By most tests this has been one of the worst weeks for Parliament, with its reputation lower than ever before. First, Stephen Byers, a minister of the Crown, thumbed his nose at the Commons and refused to attend an opposition debate criticising his handling of the Railtrack fiasco. Then the Elizabeth Filkin saga dominated the airwaves, with the Speaker apparently more concerned about the leaking of her private letter than the reputation of Parliament.
To add insult to injury, the Commons met in secret for an hour in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Nobody knows what was discussed. Journalists and broadcasters were excluded, Hansard note-takers were ejected and no record of the proceedings exists. If I report here what MPs told me had transpired, I will be sent to the Tower.
However, things are not always what they seem, and, although the institution has deservedly been given a good kicking by those of us who are not MPs, we should occasionally reflect on whether the media are not also partly responsible for adding to the sense of Parliament's irrelevance and the low esteem in which it is held by the public.
I was stopped in my tracks when interviewed last week on the BBC by Nick Robinson, who suggested to me that I derive more power from this column than I ever did when I was an MP. I profoundly hope that this is not the case, but I fear he may have a point. No one has elected me, and my views have no democratic legitimacy. While speeches made to an empty House of Commons go largely unread and unreported, they can still be hurled back in an MP's face come election time, and he or she remains accountable for years for any unguarded, off-the-cuff remark. Small wonder, then, that when the House meets in secret we want to know what is going on.
But if we always dismiss Parliament as irrelevant and self-serving, we then automatically assume that MPs are useless and a waste of time. In such circumstances, it cannot be surprising that election turnouts are declining and that we are helping the public to turn away from taking any interest in politics. The temptation to see the worst in MPs, while being deliberately blind to the best, then grows as a journalistic phenomenon.
Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House, made a serious point during the row over the constructive dismissal of the Commissioner for Standards. MPs, he said, have only their reputations. If their reputation is destroyed, then they are finished. There is no doubt that the current system of regulating MPs' behaviour in the name of "probity" has led to the unnecessary besmirching of some MPs' characters over minor transgressions of the code of conduct relating to registration of interests. The pursuit of "tit for tat" complaints has led to much anger by aggrieved MPs. Party advantage, in embarrassing an MP, is often the main motivation for making a vexatious complaint rather than any concern to root out corruption.
Once a complaint has been made to Mrs Filkin, the complainant often informs the press. We check the story with her office, which usually responds by confirming that she will be investigating. A national newspaper headline – or, even more damagingly, a constituency newspaper splash – will then scream: "MP under investigation by Commons watchdog for receiving free gift." For several weeks, or even months, the MP will be disabled until, more often than not, Mrs Filkin actually dismisses the complaint. But the MP's reputation is harmed forever. That Mrs Filkin is scrupulous and thorough is not in doubt. She should certainly be re-appointed, but by a body totally independent of Parliament.
However, her practice – to confirm to the press that an MP is under investigation – should be stopped until she makes her reports. Such reports should preferably be made to a body that is not made up of MPs (let alone one that has a majority from the Government's side). MPs have the right to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise.
The Speaker, Michael Martin, who has been unfairly maligned on this occasion, is quite right to require Mrs Filkin to give him chapter and verse on the names of those she suspects of undermining her. Since the Prime Minister has disgracefully refused to hold an inquiry, Mr Martin should, for once, be congratulated on his request that she names names. She cannot be allowed to get away with making serious allegations of pressure from ministers and civil servants that are then left to hang in the air. She would surely not allow this to happen in any of her own inquiries.
As things stand, Mr Martin's general authority has been undermined over this issue, with yet more attacks from the press. This does no good for the reputation of Parliament, which the media seeks to champion. Mr Martin's is a classic case where we only want to see the worst while ignoring the strides he is genuinely making, for example, over parliamentary questions. Last week, little noticed by most of us, he made a statement that may lead to greater accountability in the requirement for ministers to give direct answers to questions, and he has set in train, with the Procedure Committee, an overhaul of the system.
The shenanigans at 1am on Wednesday, when government whips failed to be in position to resist a division to go into private session, indicate that they should stop spending their time bullying and intimidating the young Labour rebel Paul Marsden, and spend more time attending to their duties in the chamber.
Equally, these goings-on give greater force to the rumours of significant reform of the parliamentary timetable currently being prepared by Robin Cook for the Modernisation Committee. Sensible hours, better use of parliamentary time and the reform of the three-month summer recess may only be window-dressing to some. But if they are combined with more backbench opportunities to initiate topical debates and choose the members of select committees, then Mr Cook may yet become the best Leader of the House for many a day.
None of this goes any way, of course, to restoring Parliament to being the cockpit of the nation's political debate. That means toleration of argument, debate and dissent – even from government backbenchers. But we in the media should encourage as well as complain.Reuse content