PACAC holds one-off session examining constitutional implications of Commons procedure ahead of votes on Brexit ‘Plan B’

29 January 2019

The Brexit process has shone fresh spotlight on how Parliament and Government interact, inside the Commons chamber and beyond. Amendments seeking to direct the Government, such as that which compelled the Prime Minister to return to the Commons with her Brexit ‘Plan B’ on Monday 21 January, are one reason why the level of interest in parliamentary procedure has never been higher.

With fresh amendments and backbench Bills in the pipeline, such as the much-discussed European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) and (No. 3) Bills as well as the amendment to the Business of the House motion on 9 January, the coming weeks and months are likely to see further flashpoints; with the Speaker of the House of Commons set to play a pivotal role in many of the resulting debates.

Terms of reference

Recent events in the House have raised questions about the respective roles of Parliament and the Government in the context of international negotiations and legislation.  For example, the amendment made to the Business of the House motion on 9 January 2019 directed the Government to come back to the House of Commons with a “Plan B” within a specified time in the event of a defeat of the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement. 

Further, the backbench European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Bill, proposes giving the House powers to take on a policy-making role and it and the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.3) Bill direct the Government in the process required to reach an agreement on the arrangements for the UK to leave the EU.

In order to address these pressing issues, which may potentially have long-term consequences for the relationship between the House of Commons and the Government, the Committee invites evidence addressing the following questions:

1. How have the powers of Parliament and the Government traditionally been separated, with particular reference to international negotiations?

2. What are the historical precedents, if any, for Parliament directing or instructing the Government, or taking over policy-making itself, on matters of national importance?

3. What precedents are there in legislation for instructing that ministers “must” carry out tasks which are unspecified in the legislation, such as how to conduct international negotiations?
a. Beyond the procedure for scrutinising proposed EU legislation before UK Ministers can agree to it in the EU Council of Ministers (often known as the “scrutiny reserve” ), to what extent has the House previously directed ministers to carry out tasks through non-legislative mechanisms?

4. Internationally legislatures have adopted various approaches to controlling the actions of their executive, in particular at the different stages of treaty negotiation and agreement. Are there factors which should limit the extent to which legislatures seek to constrain the executive’s freedom to act?
a. What are the arguments for or against legislatures seeking to manage executive functions, such as treaty negotiations, directly?

5. What is the role of the Speaker in maintaining balance between the House of Commons, and the rights of minorities within it, and the Government? Are present conventions sufficiently robust to manage a time when the Government cannot consistently secure a majority in the House?

6. Several proposals have been made to vary normal House of Commons procedure to facilitate reaching a conclusion on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. What are the long-term constitutional considerations that the House should take into account when considering these proposals?


Tuesday 29 January 2019, Wilson Room, Portcullis House

At 10am

  • The Rt Hon The Lord Judge, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales
  • Sir Stephen Laws QC, Former First Parliamentary Counsel 
  • Sir Malcolm Jack, Former Clerk of the House of Commons, 
  • Professor Alison Young, Professor of Public Law, University of Cambridge.

Further information

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