'The pervasive control mechanism diminishes MPs' self-confidence'

Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock, explains why he challenged Tony Blair to let his own MPs speak their minds
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The Independent Online
ALL THE time the House of Commons is sitting, there is a duty Government whip present on the front bench.

One of the duties of that whip is to report back on the activities of Labour MPs who are "on message", and those who are stepping out of line. Acting as a kind of yeoman warder, the duty whip has a folder, passed on as the guard changes each hour, and I once discovered that it contains a section in which the duty whip comments on each backbench contribution to debate or questions: "Contribution/speech: helpful/unhelpful."

That system is part of the pervasive control mechanism applied by the Government to its own backbench MPs, and serves to diminish their self- confidence.

This week, Labour MPs debated a draft paper on the candidate reselection procedure they will face before the next election. I am concerned that such subjective judgements could prejudice an MP's chances of survival.

The role of MPs in providing scrutiny and accountability and probing the executive is of paramount importance, particularly given the scale and expenditure of any modern government.

It becomes even more important when governments have the kind of majorities achieved by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. With an opposition weak in impact and numbers, there is an additional duty for MPs to jealously defend their role.

During parliamentary prayers each day, we all lay "aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections ..." Nowhere is this more necessary than in the select committee system, which depends on a bipartisan spirit and approach.

Ministers might find it painful, but inquisitorial MPs must be able to perform their duties without outside influence, sanction or leverage. While there is no evidence that the whips have been exerting such influence, ministerial aides - the parliamentary private secretaries - need to be pulled aside and told to "get off the lawn" of select committee members.

When I put my Commons question to Tony Blair on Wednesday, asking him to discourage the fawning, and encourage the independent-minded scrutiny of the executive, I did so because the devaluation of question time has become unacceptable.

Every day, ministerial aides trawl the corridors of the Commons, canvassing pliant MPs with prearranged soft-ball questions, asking them to sign their names to questions they have not written. If those questions succeed in the daily draw - as they often do because there are so many of them - they will then be given a briefing note and a suggested "word bite" to use with the minister at question time. That procedure serves to squeeze out the diligent MP who has gone to the trouble to think up and submit an original question.

Commons question time has been devalued not because of the rumbustiousness and occasional Tony Banks-style wit, but because of the stage-management and the meek, patsy questions of government backbenchers, and the yah- boo-sucks Tory contributions.

That was used, in part, as the excuse to "reform" prime minister's question time and reduce its frequency from Tuesdays and Thursdays to a half-hour session on Wednesdays. The change should never have been allowed.

There was a suggestion this Wednesday that my "independence" would be guaranteed by the Prime Minister not giving me a ministerial job. He and I are in agreement. Neither of us want me to become a minister. I enjoy my job as a full-time backbencher, probing and exposing and defending the interests of my Thurrock constituents on the floor of the House of Commons.

As a minister, you are inhibited by collective ministerial responsibility from publicly questioning issues such as hospital closures, road-widening, and Third World debt. That is much more important to me than being Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Paper Clips and Statues.

I find it increasingly depressing that more and more people are willing to defer and repress their views in the hope of getting their backsides on the seats of ministerial limos.

If Mr Blair gave some thought to this matter, he would quickly realise that it would be a sign of confidence if he were to take questions unrehearsed. It would also help to enhance Parliament's reputation. The Prime Minister clearly has the skill to do that, and he should order his over-zealous acolytes to back off. If he allows this situation to persist, it diminishes him.

When I take school groups around the Commons, I always pause on the spot, in St Stephen's Hall, where Speaker Lenthall saw off Charles I.

He told the King, "May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here ..."

I tell my schoolchildren that this was the Speaker asserting the rights and independence of Parliament over the executive of the day. There needs to be a reassertion by parliamentarians today of that critical tradition.