Make the most of this crisis

November 24, 2009 11:27 AM

The Commons is in trouble. People had little faith in the institution before this summer's revelations - widely perceiving it to be both toothless and venal - but belief in MPs (as a group) is surely at an all time low. Unless changes are made urgently, politics - and particularly 'Government' - will continue to bury itself firmly in the mud.

The current debate over reforming MP's expenses and allowances should not distract people from the fact that the problem with the Commons goes much deeper than expense claims. The abuse of the allowances system is a symptom of a much wider malaise, the fairly predictable outcome of a story in which (most) MPs have given up their power in return for the prospect of a role in Government.

Out of darkness though, comes (a little) light. The Commons Reform Committee - hastily thrown together in the wake of the expenses crisis - publishes its work today, calling for a fairly radical overhaul of how the Commons works. Anyone who wants to see good Government in the UK - which depends entirely upon having an effective and robust Parliament -  should support their recommendations, summarised below:


  • Secret ballot election of select committee chairs (rather than the current carve up between party bosses).

  • Strengthening of select committees, including greater resources for their work.

  • Secret ballot elected Commons 'business committee', to reassert MP's role in setting the parliamentary agenda (rather than the current system which is totally dominated by the Government, with some small time given to the official Opposition).

  • Each week one day of Commons time should be dictated by backbenchers and the weekly schedule should be set by a committee of government, opposition and backbench representatives, the committee adds.  

  • Public petitions to be treated much more seriously (as they are in Scotland), able to prompt debate in the Commons if they receive enough signatures.


Unfortunately, reform of the Commons is the responsibility of
Government. Any improvement in the way Parliament works as a whole - which would improve our politics and Government too - must
be at the expense of Government, which precludes any incentive for
them to really do it. Harriet Harman, leader of the House of Commons (and the Government minister responsible for making any reforms) gave the standard platitudes today, a sure sign (if any were necessary) that the Government have swiftly thrown the report straight in the bin: "Today's report is a further step following action the House has taken to modernise its procedures.We
will continue to reform Parliament to strengthen the role of
backbenchers and to support the proper role of the House of Commons to
scrutinise government and hold it to account."
(From BBC News)

Unless voters and taxpayers demand that these recommendations are put at the front and centre of each party's manifesto, today's report - like so much other work on parliamentary reform - is probably destined to gather dust in that Government bin. For remember that its ideas are hardly new; smart people (including Tony Wright, the Committee's Chair and Douglas Carswell, from the Conservative bank benches) have been insisting on such changes for years. Up until now party bosses have been able to ignore them. We must not let that happen this time. There is an opportunity now, with public appetite for reform and an election coming together at the same time, for steps to be taken towards improving our Parliament and our politics. Write to your MP and urge them to support the recommendations. Get involved with the TPA, or other groups campaigning for parliamentary reform (such as Power2010). We should not let this chance slip by. 

The Commons is in trouble. People had little faith in the institution before this summer's revelations - widely perceiving it to be both toothless and venal - but belief in MPs (as a group) is surely at an all time low. Unless changes are made urgently, politics - and particularly 'Government' - will continue to bury itself firmly in the mud.

The current debate over reforming MP's expenses and allowances should not distract people from the fact that the problem with the Commons goes much deeper than expense claims. The abuse of the allowances system is a symptom of a much wider malaise, the fairly predictable outcome of a story in which (most) MPs have given up their power in return for the prospect of a role in Government.

Out of darkness though, comes (a little) light. The Commons Reform Committee - hastily thrown together in the wake of the expenses crisis - publishes its work today, calling for a fairly radical overhaul of how the Commons works. Anyone who wants to see good Government in the UK - which depends entirely upon having an effective and robust Parliament -  should support their recommendations, summarised below:


  • Secret ballot election of select committee chairs (rather than the current carve up between party bosses).

  • Strengthening of select committees, including greater resources for their work.

  • Secret ballot elected Commons 'business committee', to reassert MP's role in setting the parliamentary agenda (rather than the current system which is totally dominated by the Government, with some small time given to the official Opposition).

  • Each week one day of Commons time should be dictated by backbenchers and the weekly schedule should be set by a committee of government, opposition and backbench representatives, the committee adds.  

  • Public petitions to be treated much more seriously (as they are in Scotland), able to prompt debate in the Commons if they receive enough signatures.


Unfortunately, reform of the Commons is the responsibility of
Government. Any improvement in the way Parliament works as a whole - which would improve our politics and Government too - must
be at the expense of Government, which precludes any incentive for
them to really do it. Harriet Harman, leader of the House of Commons (and the Government minister responsible for making any reforms) gave the standard platitudes today, a sure sign (if any were necessary) that the Government have swiftly thrown the report straight in the bin: "Today's report is a further step following action the House has taken to modernise its procedures.We
will continue to reform Parliament to strengthen the role of
backbenchers and to support the proper role of the House of Commons to
scrutinise government and hold it to account."
(From BBC News)

Unless voters and taxpayers demand that these recommendations are put at the front and centre of each party's manifesto, today's report - like so much other work on parliamentary reform - is probably destined to gather dust in that Government bin. For remember that its ideas are hardly new; smart people (including Tony Wright, the Committee's Chair and Douglas Carswell, from the Conservative bank benches) have been insisting on such changes for years. Up until now party bosses have been able to ignore them. We must not let that happen this time. There is an opportunity now, with public appetite for reform and an election coming together at the same time, for steps to be taken towards improving our Parliament and our politics. Write to your MP and urge them to support the recommendations. Get involved with the TPA, or other groups campaigning for parliamentary reform (such as Power2010). We should not let this chance slip by. 

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