Lord Carrington – NATO Secretary-General 1984-1988

Some years ago I wrote the entry on Lord Carrington for a planned encyclopaedia on  NATO which never went to press. Lord Carrington’s death this week at the age of 99 provides an opportune moment to publish the entry in full here.


IMG_1087Carrington, Lord Peter (6th June 1919 – 9th July 2018)

NATO Secretary-General 1984-1988. Lord Carrington was the sixth Secretary-General of NATO and the second Briton to hold the post. He took up the post on 25 June 1984, succeeding the Dutch Dr Joseph Luns, and served until June 1988.

A Conservative Peer in the British House of Lords, Carrington had held various Ministerial positions in the Conservative Governments of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, most notably as Secretary of State for Defence from 1970 to 1974, and as Margaret Thatcher’s first Foreign Secretary, from 1979 to 1982. Carrington’s Ministerial career came to an end in April 1982, when he resigned over the Foreign Office failure to predict the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. A subsequent parliamentary inquiry concluded that no blame or criticism could be attached to anyone in the government for failing to predict the invasion, and cleared the way for Carrington’s return to international politics as the British candidate to succeed Luns, as Secretary-General of NATO.

Carrington’s candidature was not welcomed by everyone in the Alliance and was opposed in particular by many in the Reagan administration, most notably US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who had clashed with Carrington in the past and openly expressed his opposition to his appointment. Carrington’s position was not helped by a speech he delivered shortly before his appointment in which he criticised the ‘megaphone diplomacy’ employed by the United States in its dealings with the Soviet Union. However, opposition from the Pentagon and the State Department was overruled by President Reagan following a phone-call from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher urging the President to support Carrington’s appointment.

Despite early misgivings, Carrington was highly regarded as Secretary-General. His recent position as Foreign Secretary, provided him with the necessary stature for the job, and meant that he was already familiar with many of the Alliance Foreign Ministers. Moreover, his experience as both a Defence and Foreign Minister meant that he had experience of both the Atlantic Council, and the Defence Planning Committee. Carrington also adopted a markedly different style from his predecessor, Luns. Whereas Luns had relied mainly on his private office, Carrington adopted a consultative style which led him to draw upon expertise from across the NATO secretariat, and endeared him to the staff in Brussels.

Like many Secretaries General Carrington spent a great deal of time seeking to reconcile the diverse national interests within the Alliance, although he was cautious about the extent of consensus that could be realistically achieved. He was fond of saying that unlike the Soviet bloc, the Western allies, ‘sing in harmony, not unison.’ Carrington’s efforts to reconcile European and American interests within the Alliance meant that despite their early concerns, Carrington enjoyed more support from the Americans than he had as British Foreign Secretary. Nevertheless, his position was not always comfortable and he once remarked that as the role of the Secretary-General was to maintain a position somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, ‘as you would expect, I am cold, I am wet and I’m very, very lonely.’

Carrington’s tenure as Secretary-General was dominated by arms control negotiations between the superpowers, and unease among the European partners about the US development of space based defence against nuclear attack, the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). Carrington was a strong supporter of arms control, and was instrumental in securing European support for the American position in advance of the Geneva Summit in November 1985. He also appreciated that arms control was an important ingredient in enhancing NATO’s appeal to the electorates of member nations, and in 1984, held an unprecedented meeting with the General-Secretary of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Whilst supporting arms control Carrington was also a strong advocate of building up the defensive posture of the member nations. He was more forthright than many of the NATO governments in support of SDI, and achieved unity within the alliance on the basis that: research was prudent; there should be a clear distinction between research and development; and that any further action would be a matter for negotiation with the Russians. At the same time Carrington warned that the Alliance should not be dazzled by the ‘sex appeal’ of new weapons technology and he consistently argued that the Alliance should do more to strengthen its conventional forces. He also pleased the Americans by stating that the European partners should bear most of the cost of improving conventional defence. Carrington’s championing of a greater European defence identity was also in line with plans to strengthen the European pillar of the alliance through the reactivation of the Western European Union in 1984.

Carrington also worked throughout his tenure to help resolve the difficulties between Greece and Turkey, making an early visit to Greece in July 1984 for discussions with the Greek government. In March 1987, towards the end of his tenure as Secretary-General, following an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Carrington offered to use his good offices to help resolve a dispute between Greece and Turkey when Turkish oil exploration in disputed territory in the Aegean almost led to conflict.

Since leaving the post of Secretary-General Lord Carrington continued to take an active interest in European security. From 1991 to 1992 he served as Chairman of the European Community Peace Conference on Yugoslavia, and acting as the EC’s peace envoy he made several attempts to broker a ceasefire in Yugoslavia. In 1999, Carrington was openly critical of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. In articles in the British media at the time of the Kosovo crisis and after, Carrington questioned the wisdom of branding the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic as a war criminal, argued that NATO air-strikes had served to harden the resolve of the Serbian leadership and caused rather than prevented the exodus of Kosovo Albanians, and consequently undermined the integrity of the Alliance.

Suggestions for further reading:

Carrington, Lord. Reflect on Things Past: The Memoirs of Lord Carrington. London: Collins, 1988.

Cosgrave, Patrick. Carrington: a life and a policy. London: Dent, 1985.

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Why Labour’s defeat on the Windrush motion was a victory for Parliament

DSCF2733This post first appeared on the blog of the Political Studies Association Specialist Group on Parliaments. It was a follow-up to my earlier post about Labour’s use of an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure to force the government to release it’s Brexit impact assessments. Labour continued to use the same tactic in a number of subsequent debates but were eventually defeated in an opposition day debate on 2nd May 2018. Despite this defeat, it is argued here, Labour’s tactic did have the affect of forcing the Conservative government to engage with opposition day debates in Parliament.


The opposition was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons this week. This is not particularly noteworthy, despite its lack of a majority, Theresa May’s government has lost very few votes in the House of Commons. Wednesday’s vote was nonetheless significant because this was the first time in this parliamentary session that the government has contested a vote in an opposition day debate.

Labour was defeated on a vote on its own motion tabled in an opposition day debate on the Windrush affair. There are twenty opposition days in a parliamentary session. They provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion for debate on the floor of the House of Commons. Although opposition day motions are non-binding even if passed by a vote, opposition days provide a rare but important opportunity for the opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda, raise important issues and seek to put pressure on the government. A government Minister must come to the House and respond to the motion and they are usually contested in a vote.

The Conservative government’s approach to opposition day debates

In the current parliament, however, the Conservative government has adopted a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. As a result, motions have generally been passed without a vote. From the government’s perspective this has avoided the possibility of an embarrassing defeat in the division lobby and denied the opposition parties the satisfaction of defeating the government in a vote. In their frustration, opposition members have occasionally sought to force a vote by resorting to the tactic of shouting both in support and opposition to their own motion in the chamber, before walking through the division lobby in support of the motion. Although this tactic did lead to defeats for the government in two votes in late 2017, with the government, nonetheless, refusing to contest the vote, such victories might be seen as somewhat pyrrhic.

The government’s refusal to participate in votes on opposition day motions has prompted considerable consternation on both sides of the House of Commons and also on the part of the Speaker. Following an opposition day debate on universal credit in October, the Speaker expressed his irritation at the government’s position, noting that while the government could not be compelled to take note of the result of a non-binding motion it should nonetheless take note of the views of the House:

If people choose not to take part in a Division, they cannot suddenly say, “Well, we didn’t lose”. We are elected to come to this place to debate and decide what our position is on motions. If people choose not to vote, that is perfectly in order, as I have explained, but the motion was carried… it is not for me to seek to compel. What I will say to occupants of the Treasury Bench is that it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion, and I think it would be respectful to the House if a Minister, sooner rather than later, were to come to the House – perhaps after due consideration and collegiate exchange with other members of the Government – to give an indication of the Government’s thinking. This institution is bigger than one party, and, frankly, it is bigger than any one Government. This place and what we do here matter very much.

Prompted by this, in an attempt to force the government to take note of opposition day motions Labour adopted a mechanism designed to turn a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House of Commons. By the use of an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure, known as a motion for a return, Labour drafted an opposition day motion in the form of ‘a humble address to Her Majesty’ requesting the release of papers to parliament. Based on parliament’s power to call for papers, a motion for a return is binding and requires action on the part of the government. The government was caught out by this when Labour used it in an opposition day debate in November to call for the release of the so-called Brexit sectoral analyses, causing considerable difficulties for the government in seeking to explain what form these assessments took and eventually forcing the release of the relevant documents to the select committee for exiting the European Union.

Labour’s continued use of a motion for a return

Having devised a tactic which forced the government to take note of opposition day debates and moreover, to agree to the release of potentially embarrassing papers, Labour has continued to use this tactic in opposition day debates since November. In December, Labour used a motion for a return to prompt the release of several government assessments on the operation of universal credit. In January, it was used to call for the release of risk assessments in relation to government suppliers following the collapse of the construction company, Carillion. Labour tabled a further motion in relation to Brexit in January, calling for the release of a widely-leaked cross-Whitehall Brexit analysis setting out three possible scenarios for Britain’s future relationship with the EU. This document was eventually released and published by the select committee on exiting the European Union. In each of these cases the government, while objecting to Labour’s demands in debate, did not contest the vote and the motions were passed without a division.

In its latest opposition day debate, Labour tabled a motion for a return calling for the release of papers relating to the treatment of the so-called Windrush generation. This has been a particularly difficult issue for the government in recent weeks leading, amongst other things, to the resignation of the Home Secretary. The debate was well-attended with many members from both sides of the House wanting to speak. When the motion was eventually put to a vote the government, for the first time in this parliament, chose to contest the motion in the division lobbies. The vote is seems was heavily whipped by the government and Labour’s motion was defeated by 316 votes to 221.

Whilst this was a rare defeat for a Labour opposition day motion, it was perhaps a victory for parliament. The government was forced to debate the issue on the floor of the House of Commons. It provided another early opportunity to test the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who was forced, for the second time in a week, to defend the government on the floor of the House of Commons, while the immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes, gave commitments to report regularly to the home affairs select committee on detentions, removals and deportations. Moreover, the debate concluded with a meaningful vote. Although Labour may have lost the vote, they can perhaps console themselves with the knowledge that for the first time in this session they forced the government to respond to their proposals and to engage fully with the parliamentary process.

Did Labour overplay its hand?

There are several possible explanations for Labour’s defeat. The government may have decided that it simply could not afford to suffer another parliamentary defeat, following several defeats this week on the EU withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords. The timing of the debate, the day before the local elections, may also have been a factor in prompting the government to contest the vote. Labour Whips may also have been caught out by the government’s decision to oppose the motion this time. Having been given free rein on opposition days during this parliament, they may have assumed the government would once again refuse to contest the motion. Moreover, the timing of the debate may have worked against Labour, with many Labour MPs on campaigning duties in advance of the local elections, while the vote was clearly strongly whipped by the Conservatives. While the Conservatives managed to mobilise the support of 308 out of their 316 MPs to oppose the Labour motion, Labour only managed to mobilise 180 of their 258 MPs in support. It is revealing that the 221 votes in support of the Windrush motion was significantly less than the 299 votes Labour had secured in support of an uncontested motion on universal credit in October.

Labour may also have overplayed their hand somewhat in seeking to deploy the same tactic for the fifth time in six months. The use of a motion for a return to press the government to release material was somewhat novel when Labour deployed it in relation to the Brexit sectoral analyses in November, but it could not hope to keep catching the government out with the same parliamentary trick.

Moreover, the Windrush motion was constructed in such a way that the government probably concluded that it simply could not be allowed to pass. On previous occasions on which the opposition has sought access material through a motion for a return, the motions have referred to a very specific and relatively limited body of material. In contrast, the material demanded in the Windrush motion was expansive in the extreme. The motion referred to:

all papers, correspondence and advice including emails and text messages, from 11 May 2010 up to and including 1 May 2018, to and between Ministers, senior officials and Special Advisers relating to policy decisions including on the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 with regard the Windrush generation cases, including deportations, detentions and refusal of re-entry, the setting of deportation and removal targets and their effect on the Windrush generation, and action taken within Government following the concerns raised by Caribbean Governments with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office including the original decision by the Prime Minister not to meet Caribbean Heads of Government and officials, and all copies of minutes and papers relating to the Cabinet’s Immigration Implementation Taskforce.

While parliament clearly has extensive powers to call for papers there would undoubtedly be a number significant challenges involved in producing this material. During the debate several MPs suggested that the motion was little more than a ‘fishing expedition’ which ran the risk of breaching the convention that parliament cannot ask civil servants to divulge their advice to Ministers. The practical difficulties involved in accumulating a body of records encompassing all forms of communications over a period of eight years are, perhaps, even more significant. Identifying and collating the relevant documents would clearly take many months and would, in all likelihood, comprise many thousands of pages. It is also somewhat strange that while, as with previous motions of this type, the motion asks that the material be released to the relevant parliamentary select committee, it seems that in this case the select committee concerned, the home affairs committee, does not appear to have been consulted about the motion. In the course of the debate on the motion, Yvette Cooper, the Labour Chair of the home affairs committee, perhaps mindful of the unrealistic nature of its demands remarked that the committee ‘have not instigated this call; nor have we had the chance to discuss or take a view on the motion, and we would of course decide how to respond. The motion itself is obviously a matter for the House, but we will continue to pursue our own questions as well.’

The treatment of the Windrush generation is an important issue on which many questions remain to be answered. However, in this case Labour’s opposition day motion was somewhat ill-conceived and did not achieve the same success which Labour’s previous attempts to deploy a motion for a return have undoubtedly secured. In future, Labour would, perhaps, be wise to be more circumspect and selective in their use of this tactic. At the same time Labour’s Windrush motion was successful in prompting the government to treat opposition day debates with the respect that they deserve. This is a welcome development and long may it continue.

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Government transparency and the appointment of Parliamentary Private Secretaries

I have written in previous posts about the rise of the so-called payroll vote, those MPs holding government jobs who would need to resign their position if they wish to vote against the government. Although the number of paid Ministerial posts is limited by legislation, successive governments have used a variety of mechanisms to expand the cadre of loyal MPs, including the creation of unpaid Ministerial positions (currently 8) and also the appointment of a seemingly ever-increasing number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries – unpaid Ministerial aides, widely seen as the first step on the Ministerial ladder.

I have also written about the frustrations of trying to keep track of these appointments. Ministerial appointments are announced publicly, Ministerial teams are listed on the website of each government department and a full list can be found on the Cabinet Office website. In contrast the appointment of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is not widely publicised, except in some cases by the individuals concerned. In the past, numbers and lists have emerged in answer to parliamentary questions or through websites of parliamentary watchers such as Guido Fawkes. Prior to the 2010 election the Conservative Party was critical of the lack of transparency in government and following the election, for the first time, published a full list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

However, the turnover of PPSs is often high, and despite two significant Cabinet reshuffles in 2012 and 2014, and a general election in 2015, neither the Coalition nor the Cameron government published an updated list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries. It was pleasing then that following the 2017 election, following the establishment of Ministerial teams the May government promptly published a list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries. In a post written at the time I expressed the hope that this list would be updated following reshuffles and election.

Following the Prime Minister’s January reshuffle, a new list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries was indeed placed on the Number 10 website. Moreover, after a long period of seemingly inexorable rise in the numbers of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the January 2018 list indicated that there had been a slight fall in the number from 46 in July 2017 to 43 in January 2018. The list indicated that the number of PPSs supporting the Treasury’s Ministerial team has been reduced from three to two, while the Home Office, which previously and inexplicably had the support of four PPSs, has had that number cut to two. Three departments, the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, have had their number of PPSs reduced from two to one. Although three departments have seen an increase in their complement of Ministerial aides. The number of PPSs supporting Ministers in the MoD and the Department for Education has increased from two to three, while the Wales Office has gone from one to two.

However, what appeared to be a welcome development both in transparency and a gradual reining in of the payroll vote, may in fact be neither. Two days after the government’s PPS list was published, Caroline Johnson, the MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, tweeted that she had been appointed as PPS to the Treasury Ministerial team.

johnson

Several days later another tweet by Andrea Jenkyns, revealed that she had been appointed as PPS to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Neither Johnson nor Jenkyns were on the list published by Number 10 on 22nd January.

The appointments of Johnson and Jenkyns bring the total number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries to 45, only one less than in July 2017. Although in fact there may be more. The published list has not been updated to take account of these new appointments and it is perfectly possible, perhaps likely, that others have been made which have not come to my attention. That the compilation of a complete list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is dependent on the serendipitous identification of tweets by new appointees is hardly a model of transparency. It’s also not clear why these appointments which followed only days after the list was published were not included on it. If the turnover of PPSs is significant then there may be some justification in suggesting that providing an updated list every month or two is not the most effective use of resources by staff at Number 10, although presumably such a list exists and is updated when there is a change. However, it is quite clear that the current list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries was published before the latest round of appointments was complete. It is unfortunate that as a result what might be seen as a welcome movement towards greater transparency on the part of government, begins to look like an exercise in obfuscation.

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Mr O’Donovan’s annual survey of royal engagements

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The Times, letters page, 29 December 2017.

For the last 38 years a fixture of the festive season every bit as reliable as overcooked sprouts is the publication in The Times newspaper of a letter from Mr Tim O’Donovan, a retired insurance broker from Datchet in Berkshire, detailing the number of official engagements undertaken by the royal family in the preceding year.

The survey is a labour of love by the self-confessed royalist which he first undertook in 1979. The source for Mr O’Donovan’s survey is the Court Circular, the daily record of royal engagements published six days a week in The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Scotsman. There is no comparable official annual tally of royal engagements and Mr O’Donovan’s brief table and accompanying letter have become the standard reference work on the annual workload of the royal family.

While Mr O’Donovan always insists that his survey should not be viewed as a ‘league table’ of royal performance, the publication of his survey is each year accompanied by a rash of media reports highlighting who has been the most (or least) hard-working) royal. One notable feature of the table in recent years has been the declining public role of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who are aged 91 and 96 respectively. For the second year in a row the Queen undertook no overseas engagements in 2017, and as Mr Donovan notes, the Duke of Edinburgh stepped down from public engagements in May 2017.  Much of the burden of royal engagements has now fallen on the next generation of royals. In terms of the total number of engagements, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, was the hardest working royal in 2017, with a total of 546 engagements, closely followed by his sister the Princess Royal, who undertook 540 engagements, although she did carry out more engagements in the UK than her brother.

It was the public role of Charles’s children, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, which attracted most media attention this year, in particular the fact that Prince Harry carried out more public engagements (209) than his brother William (171). Although it should be noted that the Queen carried out more public engagements than either William or Harry and in terms of public engagements in the UK, more than both grandsons combined.

 

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How an arcane piece of parliamentary procedure may force the government to release its Brexit impact assessment studies

An opposition day debate last Wednesday saw the Labour Party deploy an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure which may force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies. By means of a little-known procedure called a motion for a return, Labour transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House. Labour’s approach caused some confusion in the House of Commons and had parliamentary observers reaching for a copy of Erskine May in order to determine what exactly had happened and what it meant. This post examines the background to Labour’s parliamentary trap and the implications for the government.

The government approach to opposition day debates

The background to what happened on Wednesday lies in the government’s approach to opposition day debates in this Parliament. Opposition days provide a rare opportunity for opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. There are twenty opposition days in each parliamentary session. These are usually divided between opposition parties, in the last session Labour had seventeen of these while three were allocated to the SNP. Each day is then often divided in two to allow for more subjects to be debated. On Wednesday last week, Labour tabled two motions for discussion, one dealing with armed forces pay and the other on the release of the Brexit impact studies.

Opposition days provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion on a subject they consider to be important. Government Ministers must come to the House and respond to the motion, speaking at the beginning and end of the debate. The government may also table an amendment in an attempt to overturn the motion, usually by changing its meaning. There is usually then a vote. Governments with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition day motion, but even if a government is defeated, opposition day motions are non-binding and the government is not required to respond or make any policy changes as a result.

In the current parliamentary session the government has decided to adopt a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. Although Ministers come to the chamber to respond and Conservative MPs participate in opposition day debates; Conservative MPs, presumably under instruction from the Whips, have not been voting against the opposition motion. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but are almost certainly a consequence of governing without a majority. It certainly saves the government from going to the trouble of martialling its MPs into the chamber for a non-binding vote which they are likely to lose anyway. It may also be designed to ensure that Labour’s victory in such votes is somewhat Pyrrhic. This point was made by the Conservative MP, Peter Bone, following a government defeat on a recent opposition day motion in which Conservative MPs abstained, when he claimed that although the opposition had won the vote, the Conservatives could not be said to have lost.

This strategy of abstaining in votes on opposition day motions has, however, caused some consternation in the chamber of the House of Commons. Following a government defeat on an opposition day motion on Universal Credit on 18th October, there was criticism from both sides of the House at the government’s decision not to contest the vote in order to enable it to ignore the outcome. The Conservative MP, Edward Leigh, complained that the government’s approach risked reducing the chamber to the level of a ‘university debating society’, adding, ‘what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? Surely when we vote, it should have some effect.’ The Speaker was also particularly exercised by the government’s apparent neglect of Parliament, noting that, ‘it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion’ and that it would be ‘respectful to the House’ if a Minister were to come to the House and explain the government’s thinking.

Perhaps most interestingly, in response to a question from the SNP MP, Pete Wishart, about whether the Leader of the House could be compelled to explain the government’s ‘refusal to participate in the democratic arrangements of the House’, while the Speaker made clear that he could not compel the government to respond to the vote, he added that:

…mechanisms are available to him and others, on both sides of the House, to try to secure a governmental response, if they wish. If they do, they certainly will not find the Speaker an obstacle to their endeavours.

This, coupled with the Leader of the House’s subsequent statement that the government would respond to the universal credit defeat, ‘no more than twelve weeks after the debates’, perhaps prompted Labour to search diligently for an effective trap for the government. By the time of last week’s opposition day, Labour had clearly identified just such a mechanism.

A motion for a return

The opposition day motion tabled by Labour on 1st November was as follows:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the list of sectors analysed under the instruction of Her Majesty’s Ministers, and referred to in the Answer of 26 June 2017 to Question 239, be laid before this House and that the impact assessments arising from those analyses be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union.

As with other opposition day motions this session the government did not seek to amend the motion and did not contest it in a vote with the result that the motion was carried and is now a resolution of the House of Commons.

However, in the wording of this motion, which was slightly different to the standard opposition day motions, Labour had set a trap for the government. Opposition day motions, including the one on armed forces pay tabled earlier same day, usually begin with a phrase along the lines of ‘This House notes…’ The motion requesting the release of the Brexit impact assessments, however, was worded as ‘an humble Address’ to Her Majesty in what is known as, a motion for a return. It was this unusual piece of parliamentary procedure which sent observers, and Members of Parliament, to seek out Erskine May’s authoritative tome on parliamentary practice.

The relevant section of Erskine May describes a motion for a return as follows:

Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a motion for a return. A return from the Privy Council or from departments headed by a Secretary of State is called for by means of an Humble Address the Queen;… The power to call for papers was frequently exercised until about the middle of the nineteenth century. It is rarely resorted to in modern circumstances since much of the information previously sought in this way is now produced in the form of Command or Act Papers but the power has a continuing importance since it may be delegated to committees, thus enabling them to send for papers and records.

Although this is not a widely used practice, by tabling a motion for a return Labour were seeking to invoke parliament’s power to call for persons, papers and records. As noted in Erskine May this power is now largely associated with parliamentary committees, but select committees have this power because it is a power of the House, not the other way around. Although, as Erskine May notes, this power is not absolute, it is generally accepted as an important parliamentary power and one which members on all sides of the House would not like to see eroded.

The motion was clearly designed to turn a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding one. Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary stated at the beginning of the debate that it was his belief that this was a binding motion which was designed to make it, ‘impossible for the Government to pull their usual Wednesday afternoon trick of not voting on Opposition day motions or not taking any notice of them.’ There was much discussion on this point in the debate, during which three different Speakers sat in the Chair, but there was some consensus on both sides of the House that the motion was binding. Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, observed that although Erskine May does not use the word, ‘binding’ it does refer to the power of the House to call for papers and ‘power is something pretty forceful, and is much more than just an expression of will.’ Eventually, Speaker Bercow concluded that ‘…motions of this kind have traditionally been regarded as binding or effective. Consistent with that established pattern, I would expect the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household to present the Humble Address in the usual way.’

Another consequence of Labour’s tactic, which was alluded to by the Speaker, was that the request for the release of the Brexit impact studies will be made to the Queen. A ‘humble address’ is the mechanism by which Parliament communicates with the monarch and is generally used in relation to Parliament’s response to the Queen’s speech or non-contentious issues such as passing on congratulations to the monarch. It’s use in this case prompted criticism from some, that Labour was trying to drag the Queen into the Brexit debate. The reason why a motion for a return refers to the monarch arises from the fact that government departments are created by royal prerogative, and are, in effect, branches of the Privy Council. Hence, Secretaries of State become Privy Counsellors and departments are designated with the prefix ‘Her Majesty’s…’, although HM Treasury appears to be the only department for which this is now widely used. As a result, as the Speaker made clear, Labour’s request will be communicated to the Queen, ‘in the usual way’, although the response, of course, will come from the government.

The passing of a motion for a return also raises the prospect of the government being held in contempt of parliament if it does not abide by the resolution. This was also the subject of some discussion in last week’s debate, including in relation to how long the government might take to make the assessments available. In this case the Speaker was less willing to be drawn, noting that accusations of contempt would need to be made in writing to the Speaker, but that it was up to the House itself to arbitrate in cases of contempt.

It is not yet clear how the government will respond to this defeat. The Chair of the Brexit select committee, Hillary Benn, has written to the Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union, to request that the assessments be made available and promptly. It is unlikely that the government will want to challenge parliament on this issue, not least because its negligent attitude towards opposition day votes has already prompted criticism from its own benches. Moreover, a refusal to cooperate may well be seen as eroding the power of select committees, setting a poor example to those, particularly outside parliament, who may be minded not to cooperate when called to give evidence. There has been some discussion as to whether the assessments might be redacted before being handed over, although the motion makes no provision for that, but it seems likely that the government will agree to some arrangement to make the assessments available to parliament in some form.

Free Erskine May

An interesting corollary of this episode is that it has prompted repeated calls for Erskine May to be made freely available online. While copies, including an electronic version, are freely available within Westminster, few outside can afford the £400+ price tag for the latest edition, and last week’s events led many struggling to locate their nearest copy. Making Erskine May freely available online was one of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy in 2015, and in response to a question the day after last week’s opposition day debate the Leader of the House agreed that it should be available online. It is to be hoped that this, along with the government’s response to last week’s interesting exercise of parliamentary power, is not long in coming.


This post first appeared on the PSA Parliaments Group blog, and subsequently on the UCL Constitution Unit blog.

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