David Puttnam: We should start the reform of Parliament now

This is the perfect opportunity to create a Parliament which is accessible and understood
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The Independent Online

Given up on democracy? Or are you waiting for electoral change to reinvigorate the public in - maybe - four, or even eight years time?

Given up on democracy? Or are you waiting for electoral change to reinvigorate the public in - maybe - four, or even eight years time?

Well, electoral reform is one way to sway the nature of government power and parliamentary democracy in this country. It could deliver the hope of reinvigorated politics and - not just increased - but genuinely engaged turn-out.

But shouldn't we be more impatient than that? Why should we be made to wait for Parliament to improve its relationship with the public when, in reality, many of those changes can be introduced today?

We should start from what the public have a right to expect from Parliament. The public have a right to know exactly what's happening, as well as a right to participate. The public should be able to understand proceedings, to contribute to inquiries and to access all forms of information about Parliament. Parliament cannot fulfil its purpose if people cannot understand what Parliament does, or why it does it.

As Chair of the Commission on Parliament in the Public Eye, I have been looking at how Parliament presents itself, and is presented by others, to the public. Since the Commission was set up by the Hansard Society in 2004, we have looked closely at how Parliament conducts its communications. We concluded significant change is needed.

Parliament has made attempts to improve the manner in which it communicates with the public. But not enough has been done. Indeed, Parliament has been centre-stage when demanding accessibility and transparency from other bodies. Parliament requires far greater accountability. But, more than any other institution, it must itself be wholly accountable. This is where Parliament can genuinely be said to be failing.

Some of our proposals cover the details of communication - what the parliamentary website should provide, how to improve lines of communication between the media and Parliament, how visits to Parliament could better operate. The Commission also makes broader recommendations about setting up a communications department in Parliament that brings together these disparate communications activities.

It would be all too easy for Parliament, as an institution, to cherry-pick some piecemeal and incremental changes from our report. However, we want to create an environment in which the institution can continue to update its communications in line with changes of expectation in society; an institution that does not need prompting in the future and that continues to assess itself from the perspective of the public it exists to serve.

For this to be achieved, we recommend fundamental changes to the administration and management of Parliament. The failings in Parliament's communication with the public stem from a system of administration which is able to provide neither political not managerial leadership. Parliament must communicate with the public as an independent institution, distinct from the Executive. It should take control of its own affairs. And parliamentarians should themselves provide clear political vision and direction for this.

This means taking back control from the party Whips. The House of Commons Commission is the body that heads the management of Parliament. It is made up of MPs chosen by the government and party leaders. We believe that members of the House of Commons Commission should be elected by secret ballot, so that the frontbenches do not continue to hold the reigns of management.

We also recommend that the administration of the House of Commons should be headed by a Chief Executive experienced in the management of complex organisations in the public realm. Again, we have heard the argument: that Parliament is special - and that, therefore, such a Chief Executive is inappropriate.

Every industry and institution has, at some point, hidden behind that argument. But how easily can you imagine, for example, a hospital operating without a Chief Executive? Indeed, could you imagine any other organisation in which many of the staff and members are completely in the dark about how the management operates?

Now is the perfect opportunity to create a Parliament which is accessible and readily understood, which people know how to approach, when and where to make their voice heard. A Parliament which relates its world to the concerns of those in the outside world. This is the challenge. It is in all our interests that, on this occasion, the challenge is accepted.

The author is Chair of the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy

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