This week in Parliament: Theresa May's creeping despotism

Through fairly obscure means and made possible only by the support of the DUP, May's creeping despotism is set to skew Parliament's weak legislative scrutiny function even further.

With two votes set to hand over significant powers to Theresa May this week in Parliament is light on policy debate, but a crucial one nonetheless. Through fairly obscure means and made possible only by the support of the DUP, May’s creeping despotism is set to skew Parliament’s weak legislative scrutiny function even further in the government’s favour.

Monday 11th September - European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, 2nd reading

The second day of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill’s (AKA the ‘Great Repeal Bill’) 2nd reading takes place today. At 2nd reading MPs debate the general principle of the bill and at the end of proceedings a vote is taken, which determines whether the bill progresses on to the detailed consideration of committee stage.

If passed, this bill would have the effect of cutting off the source of EU law in the UK by repealing the European Communities Act 1972 and removing the competence of European Union institutions to legislate for the UK the day Brexit occurs. Alongside this the entirety of EU law - with the exception of aspects expressly outlined in the bill, such as the rights conferred by the Charter of Fundamental Rights - will be transposed into UK law, creating a new category of UK law which the bill refers to as “retained EU law”.

This retained EU law would then be amendable by the government using secondary legislation (sometimes referred to as ‘Henry VIII powers’), a mechanism which provides little scope for the opposition to amend and block legislation and allows the government to change the law far more quickly than is possible through primary legislation. As Labour’s amendment to the bill today states, this would not allow for “meaningful or guaranteed Parliamentary scrutiny” and “provides no mechanism for ensuring that the UK does not lag behind the EU in workplace protections and environmental standards”.

As such Labour have already confirmed that they will be voting against the bill, with Keir Starmer describing it as a “huge power grab” that would “reduce MPs to spectators”, but some Labour MPs in Brexit-voting constituencies such as Caroline Flint (a former Europe Minister) are set to rebel.

Monday 11th September - Select Committee memberships to be confirmed

While the election of select committee chairs took place back in July and Labour selected its nominees before the Commons rose for summer recess, the Tories have only just held internal elections to determine which of their MPs will sit on each committee. As a result of the Tories dragging their feet these committees have not met since MPs returned after the election in June and one of Parliament’s important scrutiny roles has simply not functioned at all. A motion to approve the full memberships of Commons select committees is finally set to be approved on Monday.

A sprinkling of left Labour MPs are among the committee nominees, with Naz Shah set to retain her place on the Home Affairs Committee, Clive Lewis joining the Science and Technology Committee and a number of the new young intake (Laura Pidcock - Justice; Lloyd Russell-Moyle - International Development; Dani Rowley and Hugh Gaffney - Scottish Affairs Committee; Laura Smith - Transport; Jared O’Mara - Women and Equalities; Marsha de Cordova - Work and Pensions) taking up seats. The Labour parliamentary left - many of which are precluded from joining committees due to their shadow ministerial positions - is entirely absent from key committees such as those on the Treasury, Brexit, Education, Health, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Public Accounts.

Tuesday 12th September - Tories attempt to rig Committee of Selection

The Tories tabled an innocuous sounding motion last Friday, under the heading “SELECTION COMMITTEE (NOMINATION TO GENERAL COMMITTEES)” which is set to be considered by the Commons on Tuesday. This motion seeks to be abandon the principle that the Committee of Selection - a crucial committee which determines the membership of the standing committees known as Public Bill Committees that consider bills in detail - should reflect the composition of the parties in the Commons.

Following the general election result the independent House authorities have stated that this means the Committee of Selection should have 4 Conservatives members, 4 Labour members and 1 SNP. In turn the Public Bill Committees appointed by the Committee of Selection should have a similar composition. In practice this means the government would be unable to stock these crucial committees with pliant Tory MPs who would nod through government-led amendments and block any unwelcome Opposition amendments. Instead, the government would be forced to compromise, either behind the scenes or on the floor of the Commons and in committee rooms.

So what has Theresa May done? Accept the will of the people and adopt a new conciliatory tone by reaching out to Corbyn to plot a new trajectory of legislative compromise in the national interest? Of course not no, she’s trying to rig the game in her favour.

Tuesday’s motion, if approved, would create a new Committee of Selection with 5 Conservatives, 3 Labour and 1 SNP and guarantee that all Bill Committees have a majority of government MPs. The effect of this grubby, underhand and undemocratic move - one that will only pass with the support of the DUP - would be to deliver the Tories a majority on crucial parliamentary votes that the country did not grant them on June 8th. Corbyn has rightly described the plans as “an unprecedented attempt to rig parliament and grab power by a Conservative government with no majority & no mandate”.

Wednesday 13th September: Opposition Day debate on the public sector pay cap

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth told Sky News on Sunday that Labour will use its Opposition Day debate slot on Wednesday on the subject of scrapping the 1% pay cap on public sector pay. This comes against the backdrop of its discussion at TUC Congress, suggestions of a coordinated strike by public sector unions over the matter and news that the government is set to divide workers and lift the cap for police and prison officers only.

Opposition Day debates generally conclude with a vote, but these are not binding on the government. However they often generate a good amount of publicity and can in rare instances attract embarrassing rebellions by government MPs. This appears to be partly the intent behind this debate, with Ashworth explicitly calling for Tory MPs who have voiced support for the abolition of the cap but failed to back up their comments in parliamentary votes to support the motion.

Thursday 14th September: General debate on the Abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public during the General Election campaign

This debate comes the week after research conducted by Amnesty International into abuse directed at women MPs was published, revealing that Diane Abbott received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets in the run up to the election, black and Asian women MPs were more likely to be subjected to abuse and that online abuse cut across party lines, affecting women from all UK political parties. Of course, the latter point will no doubt be lost by a number of MPs in attendance keen to highlight individual disgusting instances of abuse as somehow the sole work of a vicious and coordinated Corbynite conspiracy hell-bent on hounding anyone to the right of John McDonnell out of public life.