Striking a balance between Whig and Tory views

Parliament's role involves more than Douglas Hurd's belief that it should 'sustain the executive'
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This has been a good week for the Lords and a bad one for the Commons. It was, in the end, the peers who forced Jack Straw to drop his unjustifiable support for a government measure that would have given policemen, and policemen alone, the statutory right to decide when to bug and burgle in pursuit of their enquiries. Publicly - in that the peers, Liberal Democrat, judicial and those in the Labour Party like Lord Callaghan who could not be muzzled made a big fuss. Privately - in that it was Lord Irvine, Labour's Lord Chancellor in waiting and mentor to the leader, who played a pivotal part in seeing to it that Straw changed his mind before the issue was debated in the upper house on Monday. It is not to much to say that if it had been left to the House of Commons, Michael Howard's measure would have survived.

By a neat symmetry, another event on the same day exposed one of the Commons' most flagrant shortcomings. The minister Andrew Mitchell, appearing before the Standards and Privileges Committee to explain what he had been doing, as a government whip, on a committee investigating the allegations that Neil Hamilton took cash for questions, gave a fair account of himself. He was not, as his colleague David Willetts had been, hubristic in his evidence. He had the grace to admit that "in hindsight" it probably would have been better if he had not been on the committee. But his very presence at the hearing served as a reminder of how comprehensively the whips permeate the select committee system, the one bit of the parliamentary jigsaw that everyone, in theory, accepts is there to check and scrutinise the executive.

This contrast, which underlines how much more easily the Commons can be bullied than the Lords, is not without ironies. It is after all Lords, rather than Commons, reform which makes headlines in Labour's programme. Yet doesn't most recent history suggest that it's the Commons that is failing in its constitutional duty to exercise control over the government?

Not according to the self-confessedly heretical definition of the Commons' purpose which Douglas Hurd elegantly supplies in the new issue of Prospect magazine. He distinguishes between the "Whig" view of Parliament, that its main task is to check the executive, and the "Tory" view, which he shares, that one of its main functions is to "sustain the executive" - while helping it "to make decisions in the national interest". A view most perfectly expressed by that highest of high Tories, the Duke of Wellington, as "the Queen's government must be carried on". To paraphrase (rather crudely) Hurd's argument: as there is no separation of powers in the British constitution, as there is in the US, the "Tory", as opposed to the "Whig", view must be right.

Hurd is critical of the detailed workings of the Commons. He is sensitive to the criticism that bad laws are too often rushed through whipped standing committees without alteration. He sensibly argues that Parliament would be improved if there were fewer ministers. He's right to point out that there must be something wrong with a government which has grown in numbers since it was running first an empire, then a command economy. It may not be literally true, as a Permanent Secretary assured me, that "80 per cent of the world's junior ministers are in the British government". But the indefensible exemption of the ministeriat from the ruthless reduction in Whitehall's manpower serves only to reinforce government patronage, and silence dozens of the most intelligent and independent-minded MPs.

He is on less sure ground in suggesting that "Chief Whig" Sir Richard Scott and Lord Nolan may have "unwittingly" contributed to the deterioration of government and parliament. Maybe the post-Nolan regime on earnings disclosure will drive away some bright MPs. But which does more to damage the quality of MPs - that or the hopelessly ramshackle lottery of MP selection, not least in his own party? He may be right that Sir Richard was naive about the workings of government. But would the Government have been in trouble over arms to Iraq if it were not for the pervasive convention that on sensitive issues, departments answer parliamentary questions in the most contemptuously minimalist way they think they can get away with?

But Hurd's central thesis is also surely too benign. A government certainly has a fundamental right to get through the programme on which it was elected; properly used, whips lubricate democracy rather than merely impede it. The Commons needs a balance of functions to be healthy. It is a scandal that the whips' patronage extends to the select committees, and that departmental committees don't have more resources and powers. And that more standing committees don't have the power to call expert witnesses while considering legislation or - occasionally - more freedom to divide on detailed provisions of Bills across party lines. You could even imagine a partial extension of the Salisbury doctrine (the convention which precludes the Lords from blocking legislation contained in a government's manifesto) to the Commons itself. It isn't too fanciful to think this would allow MPs to improve bad Bills without standing between a government and its mandate.

To its credit, the Thatcher government, learning from five years in Opposition, expanded the system of select committees when it was elected in 1979. Now Labour, if it wins, needs to take the Commons reform process further before it learns the bad habits of government. This is not to argue against Lords reform. Only to point out that the better you make the Lords, the more glaringly apparent will be the defects of the Commons.