Anorak tendency at Westminster

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The Independent Online
The late Terry-Thomas would have described them as a shower. Yesterday's Observer told the sad story under the front-page headline: "Three-day week for idle MPs". Exploiting lax new procedures, members are now "quietly disappearing home ... to start four-day weekends". Even attendance at prime minister's question time on Thursdays is beginning to look a bit sparse.

And we all know what conclusions to draw, don't we? Most MPs are lazy, self-serving and greedy, content to lecture on the need for hard work, and then swanning off on freebies, or moonlighting to earn a second salary.

The trouble is that the Observer describes the symptoms, without ever trying to understand the cause. The real mystery is not that MPs are disappearing, but that so many bother to turn up at Westminster at all. That recent changes of procedure have led to an early exodus from the House each week is a sign of the impotence of MPs, not their idleness. It tells us that something is wrong.

MPs have three main reasons for existing: to legislate; to subject what the government does to effective scrutiny, and together to form the country's premier forum for debate. At the moment, however, the system is not working.

Too much ill-considered legislation is passed through the House .The poll tax, the dangerous dogs legislation, the Child Support Agency - all became law with minimum proper thought. The backbenchers acted as a stage army, whipped through the lobbies.

The vast workings of government are scrutinised by under-resourced select committees, possessing few powers and little status. Of 500 committee reports only four have ever been debated on the floor of the House. Committee chairmen are not elected by all MPs, but gerrymandered by the whips.

Debate in the House is too often reduced to the sterile exchanges of abuse between Government and Opposition. Precedence goes to seniority, not expertise.

Working hours are preposterous, causing breakdowns in health and in family ties. There are more MPs than there are seats in the chamber. The procedure is archaic, characterised by stupid rules and codes of behaviour that defy common sense.

Of course the parliamentary nostalgists and the green-baize fetishists will deny it. But ask yourself this: what practical good has someone like Dennis Skinner - for all his attendance record, his questions, his red- tied omnipresence on the benches - ever done? Which bit of anyone's life has been by one iota improved because of the parliamentary performance of Britain's most active backbencher?

No, thoroughgoing parliamentary reform is long overdue. Reforming MPs have suggested modifying the chamber to make it less confrontational and giving each MP a seat, with electronic voting to speed up proceedings. To improve scrutiny they want to see proper support for select committees, their election from the floor of the House, automatic debate of their reports, and their involvement in the committee stages of relevant Bills. They advocate modification of prime ministerial and ministerial question times to increase their effectiveness. The procedures of the House should, they say, be completely overhauled. Labour's Graham Allen has even suggested that a chief executive should be brought in to supervise this revolution.

All this is too worthy for many writers and politicians. For them an interest in reform shows distinctly anorak tendencies. They are wrong. The best way to encourage MPs to stay at Westminster is to give them something useful to do.

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