Andreas Whittam Smith: The Commons has lost all power

If MPs want more influence they must stop whining and raise their game

Monday 30 November 2009 01:00

The Committee of MPs set up to examine the procedures of the House of Commons in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal has finally reported on something much worse, the emasculation of members. In its account, the Committee unconsciously describes this state of affairs almost as the dictionary has it. For emasculation can mean "rendering a male less of a man", or "making a male feel himself to be less of a man by subjecting him to humiliation".

In just this way, backbench MPs feel themselves ineffective and regularly reminded of their unimportance. That is why the Committee, led by Dr Tony Wright, observes: "At present many Members (of Parliament) do not see the point in attending debates or making the House the primary focus of their activities."

This is a very dismaying statement. Let me repeat it for it demonstrates the appalling state into which our democracy has tumbled: "At present many MPs do not see the point in attending debates or making the House the primary focus of their activities."

Why is this? Because ordinary Members of Parliament have no control of the agenda of the House. The timetable of business is arranged by the government of the day down to the last five minutes. It is obvious: if you can only discuss and debate what the Government says you may discuss and debate, then there is no reason at all to turn up.

Of course, the Opposition has certain days at its disposal, but the Government decides when these will be. General and topical debates unrelated to legislation are arranged, but the Government sets the subjects. The Government determines alone how much time shall be given for consideration of major bills. They are very often rushed through with numerous clauses slipped by that receive no scrutiny on the floor of the House.

The Government can kill off backbench legislation whenever it chooses. The House cannot even freely debate its own business. The motion of no confidence in the previous Speaker could only take place when the Government felt minded to allow it. Yes, there are select committees that can range widely, but the Government heavily influences both the choice of chairs and members and, in any case, hardly ever allows time for the debate of select committee reports.

This bending of the House of Commons to the will of the government of the day has been a gradual process taking many decades. But what began as the perfectly reasonable desire by government that its business should be handled expeditiously has now become an obsession. Speed is prized to meet timetables that maximise media interest. Alternative views are censored so as to preserve a public image carefully designed to serve non-stop electioneering. Seen from the perspective of the Government whips, therefore, freelance backbench activity is, as they would put it, unhelpful.

The Committee makes two recommendations. The first is the creation of a backbench body responsible for all business that is not strictly ministerial. The second is to boost the standing and authority of select committees through the direct election by both of their Chairs and of committee members, albeit weighted so that the relative voting strengths of the political parties are duly reflected. These are good so far as they go. But if the full reform of our severely damaged constitutional arrangements is a marathon course, then these proposals take us only the first 100 yards.

Perhaps not even that, for the Committee is a bit too respectful of Government. It argues that it is entirely right that a democratically elected Government should have a priority to put its legislation and other propositions before the House at a time of its own choosing. Agreed. But then it goes on: "and (the Government should) be able to plan for the conclusion of that business". No. Legislation should only emerge from Parliament after it has been thoroughly examined and the Government should wait for however long the process takes.

Similarly the Committee is reluctant to propose anything that would mean that MPs would have to work harder. It says there will be little appetite for reforms that put "significant pressure on Members' time". And it adds that there is also a widely-held view, "mistaken though it may be, that when the House is not sitting (80 days) then Members are on holiday".

But how exactly are the 80 days used? The brutal truth is that if MPs want to have more influence then they will have to stop whining and raise their game. The rest of us are constantly finding "significant pressures" on our time. Why not MPs?

Dr Wright's Committee has done its business and put forward sensible proposals. Will they be taken up? I fear not. Essentially the Government does not want any reform – nor does the Opposition in its heart of hearts. However the Prime Minister, Mr Brown, wished to appear for a moment to be in favour of it. So on 10 June he said he was "happy to give his support" to Dr Wright's suggestion that there should be an inquiry into the conduct of House of Commons business.

From Mr Brown's point of view, correct impression created. Job done. Nine days later a motion to establish such a committee was tabled. Two weeks after that, it actually appeared on the order paper. But no time was provided for debate – naturally not. Then on the last day of the sitting the motion was bundled through and approved.

What I think will happen now is that some sort of process to put the Committee's proposals into practice will begin, but it will not be completed by the time of the general election. Once again the government of the day will have maintained its iron control over Parliament. The next government will be no different. It is now 33 years since Lord Hailsham described our constitutional arrangements as an "elective dictatorship". It was meant as a warning.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments