A day in the death of the Commons

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The Independent Online
Within a day of John Major defending the existing constitution, declaring Parliament supreme, central to national life, and the place where things happen, an investigation by the Independent shows the House of Commons is being increasingly shunted into the sidelines.

But that is not expected to stop MPs acting decisively on a report from the Senior Salaries Review Body, sent to the Prime Minister yesterday, with a reported recommendation of a pay rise of between 15 and 30 per cent for MPs, who are on salaries of pounds 34,085 a year.

Mr Major will spend the next week taking soundings on the report and will give his verdict to the House next Thursday, in a written answer that is not open to questioning.

Not that there will be many MPs around to question it; for an ill-attended House will by that stage be debating "motions on the structural and boundary changes"; orders for the restructuring of local government in England.

Yesterday, with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor absent at the G7 economic summit in France, and only two members of the Shadow Cabinet in the chamber, Prime Minister's Question Time was reduced to a sham: a curtain-raiser to announcing an 11-week summer break starting on 25 July.

Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said last night: "The Chamber reacts to the way ministers treat it, and the longer in power, the more arrogant ministers have become in their treatment of the Chamber.

"There is now a vulgarity in debate that was certainly not there when I was first elected in 1979. Before, relations were combative, but governments of both parties were willing to listen to the other side. Not now: it treats the voters with contempt."

In his defence of the constitutional primacy of Parliament on Wednesday night, Mr Major said Parliament was supreme. "That has to be a sick joke," one Labour frontbencher said. MPs treated the claim with incredulity. Mr Major said he was not arguing for the status quo, citing the new departmental select committee system and new procedures for scrutinising European legislation as examples of proper, evolutionary reform.

Mr Major appears to have forgotten a report from the all-party European Legislation Select Committee, last July, which complained that too many European directives and regulations were being passed unseen - they were arriving after they had been enacted by ministerial councils in Brussels, or late and untranslated.

Their report said: "The process of legislation in a democratic society always contains elements of proposal, consideration, amendment if necessary, and approval.

"This process works only if what is proposed is clear, if it is widely available, if there is publicity and public consultation, and if there is time to consider the proposal before decisions are taken. European law accounts for a large and growing proportion of the law of each Member State, yet it increasingly seems to be made in a private club."

A similar cry of frustration was recently delivered to the nation by the Commons Procedure Committee, which complained about the increasing number of regulations being pushed through Parliament without debate, under the so-called negative procedure. The report said: "The numbers of instruments subject to negative procedure has almost doubled, from around 700 in the early 1980s, to over 1,300 in 1994-95. This trend may well continue as a result of the extent to which recent legislation has delegated powers to ministers."

For those who believe such matters of arcane interest, the Labour frontbencher, Jeff Rooker, yesterday cited the example of a piece of delegated legislation that recently cut pensioners' reduced earnings allowance from pounds 30 to pounds 8 a week.

Liz Lynne, a Liberal Democrat spokeswoman, said some of her Rochdale constituents had received a leaflet "about the new law affecting Disability Living Allowance", which said that the law would be changing from the end of next month. The matter has not yet been debated by the House.

One former Conservative minister said last night that the select committees were important because they gave MPs an alternative power-base to the Chamber. "If you want to keep a secret, then make a speech in the Chamber," he said.

Attendance in the House has become so poor that there were only two members of the Shadow Cabinet in the Chamber when the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, stood in for Mr Major yesterday. There were 215 out of 650 MPs present in the Chamber for Prime Minister's Questions on Thursday 9 March. Yesterday, there were 185. One Cabinet source responded strongly yesterday to a suggestion that the business of the House for next week did not, perhaps, merit a marked pay increase. He said that was "codswallop", citing a two-day debate on the remaining stages of the Broadcasting Bill on Monday and Tuesday.

There are also strong cross-party complaints that the media could be to blame for the demise of the Chamber, with broadsheet newspapers cutting back coverage But one Labour MP told the Independent: "I haven't been into the Chamber for a fortnight. It has got no power and does not relate to anything I do. It is an emptying, decaying waffle shop."

John Major this week

'It is hard to find

another country today whose Parliament is so central to its national life ... Parliament is where things happen.

It is the voice of the people of Britain'

Just 16 MPs were there for a debate; the

chamber was bypassed, the front benches were mostly absent;

an 11-week holiday was announced; Mr Major's words were derided