This reckless contempt for Parliament

Did we ever find out why it was necessary for David Blunkett to send tanks to Heathrow?
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The Independent Online

What on earth is going on in Parliament? The debate on the committee stage and the third reading of the anti-terrorism Bill in the House of Commons suddenly turned into a discussion of amendments which haven't been formulated, on promises to make alterations where the House won't have a voice, and on letters informally sent between the leaders of the parties disclosing the Government's intentions. When asked how widespread the effect of this Bill would be, the Home Secretary said it would apply to "very few people"; someone pointed out that 700 people had been arrested on terrorism charges since 11 September, 2001, mostly without charge.

What on earth is going on in Parliament? The debate on the committee stage and the third reading of the anti-terrorism Bill in the House of Commons suddenly turned into a discussion of amendments which haven't been formulated, on promises to make alterations where the House won't have a voice, and on letters informally sent between the leaders of the parties disclosing the Government's intentions. When asked how widespread the effect of this Bill would be, the Home Secretary said it would apply to "very few people"; someone pointed out that 700 people had been arrested on terrorism charges since 11 September, 2001, mostly without charge.

The Government's general line, throughout, was: "We can't tell you much: so why don't you trust us?" Considering that this Bill aims at removing a crucial element of transparency from criminal proceedings and enables people to be punished without ever explaining what they are being punished for, there was an outrageous appropriateness about the Government's near-total obfuscation.

About the effects of the Bill, about its ultimate substance, and about its own intentions, the Government refused to talk. There may be a security reason for not disclosing the basis for putting a particular suspect under house arrest when this Bill is passed, though I doubt it: there can be no justification for, effectively, declaring intentions privately and making important concessions after the House of Commons has finished debating it.

Ultimately, the Commons can amend Lords amendments. But no one can think that's a satisfactory way for the house to pursue its very serious concerns.

The way the Government has learnt to treat the House of Commons is, ultimately, going to prove extremely damaging, and will, in the end, destroy its authority. Notoriously, the necessary formal procedures of government are being seriously neglected at every level. To the outside world, the obvious sign of this is that the Government seeks, wherever possible, to bypass the parliamentary route. If debate can be minimised - or sent off to another place - it will be: important statements are frequently made over the head of Parliament, where they might be questioned, in news programmes and press conferences.

Important information has a tendency to leak out from private communications, rather than being properly announced. Alarming security measures are taken, and nobody can be told about the basis of the information "for intelligence reasons", then or at any point subsequently.

Did we ever find out, for instance, why it was necessary for David Blunkett to send tanks to Heathrow?

But it clearly does not stop at the parliamentary level. I've lost count of the number of times an infuriated civil servant has told me that hugely important discussions and decisions are taken, not in minuted meetings, but just in informal chats between members of the inner circle when they happen to bump into each other. Cabinet is, by all accounts, largely a farce; decisions are presented, and discussions cut to a minimum. People complain about Mrs Thatcher's style, but at least her ministers and her officials knew what was going on.

It all goes back to those enormous majorities. With such huge mandates in 1997 and 2001, the Government clearly feels that accountability is, at best, going to prove a polite, empty gesture. They can do as they choose in the House of Commons, and over the House of Lords they can - and with increasing frequency do - wield the Parliament Act.

This is a very dangerous habit to get into. It is incredible that a government with so huge a majority can introduce a measure so dubious that, at one point on Monday night, its majority was reduced to 14. And it is dangerous not just because the Government has acquired the habit of reckless contempt for parliamentary opinion, but because, with a history of wild measures, they will be taking a lot of rebellion-hardened MPs into the next Parliament.

It is always said that large majorities are bad for democracy, but it might be truer to say that small ones are. With a small majority, John Major's 1992 administration found itself held to ransom again and again by tiny splinter groups within the party, even by individuals. Having discovered that, in such circumstances, an individual MP could exert considerable power, some of them went as far as to sell their influence to the highest bidder.

It seems to me pretty likely that the Government will win the next election with a reduced majority; perhaps a greatly reduced majority. The conditions are set for a catastrophic parliamentary situation; a government without the habit of consultation or debate; an aggrieved and disenfranchised body of backbenchers determined to make demands both responsible, as here, or irresponsible and wilful. The Government, here, is wrong, and has gone about things in an indefensible way. By doing so, on this occasion and on several others, it has created the conditions for disaster. There is some rough beast, slouching towards Westminster, waiting to be born.

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