bordering Wales who raise cross-border issues that affect their constituents should be accorded the same courtesies by Welsh Ministers as Assembly Members receive. This should apply equally to Assembly Members raising issues in England that affect their constituents”.113

87.More recently, the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee in its 2015 report, Changing Relationships: Parliamentary Scrutiny of Intergovernmental Relations, argued that “greater inter-parliamentary cooperation in scrutinising intergovernmental relations would be beneficial”.114 While the Committee envisaged that this cooperation would, at first, be on an “informal basis”, it recommended that “the Scottish Parliament should give consideration to how such co-operation can be best facilitated and engage in a dialogue with other legislatures in this regard..”115

88.The House of Lords Constitution Committee’s 2015 report on Intergovernmental Relations in the United Kingdom also touched on the issue of inter-parliamentary relations. However, while the report expressed “hope that common ground can be found on which to base some form of cross-parliamentary scrutiny of intergovernmental relations,” it made no specific recommendations as to how this might best be achieved beyond highlighting existing practices and potential ideas for reform.116 For example, it drew attention to the ability of the Welsh Affairs Committee to meet jointly with committees of the National Assembly for Wales. It also noted the idea, floated by the then Deputy Presiding Officer of the National Assembly, David Melding AM, that the Chairs of the existing committees concerned with devolution and intergovernmental relations could meet together, using the example of the biannual meeting of chairs of EU Scrutiny Committees from across the UK.117

The way forward: inter-parliamentary relations in the UK

89.Our inquiry found general support for the principle of improving inter-parliamentary relations in the United Kingdom, but no consensus on how this might be best achieved. Dame Rosemary Butler AM argued that stronger inter-parliamentary relations “must play a key role” in building the greater collaboration and discussion between the four constituent nations of the UK that she felt was a pre-requisite of a “clear endurable settlement for the UK”. 118 Dame Rosemary also suggested that there was “increasing recognition that inter-parliamentary relations are essential to collaboration on areas of common interest”.119

90.However, when it came to the question of how inter-parliamentary relations should be reformed, Dame Rosemary urged proceeding on an informal basis, “which has worked incredibly well”, rather than on a formal footing.120 Explaining this preference, she drew attention to the practical difficulties that formal arrangements would face. For example, the busy timetables that parliamentarians have, which in the case of Assembly Members is exacerbated by the fact that AMs are often expected to serve on a number of committees.121

91.However, while Sir Paul Silk, the Chair of the Commission on Devolution in Wales and former Clerk of the National Assembly for Wales, acknowledged the “many informal contacts between Members of this place [AMs] and Members of the House of Commons”, he also argued that there were more institutional changes that could be made to improve inter-parliamentary relations.122 For example, he suggested that proposals like the Strathclyde Commission’s suggestion of a Committee of the Assemblies and Parliaments of the United Kingdom were ideas “worth pursuing a bit further” and “might have some benefit”.123 However, he claimed that he would not hold his breath to wait for MPs to vote on more formal inter-parliamentary relations arrangements.124

92.During PACAC’s evidence session in Edinburgh, Professor McEwen suggested that she would like to see more of the informal links that exist between officials serving the different institutions, including sharing best practice and jointly commissioning research”.125 However, echoing the comments made by Dame Rosemary Butler AM, Professor McEwen noted that there was already “very limited time” in parliamentarians’ diaries to participate in more formal inter-parliamentary mechanisms.126

93.In contrast, Professor Tierney contended that, with increasingly powerful Executives at both the devolved and UK level, parliamentarians should take the question of greater inter-parliamentary cooperation more seriously.127 While he conceded that joint working would need to “overcome egos, feelings of inferiority and superiority and all the other horrors that go with devolution”, he argued that it should not be “outwith the realms of possibility to bring parliamentarians together at different levels to scrutinise what is happening with a very powerful Executive”.128

94.It is clear that, while the principle of closer inter-parliamentary cooperation commands much support, there is no consensus on any particular model of enhanced inter-parliamentary relations. Any reform of inter-parliamentary relations must acknowledge the practical difficulties mentioned by a number of witnesses to our inquiry, not least the difficulty of finding time for these meetings in the already full diaries of parliamentarians from across all four legislatures.

95.However, PACAC recommends that a number of modest, yet in some cases symbolically significant, steps be taken to enhance inter-parliamentary relations in the United Kingdom.

96.First, the provisions of Standing Order No. 137A(3) (henceforth referred to as 137A(3)), which enables the Welsh Affairs Committee to hold joint evidence sessions with committees of the National Assembly for Wales, should be extended to enable all committees of the House of Commons to meet jointly with any specified committee of any of the three devolved legislatures. It makes little sense, given the increasing number of concurrent responsibilities, for 137A(3) to continue to be limited to the Welsh Affairs Committee. Amending 137A(3) will provide for inter-parliamentary collaboration ‘on demand’, allowing Committees of the House that wish to undertake joint evidence sessions with the Committees of the other legislatures to do so at a time of their (and, of course, the relevant Committee of the other legislature) choosing. However, for such a reform to be meaningful, PACAC calls upon the other three UK legislatures to examine where their Standing Orders, or relevant statutory provisions, inhibit greater inter-parliamentary collaboration and, where possible, to eliminate these barriers. This collaboration would not undermine the right of the devolved legislatures to form legislation independently of UK Parliament influence.

97.Secondly, while PACAC welcomes the continued inter-parliamentary collaboration at Speaker and Presiding Officer level, the lack of transparency regarding the agenda and conclusions of these meetings is unsatisfactory. PACAC therefore recommends that the Speakers and Presiding Officers consider providing written notice, and written summaries, of these quadrilaterals.

98.Finally, while PACAC recognises the role of the House of Commons Library and the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre in raising awareness of one another’s institutions and is aware of a number of examples of ongoing informal inter-parliamentary cooperation among Clerks and other officials, we recommend that this cooperation be deepened by examining how the training of officials, including the Parliamentary fast stream, can better raise awareness of one another’s institutions. PACAC recommends that at their next meeting, the Speakers and Presiding Officers of the four UK legislatures agree to undertake an audit of their institutional cooperation, including, for example, the level of secondments and placements between each institution.

105 Standing Order No.137A(3) enables the Welsh Affairs Committee to “invite members of any specified committee of the National Assembly for Wales to attend and participate in its proceedings (but not to vote)”.

106 House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, Joint meeting with Welsh Assembly Committee on draft Wales Bill, 6 November 2015.

109 Commission on Devolution in Scotland, Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, Final Report, June 2009, p.12.

110 Scottish Conservatives, Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland, May 2014, p.2.

112 Commission on Devolution in Wales, Empowerment and Responsibility: Legislative Powers to Strengthen Wales, March 2014, p.161.

113 Commission on Devolution in Wales, Empowerment and Responsibility: Legislative Powers to Strengthen Wales, March 2014, p.162.

114 Scottish Parliament Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, Changing Relationships: Parliamentary Scrutiny of Intergovernmental Relations, 5th Report (Session 4), 8 October 2015, para. 72.

115 Scottish Parliament Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, Changing Relationships: Parliamentary Scrutiny of Intergovernmental Relations, 5th Report (Session 4), 8 October 2015, para. 72.

116 House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, Inter-governmental relations in the United Kingdom, 11th Report of Session 2014–15, 27 March 2015, para. 198.

117 House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, Inter-governmental relations in the United Kingdom, 11th Report of Session 2014–15, 27 March 2015, para. 196.

121 Q6. The House of Commons sits on Mondays between 2.30–10.30pm, Tuesdays and Wednesdays between 11.30am–7.30pm, Thursdays 9.30am–5.30pm and on sitting Fridays sits from 9.30am–3pm. The National Assembly for Wales sits from a Monday afternoon through to Thursday evening (with plenary sessions taking place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) as does the Northern Ireland Assembly (plenary sessions take place on a Monday and Tuesday). The Scottish Parliament sits from Tuesday through to Thursday evening (with the Parliament meeting in plenary sessions on each sitting day).

6 December 2016