1 Introduction |
1. Parliament is at the heart of our system of governance.
It is sovereign. It determines the law and holds the executive
to account. Its legitimacy in the eyes of British citizens, and
its natural authority depends on the representative, democratic
chamber of the Commons and its exclusive role in the raising of
taxation and the granting of 'supply'the public's moneyto
the executive. Party balance in the House determines which party
forms a government and it cannot govern without the consent and
continued confidence of the House. Members of the House do not
pass laws or hold the government to account in a vacuum; they
do so in ways that they judge best meet the interests of their
constituents, particular groups, and the nation as a whole. The
effectiveness of the House as a whole in fulfilling its purpose
depends on the efforts of individual Members.
2. The House's practices and procedures continue
to evolve in response to social and political change. Fifty years
ago the pressures on Members of Parliament were less and they
has less secretarial and personal research support. Today they
enjoy much better administrative help. It is unsurprising then
that the role of a Member has evolved and changed over time. The
basic elements of the job remain the same but the balance between
them has altered. Some of the academic evidence suggests that
Members today are more active and independently minded than their
part-time predecessors. They welcome the challenge presented by
a more assertive, less deferential public. At the same time it
can be argued that the during the same period executive control
has over the business of the House has increased and the number
of opportunities for Members to act on their own initiative, independent
of their party, has declined. In parallel there has been a change
in the media's approach to its coverage of politics and the work
of the House in particular.
3. Critics of the modern House of Commons sometimes
hark back to a lost "Golden Age" when governments were
held tightly in check by committed and independent-minded Members
far more able and energetic than those who sit on the green benches
today. They are wrong. As Michael Ryle, a former Commons clerk,
recently argued, 'simple factual comparison with the 1950s and
early 1960s shows that Parliamentparticularly the House
of Commonsplays a more active, independent and influential
role in Britain today than at any time for many years'.
4. Scrutiny has changed dramatically since the introduction
of the departmental select committees in 1979. These have developed
into a vital and powerful means of holding government to account.
More recently proposals from our predecessors have made significant
changes to the legislative process, scrutiny and accountability
and to the working lives of Members. Important changes include
the creation of a parallel debating chamber in Westminster Hall;
more staff and the establishment of a Scrutiny Unit to support
select committees; parliamentary oral questions made more topical
by reducing the tabling deadline; new public bill committees have
recently been introduced with the power to take evidence. Action
has also been taken to help Parliament build a closer bond with
the public. The House is improving its website and already provides
one of the most sophisticated online video services of its kind
in Europe. Visitor facilities
are being improved and the Education Service has developed an
outreach function to help its work with schools. Over time, new
Members adapt to the norms and conventions of the House. But the
norms and conventions are modified and changed by the influx of
new ideas and different approaches.
5. The changes introduced by our predecessors have
helped to make the House of Commons more efficient. We hope that
some of our proposals, like those we made last year on the legislative
process, will also help to make it more effective. Peter Riddell,
Assistant Editor of the Times, said, 'Parliament is in many ways
more effective today than it has ever been'.
Effectiveness is harder to assess than efficiency partly because
so much has changed and partly because Members have different
objectives. What seems more effective to one Member may seem retrograde
to another; government and opposition will have different views,
as will frontbenchers and backbenchers.
6. Notwithstanding the progress that has been made,
there are concerns that Parliament could do more to increase its
effectiveness and improve its relevance both to Members and the
public. Recent years have seen an increase in the volume of primary
and secondary legislation and the challenge of monitoring and
scrutinising European Union legislation has grown enormously.
The rise of the internet and 24-hour multimedia news has dramatically
changed the way politics is covered and discussed. If the House
is to retain its position as the foremost forum for political
debate as well as its authenticity as law maker it must ensure
its business is topical, engaging and relevant to prevent the
marginalisation that will further harden misguided perceptions
that the House is irrelevant and in decline. In this Report, we
suggest how better use could be made of the House's non-legislative
time to make debates and questions more topical and engaging.
The Report also makes a number of recommendations about the use
of time. We do not propose any increase in the overall time that
the House sits or any change to the sitting times themselves.
7. The pressure of constituency work has contributed
to a situation where contemporary Membersthough working
harder than evermay need to devote more and more time to
constituency matters at the expense of other parliamentary duties.
The constituency role is obvious and vital and was arguably neglected
in the past. The House and the Chamber are central to the work
of a Member of Parliament; but work in the Chamber and on constituency
matters need not be mutually exclusive. Despite generally heavier
constituency workloads, many Members manage very effectively to
bring them together.
8. Parliament must make its procedures more open
and engaging if it is to encourage greater activity in the House,
particularly in the Chamber. It has to become more topical if
it is to capture public and media attention. The work of Members
and the standing of Parliament are mutually reinforcing. Our Report
is clear that the parliamentary role of a Member is pivotal and
should not be marginalised. We identify practices and procedures
that currently act as barriers to participation in parliamentary
activity, as well as looking at measures that might create an
incentive for Members to engage more in the work of the House.
We also look at how backbenchers could be given greater opportunity
to initiate business, and at steps which could better prepare
new Members to play a full and active role in the House.
1 Michael Ryle, Forty Years on and a Future Agenda,
in P. Giddings (ed), The Future of Parliament (2005). Back
The online video service, www.parliamentlive.tv, dealt with nearly
900,000 requests for video in the year to 30th September 2006. Back
Q 10 Back