Unnoticed, the Tories have seized some high ground

'With no body worth presiding over, the next Speaker threatens to be a talking museum piece'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the end, she moderated her language. Betty Boothroyd's farewell speech to the Commons yesterday was gracious and she rather politely said her piece about the need for ministers to take Parliament more seriously. But any hopes that she would deliver a valedictory denunciation of the increasing irrelevance of the Commons were disappointed.

In the end, she moderated her language. Betty Boothroyd's farewell speech to the Commons yesterday was gracious and she rather politely said her piece about the need for ministers to take Parliament more seriously. But any hopes that she would deliver a valedictory denunciation of the increasing irrelevance of the Commons were disappointed.

That's understandable - and it anyway doesn't alter the fact that this is a coming issue - whether the Government likes it or not. By committing himself to quite sweeping reform of the Commons, William Hague has exposed Labour to a real danger: that he is seizing the high ground of constitutional modernisation from the party which prides itself naturally occupying it.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that only Oppositions are in favour of bolstering checks on the executive, and that they have a natural tendency to dilute their commitments as soon as they assume office - which is just what Labour did in its ignominious retreat from introducing a Freedom of Information bill with real teeth. The only way in which reform can happen, therefore, is for an Opposition to bind itself so tightly to a commitment that it legislates early in its first term of office.

There are some tentative grounds for thinking that Mr Hague might actually do this. He shows signs of understanding that, contrary to that same conventional wisdom, it may be in the interests of governments to strengthen Parliament. The most frequent counter-argument used against those who get worked up about Commons reform is that it is a topic of little real world importance, and baffling to those who rightly worry about what a government can deliver, not least in improved public services like health and education.

Leave aside the fact that such considerations didn't stop the Government introducing devolution in Scotland and Wales or - rightly - abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers. Would the the most catastrophic error of the Thatcher years, the poll tax, actually have happened if there had been the pre-legislative scrutiny by a relatively independent-minded Commons committee envisaged in the Tory peer, Lord Norton's report?

Much has been made of the fact that Tony Blair has been less interested in the Commons than his predecessors in the last 30 years. But the idea that he somehow invented control-freakery in relation to Parliament is nonsense. Betty Boothroyd's predecessor, Bernard Weatherill, was frequently subjected to disgraceful pressure by Mrs Thatcher's ministers - certainly greater than anything which has so far been perpetrated by the Government - not to grant the Private Notice Questions that provide the main mechanism for emergency challenges to government decisions.

And while Labour has done nothing to curb it since, the extension of patronage by increasing the size of the executive at the expense of backbenchers - another way of reducing the independence of Parliament - continued apace under the Tories, with the result that the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries - the lowest, form of governmental life - increased from 29 in 1979 to a breathtaking 56 now. which is one of the reasons why Lord Norton is proposing a cut in the ministeriat. This would augment his other ideas for building an alternative backbench career - including ministerial higher salaries as well as greatly increased resources for Select Committee chairmen. In other words, Mr Hague, if he has the strength of will to implement some of the more radical Norton reforms, will be breaking decisively with a Conservative as well as with a Labour past.

One of the reasons that Mr Hague is now able to threaten seizure of the constitutional high ground from Labour, of course, is that an interest in Westminster reform is mysteriously unfashionable, even among MPs. The prevailing clamour for change, particularly from younger Labour women MPs, has been on the family unfriendly hours and other undoubtedly obsolete and Merrie England customs of the place.

This matters. But hours are not the main event. As this week's report by the liaison committee of select committee chairmen pointed out, reforming hours is "all very well but any real modernisation of Parliament must provide better accountability and tougher scrutiny of the Government". Exactly.

That report from the committee chairmen surgically shredded the already flimsy arguments advanced by the Government against their most central proposal for improving ministerial accountability to Parliament, namely removing the committees' composition from the hands of the party managers. Shorn of some sophistry, the Government is merely saying that if previous governments haven't reformed the system, why should it?

Well, the circumstances have changed in at least one important way. For the paradoxical reality is that the House of Lords, having judged itself to be legitimised by the absence of the hereditaries, is now the only real parliamentary check on governmental authority. Monday's vote in the House of Lords to retain Section 28 was a rather squalid violation of democracy since, for all the Conservative press likes to personalise the issue as a Prime Ministerial whim, it ran entirely against what the Commons would opt for a on a free vote, without a whip in sight.

Equally, it has frequently been far more benign, doing what the Commons is too supine to do. But either way it's an absurdity that an entirely unelected chamber is doing what an elected one should be doing. This speaks, of course, for an elected second chamber. But it also speaks for a Commons which takes on some of the robustness - and some of the better practices - of the second chamber. Otherwise we face the gruesome prospect of a powerful unelected chamber and an impotent elected one.

One oddity about all the Government's reluctance to pursue Mr Hague down the reformist route is that this isn't exactly a Government of parliamentary scaredy-cats. To take a single example, the dominant, Rolls-Royce, politician in the Commons over the past week or so - and many times before that - has been indisputably Gordon Brown, the man who has already seen off two Shadow Chancellors, whether menacing Michael Portillo from the dispatch box after the Spending Review announcement last week or taking effortless command of the Treasury Select Committee hearing as he did on Tuesday. If ever there was a government which could tackle a more robust and awkward Commons by the sheer force of its personalities, it is this one.

The election to succeed Miss Boothroyd matters. But who it is may be less important than whether he or she is prepared to associate themselves with the struggle for a less lifeless, as well as a more relevant, House of Commons. Without a body worth presiding over, the next Speaker threatens to be little more than a talking museum piece. Ministers should spend a little time this summer considering how to tackle what may prove the most important constitutional agenda of all.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

Comments