Nick Clegg: Don't waste our time... bring forward real reform

This rump Parliament, brought to its knees by scandal, has one final chance left to redeem itself

Monday 16 November 2009 01:00

On Wednesday, all the pomp and ceremony that Parliament can muster will be rolled out for the Queen's Speech, setting out the Government's list of new laws for the coming year. But the glitz and glamour will be based on a complete fiction. Parliament will find it difficult to pass any of the bills promised in the Queen's Speech this year – there are just 70 sitting days left before it is dissolved for the general election, too little time to debate and approve the Government's latest legislative shopping list. The current average time taken for laws to make it from first reading to royal assent is 240 days.

Gordon Brown's Government is running out of time. The Queen's Speech will be dressed up as the way to "build Britain's future" when it will be little more than a rehearsal of the next Labour Party manifesto, an attempt to road-test policy gimmicks that might save this Government's skin. It is a waste of everyone's time, and should be cancelled in favour of an emergency programme of reform.

After the expenses scandal, this Parliament has destroyed its own legitimacy. Not in living memory has confidence in politicians, trust in the system, or faith in the Government's capacity to change things been as low as it is today. People are no longer willing to respect the will of this failed Parliament. This Parliament has forfeited the right to do anything but focus on political reform.

The one gift this failed Parliament can give its successor is a fresh start. When you move out of a house, you clean it for the people moving in. Seventy days may not be long, but it is long enough, with strong political will, to clean up politics once and for all. We need an action plan to save Britain's democracy in time for the next general election so that the new parliament commands full support.

The beginnings of change could be in place before Christmas. Next week, a committee led by Labour MP Tony Wright will produce a report on reducing the power of government in Parliament. It should be adopted immediately so that governments can never again use whips to ride roughshod over the views of elected representatives. Then, in December, amendments to introduce fixed-term parliaments and party-funding reform should be tabled – with cross-party support – to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, the only piece of ongoing legislation that should be carried forward. Fixed-term parliaments are vital so that the date of the general election is no longer the plaything of prime ministers. On party funding reform, significant cross-party consensus was achieved under the leadership of Sir Hayden Phillips, but dropped for political expediency. We should return to these proposals, with some significant additions, and introduce them in time for the 2010 general election, ensuring that this election is a competition of ideas not of marketing budgets.

In the early part of next year, the parties should agree a Code of Conduct for candidates, so that everyone standing for public office commands public confidence. The Code should be based on the Nolan Principles of Public Life and it must, as Sir Christopher Kelly recommended, require candidates to publish a declaration of their financial interests so people know about issues that might affect their MP's independence before they decide to vote for them. Then, we should introduce a Bill to allow MPs to be sacked if they are found to have seriously breached the rules.

The final task will be to address our electoral systems. Now is the time to reform the House of Lords. MPs have voted decisively for direct elections of all peers, and there is cross-party agreement on the powers of the upper chamber. Then there is the question of elections to the House of Commons. There is growing consensus that a new electoral system is needed. Given the diversity of opinion but the need for swift action, the time is right for the people to decide. Parliament should establish a Committee on Electoral Reform composed of 100 randomly-chosen citizens, as pioneered in British Columbia. It would be given a year to consult and take evidence, and produce proposals taken to the electorate in a referendum.

These changes would be a tall order but with political will they could transform our threadbare democratic institutions. Instead of being just a sorry footnote to a shameful year at Westminster, these months would become a moment of great change in British political history. This rump Parliament, brought to its knees by scandal, has one final chance left to redeem itself. It must provide a golden legacy to the next Parliament so that we can all be proud of our democracy once again.

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