The power of Parliament was badly eroded under the last government. The contempt shown by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for the authority of the legislative chamber undermined the House of Common. And the self-inflicted wound of the MPs' expenses scandal did not help matters.
But there are now hopes that Parliament might be about to regain some of its lost authority. There is certainly potential for a parliamentary resurgence. First, there has been a healthy personnel overhaul. There are some 226 new MPs in the Commons, untainted by the expenses scandal. Second, Parliament will matter more politically. The fact that no single party has a majority in the legislature will make each vote in the chamber more important. Third, there are signs that the executive is in retreat. The coalition Government has pledged to allow MPs more control over the Commons business agenda. If Parliament is going to regain its standing, the Commons select committees, whose new heads were elected this week, have a vital role to play. These committees – whose job is to scrutinise the work of ministers, civil servants and other public figures – have always been rather poor relations of their equivalents in the US Congress.
It is true that British committees produce decent reports. But too often their public sessions resemble cosy chats, rather than serious inquisitions. Ministers and other public figures should feel a sense of trepidation on being summoned to give evidence, just as they do when called before Congressional committees.
This was the first time the heads of the 25 select committees have been elected by fellow MPs in a secret ballot, rather than appointed by party whips. That should enhance their authority and independence. But what really matters is how the committees use their powers. The ultimate test will be whether they are successful over the next five years in holding what is still an over-mighty executive properly to account.