The Sketch: A million words a day - but none of them mean anything

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The Independent Online

The House of Commons. Eight hundred years of parliamentary history. Revolution, regicide, two centuries of bitterly fought reform. And here we are.

A woman asked a minister to congratulate her local butcher. His pie had won a prize in a competition. Someone else complained that too many people were dropping chewing gum in his constituency. It was a very serious problem. A man spoke up in favour of ponds. We needed more ponds in Britain. Garden waste collection became an object of comment. You'll have to check Hansard for a report of that exchange. Minister Miliband spoke about something. It wasn't pies or ponds, I'm fairly sure. I've got written down "we discussed the centrality of carbon capture". It might have been about the chewing gum.

So if you ask what is going on in Parliament these days, I can only ask the question back with a certain wild inflection: "What is going on in Parliament!"

I heard something interesting at lunch. My companion told me that if you compiled all the laws passed in the years between 1200 and 2000, the size of the volume would be smaller than a volume for the laws passed between 2000 and now. That is what is going on in Parliament. A million words a day are spoken. Why do we get the sense that nothing is happening? Why this sense of futility and lassitude?

There is absolutely no sense of "holding the Government to account" in Question Time. It's ponds, pies and chewing gum. "The scrutiny of government" simply doesn't happen. It can't, by the structure of the proceedings. James Paice, for instance, asked why the state veterinary budget had been cut by £3m. Minister Bradshaw said it hadn't been cut at all; the funds have been switched from the revenue budget to the capital budget. But Paice has a previous answer showing his £3m was net. Of course he couldn't produce his evidence, he'd had his turn.

So, it's ponds, pies and chewing gum. If the Commons wants to interest the outside world in its activities it really will have to change. It can go on getting a lot worse yet.

In standing committee, the rules have it that MPs can ask ministers as many questions as they like. We therefore see considerable intellects keeping up with the argument; we also see lesser minds collapsing. It is interesting. Sometimes it is fascinating. It creates a peculiar intimacy. It provokes pity and admiration rather than sneering and jeering. This is what we want more of on the floor of the House.

What we want less of is the political class playing courtiers' games based on pies, ponds and gum.