When David Cameron entered the House of Lords to become foreign secretary, MPs were concerned he would not be held to account by the elected House of Commons. Now MPs could use an arcane mechanism to force Cameron to answer questions before the chamber.
The New Statesman understands the Procedure Committee will recommend Cameron be called to the Bar of the House in a report due to be published in the coming weeks. This would be an extraordinary move by MPs. The Bar of the House is an archaic means by which non-members or “strangers” can be called to the Commons to be questioned by MPs. The name refers to the white line on the floor of the Chamber opposite the Speaker’s chair which non-members cannot cross. This is where Cameron would take questions, as the Duke of Wellington did in 1814, should the House decide to accept the committee’s recommendation.
A source close to the committee said: “We can’t stop the Prime Minister appointing people from the Lords, but the elected House has to find a way of scrutinising one of the great offices of state.”
The Bar has often been used to admonish those judged to have offended the Commons. The last time someone was called to the Bar was in 1957 when the Sunday Express journalist, John Junor, apologised to MPs for casting doubt over their allowances for petrol, which was rationed at the time.
A source said the committee thought other options were impractical: questioning Cameron in Westminster Hall – a smaller chamber that hosts less prominent debates – was deemed a security risk and creating a Grand Committee would involve the awkward task of balloting MPs.
When Cameron was appointed in November, the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, asked the committee to investigate ways the Commons could scrutinise the foreign secretary. In a letter to the committee chair, Karen Bradley, Hoyle noted the committee had previously recommended holding questions in Westminster Hall.
But he did not think this was the “timely, searching and effective scrutiny of the government’s approach to fast-moving global events our constituents would expect”. Hoyle himself raised the prospect of calling Cameron to the Bar. He asked the committee to consider whether “the practice of witnesses being questioned at the Bar of the House might be a model that could be adapted for current circumstances”.
Cameron appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which is comprised of MPs, for two hours in January to answer questions on Israel-Gaza, the Balkans and his priorities for the Foreign Office. The expectation is that he will appear before the committee around four times a year. The Foreign Secretary has said the government is happy to consider other mechanisms of accountability. But he is clear that any changes would require the agreement of the Lords.
A Procedure Committee spokesman said: “The Procedure Committee has undertaken an inquiry into how members of the House of Commons can scrutinise Secretaries of States in the Lords. The committee will report back with its proposals shortly.”