Special Edition Bulletin: An affront to parliamentary democracy



Welcome back to the Brexit rollercoaster, events are moving quickly and the uncertainty about what comes next continues.

In an unprecedented move, the government outlined its plan to prorogue (suspend) Parliament for up to five weeks over September and October. This move by the government is, as a number of constitutional experts have said, an affront to parliamentary democracy.

Some commentators and MPs have said that Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament is normal procedure and doesn’t make a huge difference as Parliament was due to have a three-week party conference recess between September and October anyway.

However, there is nothing normal about this prorogation for several reasons, including:

1) With prorogation, MPs have no choice whether the Commons sits, unlike recess which requires parliamentary approval. Anti-no-deal MPs had discussed cancelling conference recess in order to have more time to stop a no-deal exit. It, therefore, cannot be safely assumed conference recess would have happened.

2) Prorogation shuts down Parliamentary business completely. Parliamentary questions go unanswered, Bills not yet passed are chucked. During recess, on the other hand, select committees continue with their work (which has been crucial in investigating the impacts of Brexit), MPs can ask written questions and the House of Lords still sit.

3) At the heart of the UK’s (uncodified) constitution is the principle that the government is accountable to Parliament and can command the confidence of the Commons. Proroguing Parliament deliberately avoids scrutiny and denies MPs a chance to express their views.

As the 31st of October is rapidly approaching and no new agreement is in sight, every day matters. Hansard society has donethe numbers and prorogation cuts the number of sitting days before exit day by half. The devil is in the detail applies better than most to Brexit. The fewer days for MPs to scrutinise what is arguably the biggest, most complex change in over 40 years, the less opportunity for open and transparent debate.

A number of charity leaders rightly said yesterday proroguing parliament limits the voice of the voluntary sector and shrinks the democratic and civic space even further. This point is important- a deeply worrying consequence of the continued Brexit chaos is that the concerns we have about chaotic on the 31st are further sidelined.

Yesterday, over 85 organisations joined forces to express their grave concerns about impacts a no-deal exit will have on civil society. From large membership bodies, community and voluntary organisations, local charities and those delivering front-line services, the message to the Prime Minister is clear: the government needs to urgently engage with civil society. The very real impacts as a no-deal will have on our rights and standards, food security, governance and transparent lawmaking cannot be ignored, no matter how chaotic and frantic times we find ourselves in.

As Susie Fitton, policy officer from Inclusion Scotland wrote for the Alliance blog this week:

What Happens Next?

Although we’ve said this quite a few times throughout the Brexit process, next week is crunch point. With parliamentary time even more limited, for MPs to succeed in their aim to stop no-deal, action must be taken as soon as MPs come back next Tuesday. Opposition leaders agreed this week to prioritise a legislative approach first, the exact plan is currently being kept under wraps. MPs could use Standing Order 24 of the parliamentary rulebook, where MPs apply to the Speaker for an emergency debate on a matter requiring urgent consideration. Although these debates generally consider motions in ‘neutral terms’, meaning that MPs have ‘considered’ a matter rather than made a decision, the speaker can allow an SO24 with more teeth.

MPs opposed to no-deal will also need to draft legislation that is able to bring together different factions in Parliament- i.e. those who just want to avoid no-deal on the 31st and those who want to stop Brexit altogether. It also needs to be carefully drafted, covering all eventualities. The last legislation to avoid no-deal (‘the Cooper Act’) merely required the PM to request an extension. This time around that may not be sufficient- unlike May, the Johnson government has already suggested that it is willing to do whatever it takes to deliver Brexit by 31st October.

The legislation route will not be straightforward- it requires multiple votes in Parliament and they may also need to head off amendments from the government and pro-no-deal MPs. The Cooper Act passed because the government co-operated. As the Insitute for Government has said, if the Johnson Government refuses to do so this time around, the government could considerably slow down the passage of the bill. Finally, any legislation will need to be passed before prorogation. If it doesn’t, MPs will need to re-do this process once the new parliamentary session begins because legislation that has not been passed gets binned when a session ends.

In the midst of all this is the legal challenges on whether suspending Parliament is unlawful. A full hearing is expected in Edinburgh on the 3rd of September.

In the meantime, time will indeed be tight but the Government’s plan to prorogue Parliament may, ultimately, end up focusing MPs minds to stop no-deal before the 31st. Fasten your seatbelts.

In Events

New Frontiers: The social sector through Brexit

  • When: 11th September 2019, 9:30 - 16:30

  • Where: The Mechanics Centre, 103 Princess Street, Manchester, M1 6DD

With recent developments in Westminster, it is more important than ever for the sector to come together and discuss the serious challenges Brexit presents to the sector.

Join us on the 11th September, where we'll bring will have on charities, voluntary organisations and the communities they champion and represent. Full programme and registration availablehere.

Recommended Resources

New Alliance blog: Considering the ‘impossible’: can the Government pass a Brexit deal?

Coalition of over 80 charities express 'grave concerns' about no-deal Brexit

Our Twitter thread on the open letter to the Prime Minister

Full video version of the open letter

House of Commons Library Brexit Reading List on no-deal

No-deal resources from civil society:

Human Rights Consortium: No Deal Brexit Threatens Rights

Human Rights Consortium- no-deal emergency statement

Green Alliance: What a ‘no deal’ Brexit could mean for the environment

Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action: The priority for Northern Ireland must be to avoid a no deal outcome (Joint letter from Voluntary, Community, Environment and Rural Sector)

Friends of the Earth: A no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for our environment

Public Law Project: EU citizens’ rights in the event of a no deal

Public Law Project: Brexit bills must be passed in time

The 3 million: What happens to EU citizens living in the UK in case of no deal?

Charity Finance Group: A no-deal Brexit poses an “unacceptable risk” to the voluntary sector and its beneficiaries

Wales Civil Society Forum on Brexit: Getting Brexit-ready


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