Dame Shirley Williams: Much to be done, but a shotgun election won't help

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Michael Martin is a warm and kindly man. I suspect he had little idea how crudely the moth-eaten expenses system was being milked by the MPs who had voted to make him their Speaker. But that he continued to see himself as their champion rather than as the champion of the people who elected them is undoubted. It means that he cannot be the person charged with the reform of expenses, let alone with the reform of Parliament itself.

The rot goes much deeper than the abuse of expenses. Most MPs are honest, however vindictive the public is feeling at present. Public anger has been inflamed by the earlier revelations about the greed of bankers, fear of economic meltdown and the looming threat of home repossessions and loss of jobs. In our parliamentary system, people might be expected to turn to their MPs for leadership. But Parliament is held in contempt, and that long predates the expenses scandal.

Helena Kennedy, writing in The Guardian last week, put that down to the promises politicians make and fail to keep. "Our vote doesn't make any difference," the public say. "They're all the same." But there is more to it than that. Parliament is incapable of doing its prime job, holding the Government to account. Why? First, because it is flooded out with legislation. Like the sorcerer's apprentice, it can't keep up with the flow. Reams of clauses and sub-clauses (the current Coroners and Justice Bill has 166 clauses, 21 schedules and is 228 pages long) pour through a House of Commons which doesn't have the time to examine them properly. It is often not encouraged to do so. The whips want to get the business through. They encourage MPs to do case work in the constituency rather than raise difficult points on Bills. Ministers rarely consult with backbenchers unless trouble is brewing in the shape of a revolt.

Second, the overweening power of the executive has squeezed the life out of Parliament. The career of being a backbench MP offers little attraction to able and idealistic men and women nowadays. The whips tell MPs what questions to ask. Critics and dissidents are warned that they will never get promotion. Reports by select committees are only rarely reflected in government policies or opposition manifestos. Yet there are great reserves of talent and imagination among MPs, as these reports, some of them truly impressive, demonstrate.

What is to be done? First, the issue of MPs' expenses needs to be dealt with quickly and toughly. It is not good enough to rely on reselection as the instrument, because an MP with good relations with his or her local constituency party may escape the punishment the wider public demands. There has to be an independent body to lay down and maintain new and much tighter rules. Expenses reform must be paralleled by constitutional reform. Among issues to be examined are the number of MPs, for ours is an obese and bloated Parliament; an electoral system which is evidently profoundly unfair; and the excessive power of the whips and the absurd volume of primary and secondary legislation, throttling our democracy.

Our current first-past-the post system delivers many more constituencies to the two old parties, Labour and the Conservatives, than their share of the popular vote warrants. The Liberal Democrats, for instance, won 22 per cent of the national vote at the last general election of 2005, and got just 9.6 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons – 62. The link between an MP and his or her constituency is rightly valued, but there are forms of proportional representation like the multi-member constituency structure that has been adopted in Ireland that retain the link while reflecting much more accurately the electorate's preference.

I do not believe these mighty issues can be settled by a rapid general election. The danger is that an immediate election would simply bring in a new government which would use all the current powers of the executive to get its programme through. In my view it is of great importance that the election itself should spark off a national debate. But such a debate has to have an agenda. There are two options: one is to establish an all-party commission to which should be added a small number of independent experts, men and women like Vernon Bogdanor and Peter Hennessey, asked to report early next year, before the most likely date for a general election. The second option would be to ask each political party represented in Parliament to put forward its own proposals by the end of the summer recess, enabling think-tanks, the constitutional unit and others to comment on them. It is vital that the wider public be given the opportunity to engage in the debate, to feel that they too own it.

The Daily Telegraph investigation has provided us with an opportunity to reform Parliament, to bring to an end "the gentlemen's club" which many now look upon as "the cads' club". Not fair, but life isn't fair. The challenge now is to rescue our representative democracy, and that demands painful, urgent and essential change.

Baroness Williams is a Liberal Democrat peer and former Labour minister

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