Tom Watson: Crack open the lobby cartel, rip up the rules, and let a new era of accountability begin

In considering how to bring Parliament up to date, the new Speaker should make radical changes to the lobby system, argues someone who resigned from the Government earlier this month

Sunday 21 June 2009 00:00 BST

Far from giving the new Speaker a problem, the commune of desolation shared between all MPs provides an opportunity to enact a programme of parliamentary reform that the previous post-holder could only dream of.

Though he or she will process wearing 17th-century buckles, the new Speaker will have to march in the modern age if they are to rebuild the trust of electors. Part of the way to achieve this requires radical change to the way Parliament is reported.

All candidates for the speakership declare that Parliament should be more transparent and accountable. If they mean it, they should start with the anachronistic institution of journalists known as the parliamentary lobby. It's a closed shop. A club. A bizarre Petri dish of rivalry, personal enmity and the occasional fistfight. It needs major reform.

Other than under-appreciated reforms introduced by Alastair Campbell – a daily account of the discussions held at the morning briefings between the Prime Minister's spokesman and lobby-pass holding journalists, little has changed to the parliamentary reporting system since 1870, when Speaker Dennison gave special access rights to a small group of parliamentary writers.

I laughed in disbelief when told on my first day as an MP that "if you want to keep a secret, say it on the floor of the House of Commons". But other than for the most important front-bench speeches, it's true. Driven by the decreasing space allocated to Parliament in their papers, lobby journalists report only a fraction of Westminster discussions. Where, for example, can you read of recent debates on extreme solar events or addiction to prescription medicines? These and others were not reported because they were not the big story of the day – and all because a cartel of political editors convened over afternoon tea to decide that this was so.

Last month, Sri Lanka was the big story. This month, alas for the Tamils, it wasn't. So Siobhain McDonagh's debate on 12 June over the plight of 300,000 Tamil refugees was barely noticed.

The 238 pass-holding lobby journalists do not have an outlet for lesser stories, so they end up, pack-like, having to chase the same one or two stories each day.

Yet it is a stark reality of life in the internet age that parliamentary reporting no longer has to be constrained by column inches. The new Speaker should log on to see what is possible. See, for example, There you will read of discussions as wide-ranging as NHS provision in Cornwall and job losses on a missile range in South Uist.

The problems for the lobby are also compounded by absurdly out-of-date "you must wear a tie in the gallery" rules.

David Miliband has called for an end to unattributable briefings. He's right. In the internet age there is no such thing as a secret. Over the next few months I will argue for a technologically enabled democracy, from e-petitions to digitally encoding each clause and amendment to every Bill. This will further open up Parliament.

Crack open the lobby cartel. Let in a new generation of online commentators. Share access to lobby briefings with a more diverse group of reporters. Rip up the lobby rules and put all briefings on the record. Do this, and a new Speaker can genuinely be part of a new era of accountability.

Tom Watson is former minister for digital engagement

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