Prospect article on Parliamentary reform


Parliament: our principal democratic institution?

"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom"

by Graham Brady, / August 27, 2014 / Leave a comment 

An Englishman who played a key role in both the American and French revolutions, if Thomas Paine were alive today, he would recognise in our Parliament the last bastion of the patronage state from which he sailed 240 years ago. Whereas the American colonists built a constitution which consciously sought to place democratic checks on the power of the executive; in the mother country we made the prerogative powers of the monarch seem more palatable by vesting them in a member of the legislature. If the intention of fusing executive and legislature in the British way was to achieve effective democratic control of government, the result is the opposite: our principal democratic institution is almost entirely controlled by the government.

Defenders of the status quo point to the fact that Members of Parliament are more “rebellious” than in earlier times and to the important steps forward arising from the Wright Committee in 2010: elected select committees and MPs choosing a small proportion of the business that the Commons is allowed to debate. These developments, they say, show that the Commons is a vibrant institution: more independent than it has been for a hundred years. From the inside, it feels very different. The flexing of such small muscles draws attention not to strength but to weakness.

I regularly speak to groups of students. Ask bright, well-educated young people what the House of Commons is for and they will typically say it is there to make laws. If pressed they will say it is to represent the people. At a push they volunteer that it is there to scrutinise government. Almost invariably, people miss the real primary purpose of our elected chamber: the Commons exists to populate an executive (plus a shadow executive) and to sustain that executive in office. If the things people think Parliament is meant to do are relegated to a subsidiary role, it is unsurprising that the public holds the institution in such low esteem.

The Commons scrutinises legislation badly. Bills are considered in committees appointed by Party whips. The job of the government whips is to get the government’s business approved. It would be odd if they chose to appoint the members who were most knowledgeable, most likely to offer rigorous challenge. Most serious scrutiny in committee is likely therefore, to come from Opposition members and shadow ministers in particular. Given that the government imposes the timetable and always has a majority on Bill committees, it is rare for amendments to be passed in committee. When the committee “reports” to the Commons there is a theoretical opportunity for all MPs to speak, table amendments and vote on them. In practice though, governments are likely to timetable the business in such a way as to minimise the risk of embarrassment. Little wonder that the House of Lords complains about the quality of the raw material sent to it as a “revising chamber.”

The way the House of Commons discharges all its functions is coloured by two further factors. Firstly, there are two big teams: Government and Opposition. Nearly all members are affiliated to one or the other and it is natural that we want our team to do well. Even if we think there is something it is doing badly, there is a natural reticence about causing difficulty or public embarrassment for our friends and colleagues who are “playing” on the front bench.

More obvious and overt is the influence of patronage. If members arrive at the Palace of Westminster imbued with zeal to scrutinise the dark recesses of government, to bring out into the open the things that any executive would prefer to hide: most rapidly adjust their aspirations and set about seeking instead, to become a member of that executive. A Cabinet minister is paid twice as much as a backbench MP. Even the most junior minister is remunerated better than the chairman of an important Commons committee; this gives an insight into the relative importance accorded at Westminster to the executive and the scrutiny or oversight functions. It would be too cynical to imagine that MPs want to climb the greasy pole only for a pay rise and a ministerial car…. but we all have our human frailties. The incentives in British politics too often act away from the public interest; rather than being aligned with it. The public wants independently-minded Parliamentarians fighting for their beliefs: the career structure in Parliament rewards machine politicians who blow with the prevailing wind. If the leader of a banana republic dispensed funds to MPs who helped vote his Bills through we would call it corruption: in Britain we call it the “payroll vote”.

Even more important than the pursuit of self-advancement, is the desire to gain office to increase our chances of influence. After all, most politicians at least start out wanting to change the world for the better. Keep your nose clean and you will become an unpaid aid to a minister; next a job in the Whips’ Office; then a minister in a department. Many who have held office at all these levels will tell you how elusive real influence can be.

Voters take the trouble to send able and thoroughly decent people to Westminster. Increasingly they take big pay cuts to serve the people. Survey after survey suggests that people have a much higher opinion of their own Member of Parliament than they do of MPs as a whole. This is one reason to think that advocates of electoral reform are missing the target—people aren’t unhappy with the people they send to Westminster: disappointment sets in when they see what happens to us when we get there.

In a weak Parliament, able people quickly become disillusioned. It can seem that being a Member of Parliament per se brings little influence: but there are limited opportunities for ministerial or other worthwhile office. The fact that the Prime Minister’s reshuffle in the summer of 2014 was accompanied by a rush of sacked or retiring ministers announcing their planned departure from the Commons at the next election, speaks volumes about the esteem (even the self-esteem) in which the House of Commons is held.

If we are to restore value and real significance to our principal democratic institution, we must understand the reasons for its decline. The rise of new economic and military powers in the world and the gradual shift of decision-making to the European Union are important parts of the picture. It is open to us to change some of this but not all. In an earlier time, an age of deference, it may also be that the electorate was more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Parliamentarians who were less independent than today’s. In an age of massive ideological difference across the House; perhaps it simply mattered much more which team won than whether your own representative delivered for you. Today, a large chunk of the electorate is completely disengaged from politics: but a significant minority is more engaged and better informed than ever before.

It is essential that Members of Parliament rise to the expectations of the public; but that can only be done if Parliament itself changes to give them the space they need. The immediate steps are simple. Elected select committees have greater stature: their powers should be enhanced commensurately. Proper confirmation hearings for major appointments, meaningful oversight—even control—of budgets would be natural improvements for a serious Parliament.

Committee chairs should be paid the same as the ministers they are scrutinising; maybe committee members should be paid a little too, the quid pro quo would be an expectation of very high attendance. These roles should be central to an MP’s role; they should constitute a genuine career alternative to seeking ministerial office. The House of Commons should take responsibility for allocating its own time, rather than the government handing down the business. This was recommended by the Wright Committee and included in the Coalition Agreement but has been quietly dropped for fear of sharpening parliamentary scrutiny.

Our Parliament is so weak and the executive so strong, that it is easy to think of steps that would be worthwhile improvements: but increasingly, people inside and outside Parliament are asking more radical questions. Would a proper separation of the executive and the legislative branches begin to tackle the public dissatisfaction that we face? If our elections have become “presidential” in style (more so now the genie of TV debates has been released), then perhaps we should accept the reality of a media age and allow people to vote directly for a Prime Minister. Instead of expecting the Prime Minister then to choose an executive from the limited gene pool of Parliament, he could recruit the best qualified candidates from business and beyond. Freed of the need to furnish scores of ministers and shadow ministers, the Commons could be reduced to a more sensible size. Three hundred MPs with real powers, freed of the lure of patronage and able to focus on their proper role as legislators and representatives of the people.

This essay is part of a collection of essays, How to run a country, to be published by the think tank Reform on 9th September