The Westminster malaise

Labour's plans to reform the House of Commons are insufficient, says Vernon Bogdanor
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The Independent Online
Traditionally, the British Left has been more concerned to capture the state than to reform it. Labour, upon winning power, used it to push through top-down reforms in welfare, planning and nationalisation. These reforms were not, however, accompanied by any programme designed to secure public control or accountability in the new institutions created to administer Labour's programmes. This lack of accountability constitutes perhaps one reason why so many of the reforms failed to realise the hopes placed in them.

Under Tony Blair's leadership, however, Labour has departed radically from this part of its heritage, and has developed a bold and wide-ranging programme of constitutional reform to include devolution, reform of the House of Lords and a referendum on electoral reform. The latest part of this programme - reform of the House of Commons - was revealed yesterday at a meeting organised by Charter 88. It is badly needed.

For the decline in public approval for the House of Commons has been precipitous. Just five years ago, a MORI poll indicated that 59 per cent of the public believed that the Commons worked well. Today, the figure is only 43 per cent. It is not that the Commons is necessarily less efficient or more corrupt than it was, but rather that public expectations have risen apace. Just as the public demands more from welfare services than it did in the more deferential past, so also, in a consumerist age, the public expects more from Parliament. Therein lies the challenge to the modern state.

Yesterday, Tony Blair attacked the ritual of Prime Minister's Question Time, the only aspect of Commons activity seen by the vast majority of the public. The futility of this twice-weekly charade is not only destroying respect for the Commons as an institution, but the adversarialism which it symbolises prevents the Commons from fulfilling its central duty, that of scrutinising legislation. Standing committees, in theory designed to do just that, are in reality mere ad hoc debating committees within which Second Reading speeches are repeated at tedious length interspersed with the reading of well-rehearsed briefs helpfully supplied by interested organisations.

Part of the problem is that the forensic and investigatory procedures of the Commons are confined to the departmentally related select committees, which are precluded from considering legislation. The standing committees, by contrast, are controlled by the whips; they are unable to summon witnesses to comment on the merits of the legislation that they are scrutinising, or to investigate the adequacy of the reasons given for proposed new legislation. Nor can they monitor whether legislation, once put on the statute book, is working as intended.

Labour now proposes not only a dramatic increase in the power of the select committees but also a fundamental change in their functioning. They should be used, declared Ann Taylor, Labour's spokesperson on parliamentary matters, to examine the proposed chairs of agencies and quangos and to ratify senior public appointments, such as the Governor of the Bank of England.

More radically, they should be able to conduct pre-legislative inquiries with the aid of witnesses into proposed legislation. They could, for example, examine Green and White Papers and other published material, so assisting preparatory work on legislation and informed parliamentary debate. It is doubtful if the poll tax, for example, or the child support legislation would have survived scrutiny of this kind.

Ann Taylor admitted that such a reform would considerably prolong the time taken to steer legislation to the statute book. It would thereby handicap the parliamentary programme of a Labour government. To balance this, the opposition would be required to accept, as part of a package of reform, the timetabling of bills and it would have to be prepared to allow bills to be rolled over from one parliamentary session to another, rather than, as at present, being killed at the end of a session. In fact, such a package would be much to the advantage of the Opposition. For the power of delay has proved to be a largely spurious power. It has not in practice prevented most governments from achieving their legislative programme. The power to call witnesses before select committee hearings on legislation, by contrast, is a much more substantial power and likely to redound to the advantage of the opposition parties.

There is, however, a deeper problem with Labour's proposals. Hitherto, the select committees have operated best when they have operated consensually. Were they to become involved in scrutinising a government's legislative programme, the whips would soon turn their attention to them. Ann Clwyd suggested at yesterday's meeting that back-benchers rather than the whips should determine select committee membership. But that is probably a Utopian hope.

It is indeed the dominance of the party whips which lies at the heart of the malaise at Westminster. How is it to be ended? Can the adversarial system in the Commons be destroyed without also destroying the electoral system that produces it? At present there is a spectrum of opinion in the country and in the Commons which finds itself artificially channelled into just two hostile camps by the vagaries of first past the post. Under proportional representation, by contrast, political opinion could flow naturally into its various channels, and the select committees could prove genuinely representative of the multiplicity of political viewpoints in the country.

Thus the deepest question raised by Labour's proposed parliamentary reforms is whether they can in fact be implemented in a political system that remains fundamentally adversarial. Seen in this light, it is reform of the political system which is the essential precondition of a more effective Parliament. The referendum on proportional representation lies, therefore, at the heart of Labour's programme of reform. Such a referendum should be held not in the last session of a Labour government's term, as is now proposed, but in the very first. For it is the seriousness of the commitment to electoral reform that will prove the test of Labour's commitment to its new- found role as a party of constitutional reform.

Vernon Bogdanor is Reader in Government, Oxford University. His essays on 'Politics and the Constitution' have been recently published by Dartmouth.