Following the dissolution of Parliament on the 27 March 2017 (aka Parliament ceases to exist), I had time to start focusing on my research for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) select committee (more on select committees in my previous blog). There has been a lot of work looking into, if the Government negotiates this Brexit deal, what does it means for X, Y and Z sector i.e. health, agriculture, construction etc. My background work for EFRA is a bit different and aims to identify the key issues surrounding Brexit for individual agricultural sectors: e.g. beef, lamb, pork, dairy, cereals and oilseeds.
I grew up on a small, family-run arable farm, so I had an inkling of the type of farming organisations I would need to get in touch with and talk to for this research, even so, I’ve learnt a lot of new farming acronyms recently. For my background research, I went about contacting key stakeholder organisations like the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB). For each agricultural sector I have been reading reports and speaking with individual farmers. Sometimes their views are not represented by the larger organisations who form ‘the usual suspects’ of people select committees talk to. In my first proper week I started looking into the Sheep meat industry – inspired by some tasty lamb over Easter! Interestingly, the UK lamb market is dominated by a consumer preference for leg, and the UK is a net exporter of lamb to the EU… we produce the most lamb in the EU!
For a select committee, the style of writing (and thinking) is very different to what I am used to. As a scientist, I have a research question, I think about how best I can answer that question given the limitations of time and funding, I collect quantitative data, process it, and then interpret it.
For a select committee, impartial reporting is key. It is for the MPs and the Chair of the committee to decide on their recommendations to or criticism of Government. This change is quite challenging when you have been used to making your own decisions based on the research you have done. If you’re interested, all select committee’s reports and the evidence they used are publicly available – anyone can read what a cross-party group of MPs think of the Government’s latest policy or allocation of money (have a look at EFRA’s reports from the last Parliamentary session, 2015/17).
The MPs return…
Fast forward to halfway through my internship and I’ve looked into sheep meat, pork and beef… and the general election has happened, meaning parliament is back to its bustling self. The speaker has been re-elected and duly ‘dragged’ to his seat – historically, the speaker position was a very undesirable post due to the number of speakers beheaded when the monarch didn’t like the decision or news they had to convey from Parliament. A total of seven lost their heads between 1394 and 1535.
I also learnt about the Father of the House… the MP who has the longest continuous service (currently Ken Clarke), who presides over the election of the speaker. I’ve discovered that the House of Commons puts up useful translations of Parliament phrases on twitter, like the one on the Queen’s Speech below, they’re good for anyone not use to all the words Parliamentarians use as a matter of course!
Despite the General Election electing all 650 MPs, until the Queen’s speech (at the State Opening of Parliament), the MPs have not been officially called back to Parliament. So the MPs can’t hold the Government to account in Parliament until after the State Opening. And, to be allowed to sit and participate in debates on the iconic green benches, the MPs first have to ‘swear in’. This is why if you ever do a tour around Parliament (which I highly recommend!), when the tour guide takes you into the House of Commons, you have to stand, not sit on the benches, because you have not taken a solemn affirmation or oath of allegiance to the Queen! Ironically, even after swearing in, this doesn’t guarantee all 650 MPs a seat for every ‘event’. There are more MPs than space on the iconic green benches. This could have been changed after the House of Commons was hit by a bomb during WWII. Churchill had the option to extend the chamber, but he wanted to ensure that a backbencher in one corner of the room, could speak and be comfortably heard by a back bencher diagonally opposite. So the chamber remained the same size, seating around 427 MPs.
The MPs swear in
I went to watch the MPs ‘swearing in’, which started the Wednesday after the General Election. I sat in the public viewing gallery, sectioned off from the MPs by a lot of reinforced glass! This was installed in 2004 in response to security threats.
Interestingly, during the early 1900s when the suffragettes were campaigning for women’s votes, long before any reinforced glass, they used to throw flour from the public gallery onto the MPs! After years of such action, yesterday (2nd July) in 1928, women over the age of 21 were finally given the right to vote when Royal Assent was given to The Representation of the People Act.
First up to ‘swear in’ was the speaker, then the Father of the House, followed by the Prime Minister and her cabinet. They all queue up in a very British fashion. The MPs can choose to ‘swear in’ on a choice of religious texts or ‘affirm’ themselves to the monarch. It’s strangely addictive to watch! Some even say it in Welsh or Scots, but it does first have to be said in English.
Seeing the Queen
The date and then ‘rumour-date’ for the State Opening of Parliament moved around a little bit, but finally it settled on the longest day of the year, and it turned out, the hottest day in June since 1976. What a choice! With the thermometer pushing high 20s pre-11am, and 33oC predicted for the afternoon, I turned up at the Palace of Westminster, ready to watch a section of State Opening. I’d balloted for a ticket and got one to stand in a lobby half-way between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The security presence was notable, and compared with normal, the Palace a little deserted when I got there early… to get a good spot! From my viewpoint I saw Black Rod, the Doorkeepers, the House of Commons speaker and all the MPs parade past, the former three in all their traditional finery. Black Rod commanded the MPs to follow him through to the House of Lords, where the Queen delivered her speech (written for her by the Government). This is the only time during Parliament that all three (the Queen, the Lords and the MPs) are together. Once the Queen had delivered her speech, I ran back outside to see her and her crown leave, in separate vehicles naturally. This was followed by a marching band, showing impressive stamina to be wearing all their bearskin finery, playing an instrument and marching, whilst I was far too hot merely stood still in a sundress. I thoroughly enjoyed State Opening!
With Parliament officially opened, the select committees now wait for the parties to put a motion to Parliament detailing which political party gets the ‘chair’ of which committee. Traditionally the opposition party always gets the Public Accounts committee. Last Parliament (2015-17) EFRA’s chair was a Conservative, but we have to wait until early July to find out who it will be this time. If I’m lucky, I may get to see one meeting of the new EFRA select committee before summer recess, and the end of my internship!