Parliament: A thousand years old and full of fight

This ancient institution has been remarkably vigorous in recent months and it's striking what backbenchers and ordinary members of the House of Lords can do
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What I find notable in politics at the moment is the way the backbench part of Parliament is working rather better than it has done for many years. In recent weeks, for instance, the report by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards into the collapse of HBOS (“colossal failure of senior management and the Board”) has had an enormous impact.

It is striking what Parliament can do when not dancing to the Government’s tune. I mean what backbenchers and ordinary members of the House of Lords can do and not ministers and their shadows, nor the wider political class with its restless, calculating seeking-after-power for its own sake.

There was an excellent example on Tuesday evening of the cussedness that ordinary MPs can display. At 8.27pm the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrew Lansley, rose to propose what seemed an innocuous motion: that the House should not sit the next morning so that members could attend Baroness Thatcher’s funeral. As a result, the 30 minutes allotted to Prime Minister’s questions would be lost. Personally, I think this alteration in the parliamentary timetable was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Yet this was a difficulty for two members, both proudly independent, George Galloway and Dennis Skinner. They spoke against the motion. No doubt they wanted to have one more go at the late Prime Minister, but Mr Galloway appealed to precedent. As he said: “This House of Commons continued its adversarial, bear-pit, unarmed political combat throughout the darkest days of the Second World War.” Indeed, the Palace of Westminster was bombed on 14 occasions and moved to Church House nearby and carried on. General de Gaulle, who was in London during the war and was a famously awkward guest, was impressed. He thought the way the House of Commons never missed a beat through the Blitz and afterwards was the most remarkable aspect of his stay in the capital. Mr Galloway was thus saying something important here, if the occasion was a rather flimsy one. The motion was duly carried by a large majority.

A little earlier on the same day, however, backbenchers had forced the Government to withdraw proposals that meant homeowners would be able to build big extensions on their houses without any longer requiring planning permission. The Government hoped that this liberalisation would be widely welcomed and would lead to a big increase in work for builders.

The puzzling thing here is how ministers could have been so daft. Had these proposals been described to any group of sixth-formers, not many minutes would have gone by before a pupil would have pointed out that the neighbours might not be very pleased. Or as one MP put it: “I hear complaints from many of my constituents that their neighbours have extended the remit of their planning permissions in terms of height, length or type. How many more complaints does he think will be made to us when planning permission is no longer required for a development that a neighbour would regard as completely unacceptable?”

At all events, the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, announced that he would come back with a “revised approach”. To which Cheryl Gillan, a former Conservative minister, retorted: “I am afraid we are not going to believe what you [Mr  Pickles] say at that Despatch Box until we see it in black and white.” There is backbench distrust.

A different sort of distrust has been in evidence recently with Parliamentary select committees, composed entirely of backbenchers, questioning leading business people. On the same Tuesday of the week that the Leader of the House was challenged and the Secretary of State for Communities was sent packing, the Energy and Climate Change Committee tore into the chief executive of one of the Big Six energy companies, RWE npower.

When the admission came that the company hadn’t paid any UK corporation tax for three years, Ian Lavery said: “In the past three years, RWE npower has reported profits totalling £766m – yet today they admitted they have not paid a single penny of corporation tax over that period. People who pay their taxes unquestioningly are sick and tired of seeing hugely profitable companies use every trick in the book to get out of contributing their fair share… Hard-pressed people struggling with sky-high energy bills will be absolutely astonished that an energy company… doesn’t appear to be paying its fair share in tax.”

Actually, Mr Lavery’s fire missed the target on this occasion because the company’s investment in new generating capacity, such as gas-fired power stations, has been so huge that the tax reliefs it has rightly claimed extinguished the charge to tax. Doubtless Mr Lavery will be unabashed.

All this tells us something important about Britain’s constitutional arrangements. Parliament and its predecessor assemblies go back over 1,000 years. This is the deep taproot of British democracy. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is the central institution of British life, more so than the monarchy. It is one of the things that marks us out from our European neighbours, and thus one of the hidden sources of tension with them. That the old root is still producing vigorous growth is very good news.