Giving more power to Parliament helps MPs keep their promises to us

This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, discusses the connection between our democracy and climate work, and how changing Parliament to empower MPs helps them keep the promises they made in elections.

Last October’s debate and vote on a ban on fracking demonstrated how the lack of effective action on the climate crisis is part of wider problems with our politics. This was an extraordinary collision between the government’s agenda and government MPs promises to voters, which ended with the breaking of both. The vote to legislatively ban fracking did not go forward, and the force applied by party leadership to achieve this led to the resignation of the Prime Minister.

The outcomes of these situations were extreme, but this dynamic is part of wider problems that don’t explode in such a clear way. Government should be anchored to the promises made to voters in elections. Changes to how Parliament works, in line with citizen expectations of how it should work, would strengthen the ability of politicians to deliver on the promises they make in elections, and respond to the level of citizens’ concern over the environment.

Currently the government has too much control of what Parliament can spend their time discussing and voting on. The effect of this is that it is easier for governments to stray from their manifesto mandates on environmental and climate change issues, where many promises are kept or broken without a parliamentary vote.

Strengthening the power of Parliament to control its own time was a recommendation of the Constitution Unit Citizen’s Assembly on Democracy in the UK (a group of ordinary people who, like a jury, were selected to come together and discuss questions about how our democracy should work). Doing so would give more force to threats from a majority of MPs to constrain the government through Parliament, and would help keep governments aligned with the promises they’ve made.

Fracking and democracy

Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from bedrock by pumping pressured water into the rock. The 2019 Conservative manifesto reflected the action the previous Conservative government had taken to stop fracking in England:

We placed a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect. Having listened to local communities, we have ruled out changes to the planning system. We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.

This action was taken after an Oil and Gas Authority report concluded that “it is not possible with current technology to accurately predict the probability of tremors associated with fracking”. The government retained the legal ability to issue fracking licences; they just committed in public not to do so.

As late as March 2022, a government minister was saying that the approach needed to be led by science, and that practically, fracking solved no near-term problems (a similar point was made at the time by then Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng). This was a cross-party position, with the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos also having statements on banning fracking in England, and the SNP and Plaid Cymru manifestos were for banning fracking in Scotland and Wales.

The government position was changed by Prime Minister Liz Truss, who indicated they would allow fracking when it was supported by local communities. This created a conflict between the manifesto that government MPs were elected under, and the direction of the government itself.

Such a conflict is a democratic problem, because justifications for the government’s power to take decisions depends on the support of a majority of MPs, and in turn, the promises they collectively made to voters in elections.

But there was not an obvious point at which the conflict would come into the open. Thanks to the limitations on time available for non-government business, the prospect of a meaningful vote on fracking was entirely in the government’s gift. This makes it easier for governments to maintain policies in areas they may not have the backing of their own party.

If a majority of MPs had more power to get their issues on schedule, it would be harder to get into a situation like this in the first place. Changing the allocations and acceptable uses of Parliamentary time would help alignment between government actions and election promises.

Manifestos promises and party instructions

Where a manifesto commitment involves passing a new law, MPs have the opportunity to weigh up whether a promise to voters or loyalty to the current leader is more important. The party will give them instructions to vote, and they can choose if they want to follow those instructions.

While this decision may involve complicated personal trade-offs, our polling from last year found that a majority of UK adults (55%) agreed with the idea that MPs are personally responsible for how they vote, regardless of party instructions. One of the conclusions of the Constitution Unit Citizen’s Assembly on Democracy in the UK was that parties should be able to enforce discipline to keep promises – but not beyond that. They also suggested MPs should hold local citizens’ assemblies to inform their votes on controversial issues outside the manifesto.

The best understanding we have of citizen perspectives of how this should work is that party leaders should not be able to change policy direction and enforce discipline at the same time. This sort of idea is reflected in the way in which MPs themselves talk about manifesto promises and decisions to disobey party instructions, with the former Energy Minister arguing that allowing fracking broke pledges made at the election, as it went against wider net zero commitments.

Parliamentary time

The question of exactly what MPs are responsible for, and when they should defer to their parties assumes that MPs have an actual choice to make. But manifesto promises can be kept or broken without MPs doing anything, because they relate to things the government has been given the power to do without asking Parliament.

The suspension of fracking permits is one of these areas. When it was announced, fracking was not banned, but government policy changed so no permits would be granted. MPs did not need to vote for this to happen – and the reverse is also true – there is no natural point for MPs to vote to stop it happening.

The most precious asset in Parliament is time. For Parliament to talk about or vote about a specific area, time needs to have been agreed on the schedule. But control of the schedule is almost entirely in the hands of the government. What happened in October was the opposition using one of their rare allocations of Parliamentary time to try and pass a vote that would open up further Parliamentary time for the full process required to pass a ban on fracking.

This approach led to the Government Chief Whip arguing to their MPs that “this is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the Government. We cannot, under any circumstances, let the Labour Party take control of the [schedule] and put through their own legislation and whatever other bits of legislation they desire”. It’s worth emphasising that the UK Parliament is unusual in the extent to which the government controls the schedule, and actively tries to restrict the “proper” uses of time that is given to other purposes.

This point was made by a report on Parliamentary time written by Meg Russell and Daniel Glover, which argues that “the uses of opposition days are limited compared to other legislatures – where opposition parties can for example use such time for proposing bills. The government should seek to win votes on opposition business on merit, rather than deploying procedural tactics.”

In this light, the government position that it is improper for the opposition to propose legislation is an ideological one, which voters might understandably view as less important than the substantive matter under discussion. Fracking wouldn’t have been banned instantly if the vote was successful, but it would have been highly likely to lead to a legal change that restricted action more than the current situation. It was, ultimately, a vote about fracking.

Opening up the schedule

Russell and Glover argue it is “difficult for MPs to get key topics of concern debated in the Commons, and in particular to make binding decisions on them, in the face of government resistance – even where a majority of [MPs] would support this”, and suggest changes to fix this problem. They highlight previous recommendations and examples from other Parliaments, international and in the UK, in favour of giving Parliament as a whole more power over the agenda. For instance, they argue in favour of more dedicated time for non-government business (highlighting that the Welsh Parliament has an explicit 3:2 rule for government versus other business).

They also highlight a previous recommendation from the 2009 Wright Committee that that the schedule should be possible for Parliament to amend, which had been “standard practice in many parliaments around the world and has operated in the Scottish Parliament without problems for the last decade”. In the fracking vote, Labour’s approach was attacked by the government as being against how the system works – but the wider context shows that the UK Parliament works badly when compared to other parliaments, and the current system does not work with the best interests of citizens in mind.

The Citizens Assembly on Democracy in the UK was very supportive of giving Parliament more control over its time. With overwhelming support for the idea that MPs should be able to ensure important public issues outside the government agenda are discussed (recommendation 1.7), that bills do not need to originate in the government and time should be available to properly examine potential bills with cross party support (recommendation 1.8), and that while the government needed to have the time to deliver what they were elected to do – more fixed time was needed in the schedule for non-government business (recommendation 1.9).

Arguments about how parliamentary scheduling should happen are sometimes dismissed as procedural or nerdy, but what is actually happening here, in dry language, is that the way Parliament works is systematically off from the way in which citizens would expect it to work. Fixing the deep plumbing of parliamentary democracy helps MPs take real action, in line with their promises, to change how the country works.

Powers are influential even if not used

Greater amounts of time given to non-government business, and broader views about acceptable use of that time, would be a way of putting pressure on the government to keep manifesto promises. The prospect of more non-government legislation makes it easier for the majority of MPs (who in this case have a commitment to a stronger ban on fracking than current policy) to credibly threaten to overrule the government. This shapes behaviour even if it never happens.

The events of October validate this. Using opposition time to force government MPs into a bind, opened up a concession from the government to their own MPs that there would be a vote on what “local consent” means for fracking. This was a change from the previous position. Without the threat that Parliamentary time might be rerouted, this promise might not have happened. Greater power to Parliament to forcefully ensure alignment between the majority and government make it more likely the government will do so voluntarily, and stay better aligned with election promises.

What can we do from the outside?

Our view on the climate crisis is the best road forward is a democratic one. In our work, that includes support for climate assemblies as a way of finding consensus on difficult and important issues. More broadly, we believe that different people and communities working together are competent and capable of making decisions on issues that affect their future. But we also have to work on where power actually is, and make elected institutions more effective and responsive, in line with the way in which citizens think those institutions should work.

Our Climate programme is currently focused at the local level. On our CAPE website, you can view and search councils’ climate action plans – and you can see which local authorities have mentioned fracking (or fracking bans) in their plans.

We want to work similar approaches into our wider set of services. We want to think about how we use our platform, and services like TheyWorkForYou, to help shape politics in line with what citizens expect of it.

For climate and environmental issues a specific complaint made of TheyWorkForYou is that decisions without disagreement (like the statutory net zero target) or using existing government powers are not as visible as contentious votes. This is an area we want to get better at, but also reflects part of a wider (bad) trend where more and more official business disappears into “secondary legislation”, where the ability of MPs to scrutinise is much weaker. A lot has changed since TheyWorkForYou was set up, and we want to adapt our work to address the problems of today.

If you have comments or feedback on the issues in the blog post, we’d love to hear from you.

If you'd like to see us extending our work in democracy further, please consider making a contribution.
Donate now

Image: Nick Fewings on Unsplash.