James Gray is MP for North Wiltshire.
In all of the hubbub about Brexit, leadership (of both parties), and a virtually hung Parliament, we seem to have lost sight of what the Commons and Lords are actually for. We have two primary functions (alongside a host of subsidiary ones). We are elected by the people to make laws, and to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account for what they are doing. The latter trundles along with Oral Questions every day, and especially through the work of Select Committees. But the former – the making, improvement, or repeal of our laws – has virtually seized up.
For on all but a handful occasions since 1900, the Parliamentary session has lasted for as close as possible to 12 months. It starts with the Queen’s Speech, where amongst all of the pageantry Her Majesty reads out a turgid speech produced for her by the party in Government. The speech lays out what the Government will do for the next year, and we then amble back to the Commons to get on with it.
If we don’t complete the work on time (and time is one of the few real weapons which Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the House of Lords have at their disposal), then we either let the Bill in question drop; or more usually a ‘deal’ is done with the Opposition to allow a few things through in return for dropping others. We then have the ceremony of Prorogation, where men in tricorn hats sit on the Woolsack in the Lords, one clerk reads out the titles of the Bills agreed to, and the other shouts out “La Reine le veult”, which, of course, is the mediaeval French for “The Queen wishes it.” And that is the moment at which a new law becomes law.
But the last Queen’s Speech (and the only one since the General Election) was on 21st June 2017 – now more than two years ago. The idea was to allow two years to get a mass of reforming legislation through both Houses. That happens occasionally. But not since the notorious ‘Long Parliament’ of 1640-1660 has any Parliamentary session exceeded two years, as this one now has. It is quite wrong. By extending the Session indefinitely at whim, the Government is removing an important element of scrutiny; they are preventing Private Members Bills which have now run out; and they are fundamentally changing a key element of the British constitution.
The net result is that we are twiddling our thumbs in Parliament, with backbench debates, Westminster Hall debates and unimportant government business. I suppose that its inevitable until we get a new Prime Minister (on 22nd July), and government (shortly thereafter). But it strikes me as being crucial from a constitutional standpoint that we should end the session (prorogue it) as soon after the summer as we can, and then schedule a Queen’s speech perhaps for October.
Prorogation is not some kind of devilish plot to allow Brexit through (or scupper it.) It is an essential part of the Parliamentary drum-beat, without which we who are sent to Westminster to carry out our important job of scrutinising legislation simply cannot do it, not least because there isn’t any.