Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Second Report


1. The House of Commons is the heart of British democracy. Whether that democracy is healthy depends in part on whether the public we serve has respect for our proceedings as relevant to their lives and has confidence that our scrutiny of both the executive and its legislation is effective.

2. The most compelling reason for modernisation of the Commons is its decline in public esteem. Participation levels in parliamentary elections have fallen from nearly 80% to less than 60%. Successive surveys of social attitudes have charted the ebb tide of public respect for Parliament.

3. We were impressed by the evidence of disengagement from the parliamentary process presented to us by the BBC[1] and the Hansard Society from their opinion research among electors who did not vote in the last General Election. Both bodies focussed particularly on young people among whom participation levels are even lower than among the public as a whole. Whereas among the total electorate 60% voted and 40% did not at the last General Election, among younger voters the proportions are reversed.

4. Much of the evidence presented to us on public perception of politicians makes disturbing reading for those of us who are committed to making a success of representative democracy. The Hansard Society reported that Parliament was perceived as too confrontational with 'fighting', 'squabbling' and 'arguing' employed to describe the conduct of parliamentary debate. Yet at the same time MPs of all parties are perceived as similar in style and tone. The BBC research found among young people a repeated perception that Members of Parliament had become 'insular, blocked into their own world.' There is a worrying trend to see politics as something that is the property of politicians and not connected to the lives of the electors or the culture of modern society.

5. In many ways these perceptions reflect not the way Parliament actually behaves but the way the media report it. The media must take some of the responsibility for this perception. News reports of proceedings in Parliament tend to be fixated with moments of confrontation and conflict. The comparative neglect of the humdrum, serious business of Parliament, both in the Chamber and in committee, leaves the public with an unbalanced perception of the work of MPs.

6. Unless we draw into participation in the democratic process more of the under 35s, most of whom do not vote at present, Parliament faces a long-term decline in legitimacy, authority and respect.

7. This will have practical consequences for the quality of government. The extent to which Government can arrive at policies that will work in a complex modern world will in part be determined by the extent to which they can be scrutinised, challenged and tested by debate in an effective Parliament. Our proposals are based on the sound principle that good scrutiny makes good government.

8. These are not just issues for MPs. The rights of every citizen would be diminished if Parliament lost its authority as the legitimate expression of our representative democracy, or if the decisions of Government are not effectively scrutinised by Parliament.

9. Nor are all the factors that have contributed to the decline in political participation capable of being reversed by MPs or anybody else. They include developments that are deeply embedded in modern society, such as the growth in individualism and with it the reduced attraction of such mass collectivism as a national ballot; the tendency of decision-making to recede to more remote European and global forums; the reduced importance of the state in the everyday life of the citizen; and the decline in long-term party loyalty in a post-ideological era.

10. However the opinion research we have received did produce a number of reasons for not voting which reflected specific discontent with Parliament or political parties.

11. Some complained that the electoral competition for the centre ground has left politicians bland and left electors without a real choice. Conversely others complained that MPs spend too much time arguing and pursuing party point scoring.

12. A strongly expressed reason for not voting was that the public rarely saw Parliament reported in terms of successful outcomes. The BBC, without any apparent self-irony, reported the observation from their focus groups: "There's never any good news."

13. A repeated complaint was that MPs do not come across as individuals giving their own spontaneous response rather than the party line. As a result it is a rare Member of Parliament with whom a member of the public feels emotional and psychological empathy. Yet the knowledge that the press are likely to pounce on any original thought as evidence of a "split" discourages MPs from straying off the party line. The challenge for MPs to speak in the same language as the public is made more difficult by the pressure of the broadcasting media for soundbites. Ordinary people do not discuss difficult questions in soundbites.

14. A number of these issues can only be addressed if the media also has the capacity to change in parallel with Parliament. We are concerned at the growing tendency of political reporting to ignore proceedings in Parliament, and to convey to the public a message that Parliament does not matter any more.

15. MPs are masters in our own House. We are responsible for procedures and practices that are often seen by our electors as archaic, formulaic, and abstruse. The society we are supposed to represent prizes brevity and informality, but we ourselves do not demonstrate those virtues in our working methods. As the BBC research concluded, "for younger groups, time-honoured procedures communicate not revered tradition, but a refusal to accept that times change". In the following sections we set out a programme for modernisation to make the Commons more topical, more effective, more accessible and better able to set the media agenda.

16. Yet changes to the Standing Orders of the Commons will not restore public respect for Parliament unless they are accompanied by a change in the culture of the Commons. British Social Attitudes has charted how the proportion of the public who trust government to put the interests of the nation before party has halved within a generation, irrespective of which party is in power. We will not restore trust and respect in our parliamentary democracy unless our parliamentary proceedings demonstrate its Members serving the national interest rather than party advantage.

1   Beyond the Soundbite, BBC research into public disillusion with politics, February 2002. Back

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Prepared 5 September 2002