Influential MPs back criticisms of 'presidential powers without accountability'

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Senior MPs from all parties backed Clare Short's attack on the "presidential" style of the Blair government yesterday as they revealed plans to enhance the powers of Parliament.

The cross-party Parliament First group published a list of recommendations aimed at wresting back control of the Houses of Commons and Lords from the executive.

The group of influential backbenchers also seized on Ms Short's scathing criticism that the Prime Minister routinely ignored both the Cabinet and Parliament on important decisions. Mark Fisher, MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and chairman of the group, said Ms Short was right to highlight the lack of scrutiny of government.

Tony Wright, chairman of the Public Administration Committee, said her warning on the dangers of Mr Blair's approach was "penetratingly true".

In her resignation speech on Monday, the former international development secretary declared: "We have the powers of a presidential-type system with the automatic majority of a parliamentary system." She also said there was "no real collective responsibility because there is no collective" and that "increasingly, those who wield power are not accountable and not scrutinised".

Several chairmen of important select committees, including Mr Wright, Gwyneth Dunwoody, David Curry and Sir Nicholas Winterton, agreed with Ms Short's analysis.

Mr Wright, MP for Cannock Chase, said: "The absolute, penetratingly true line out of what she said was not so much the tyranny at the centre, which is well known – it was the fact that we had this particular combination of a presidential government and a parliamentary system.

"We've managed to combine a president with a system that doesn't have the checks and balances of the US."

He pointed out that it was also up to the Speaker of the Commons to speak up for Parliament more often. He said: "I'm struck daily by the words that the Speaker utters most often in the chamber, 'This is nothing to do with me'."

Mr Wright added: 'Well, it ought to be something to do with the Speaker of the House of Commons. That's why we have to get control of business."

Mr Fisher agreed that Ms Short's criticism had chimed with that of many MPs. "She showed that crucial decisions are not even submitted to full Cabinet, let alone Parliament. She was right that it is very difficult for Parliament to keep the Government under scrutiny," he said.

"We think that this has got to be Parliament's last chance. It is not working at the moment and unless Parliament restores itself and takes control of its own affairs it will fast become a rubber stamp."

Among the measures proposed are making select committees independent of party whips, more direct questioning of the Prime Minister by MPs, and restoring to Parliament control of its own timetabling.

Graham Allen, the MP for Nottingham North and one of the leaders of the rebellion against the war on Iraq, said Mr Blair's Downing Street was similar to the Kremlin under the Communist Party. "When you look at highly centralised systems, the only one that comes near our own is the former Soviet Union," he said.

Lord Weatherill, a former speaker, said the Speaker's role had to be given more power. "I know from personal experience that enormous pressure is put on Speakers by the executive," he said.

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