Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

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 money—to 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 Parliament—particularly the House of Commons—plays a more active, independent and influential role in Britain today than at any time for many years'.[1]

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.[2] 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'.[3] 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 Members—though working harder than ever—may 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

2   The online video service,, dealt with nearly 900,000 requests for video in the year to 30th September 2006. Back

3   Q 10 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 20 June 2007