Parliament is the centre of our democracy. Civil servants are always interested in what goes on there and how it works – because Parliament is very interested in them. In what is a historic time for Westminster, I want to encourage all officials, wherever you are in the UK, to remember that Parliament matters.
Every week I read out the forthcoming business for the House, after which MPs have an opportunity to ask for a debate or statement on any issue. If you are a civil servant, the chances are that from time to time MPs will be asking to scrutinise something related to your work. Hence, Parliament matters. As a government, we should champion its work by engaging with it as positively as we possibly can.
Advocates and critics
MPs and peers scrutinise every aspect of the work of HM Government and the public services it delivers. If you work for the DVLA in Swansea, the Commons’ Transport Select Committee will be paying close attention to your performance. If you are in a far-flung embassy, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the country you’re working in will be keen to learn more about your work. All those working in public services are guaranteed to have passionate advocates fighting their corner, as well as strong critics of how the delivery of those public services should be improved, on the green and red benches.
Some may feel daunted by such intense scrutiny. The Commons chamber does not always feel like the most comfortable of environments for government ministers (and nor should it). Yet ministers always listen carefully to what MPs and peers have to say.
While the Palace of Westminster is a uniquely distinctive building, sitting on its own beside the Thames, it houses a Parliament that is connected to our public life in myriad different ways. From e-petitions and select committee inquiries, to the ‘surgeries’ MPs hold to hear the problems faced by their constituents, Parliament is plugged into the work of every civil servant in the country. So, when MPs raise issues they care about, we should all recognise that they aim to do so in an informed, considered way.
This, after all, is the essence of our democracy. Parliament acts as a funnel: if something is going wrong in your department, or if something could be done better, sooner or later that message will find its way to MPs and peers. When it does, we shouldn’t expect them to keep quiet about it: politicians know the value of campaigning hard until they achieve a change. So they make their case to ministers, and the Government, which is committed to sustaining a flourishing democracy, responds, striving to be as responsive and consultative as possible.
Because we can all help with this process, civil servants need to understand how Parliament works. Civil Service Learning offers courses on Parliament that will help you appreciate – among other things – how your work is scrutinised; how the stakeholders you are dealing with feed their views into Parliament; how Parliament makes laws – and the many ways in which Parliament can put your minister on the spot.
I feel I have something to offer here, too. As Leader of the House of Commons I am responsible, along with the Chief Whips of both Houses and the Leader of the House of Lords, for overseeing the Government’s legislative agenda. I chair Cabinet’s Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, which is something akin to a ‘Dragon’s Den’ for Bill proposals. We demand high standards precisely because Parliament is so effective at scrutinising our proposed policy changes.
As part of this, and broader efforts to improve parliamentary capability, each department now has a designated Parliamentary Champion. Their role is to promote the importance of Parliament and an awareness of how it works, and to make sure that departments take Parliament’s requirements into account when making decisions. They are also there to make sure that civil servants have the skills needed to support ministers on parliamentary business, including Bills and statutory instruments.
If you want to know more about Parliament, and how to gain the skills and experience you will need when dealing with it; or if you have any ideas about how to improve your department’s relationship with Parliament – your departmental Parliamentary Champion is the person to approach.
Whatever your role in the Civil Service, I hope you will think about the interest Parliament takes in your work.
Why policymakers should care about Parliament
- Be aware that select committees take a great interest in your work. MPs run inquiries which investigate topical issues and their evidence sessions regularly produce news stories.
- Your first instinct might be to legislate, but it is not always the best option. In this busy, historic session of Parliament, it may be that you can achieve the same result without having to push forward with a bill.
- Ministers are expected to notify an MP if they visit their constituency in an official capacity. Failure to do so results in complaints on the floor of the House.
- The principle that all policy announcements should be made to Parliament first is taken very seriously by the Commons – and Mr Speaker is more likely to allow Urgent Questions whenever he feels this principle is not upheld.
- Secondary legislation is receiving more scrutiny in this Parliament, making it more important than ever that statutory instruments are well drafted.