Rebuilding the House - House of Commons Reform Committee Contents


    The public are sullen, some even mutinous.

    (Sir Robert Worcester, June 2009)

1. We have been set up at a time when the House of Commons is going through a crisis of confidence not experienced in our lifetimes. This is largely, but not exclusively, because of the revelations about Members' expenses, bringing with it a storm of public disapproval and contempt. Public confidence in the House and in Members as a whole has been low for some time, but not as low as now. It is not too much to say that the institution is in crisis.

2. The storm has been gathering, but has now reached its climax. In 2001 a survey found that 30 per cent of people were dissatisfied with how Parliament was doing its job; in 2009, in the wake of the expenses scandal, dissatisfaction with the Commons was a massive 71 per cent (Ipsos/Mori). This demands a response, if public confidence in the central institution of our representative democracy is to be restored. Action is already being taken to establish a transparent, fair and independently regulated system of allowances. This is necessary, but not sufficient.

3. The great majority of Members of Parliament work extremely hard. Members are in closer and more regular contact with their constituents than ever before, and dedicate a great deal of time to serving their interests. But while the House of Commons remains the central institution of British democracy, in both real and symbolic terms, there is a sense in the country that it matters a good deal less than it used to. We believe that the House of Commons has to become a more vital institution, less sterile in how it operates, better able to reflect public concerns, more transparent, and more vigorous in its task of scrutiny and accountability. This requires both structural and cultural change. This report by necessity focuses on structural changes, but we hope they will lead gradually to a change of culture. The core business of Parliament has to matter more to the public and to individual Members. At present many Members do not see the point in attending debates or making the House the primary focus of their activities. In order to address this we must give Members back a sense of ownership of their own institution, the ability to set its agenda and take meaningful decisions, and ensure the business of the Chamber is responsive to public concerns. We believe this is what the public demands, what the institution needs and what most Members want. The present crisis presents an opportunity to make some real progress with this.

4. Without the shock of recent events, it is unlikely that this Committee would have been established. Yet the case for an inquiry such as ours was already strong, and becoming ever stronger. Since 1997 the Modernisation Committee has presided over a number of reforms, some of which—such as sittings in Westminster Hall and oral questions without notice to Ministers—have proved successful. However, a number of the proposals from that Committee, and the Procedure Committee and others, have been shelved, sidelined or simply disregarded, often without being put to the House, which is dispiriting for reform and reformers. A steady stream of reports from outside bodies have made the case for significant parliamentary reform.[1] Meanwhile, the Modernisation Committee has run out of steam and not met for over a year.

5. We have a rare window of opportunity. There is an appetite for reform inside the House and among the public at large. We have a newly elected Speaker expressly committed to it. Backbenchers are fed up with their inability to make a difference and the deadweight of timeworn procedures. Select committees are universally praised but have few opportunities to initiate debates or propose amendments to legislation and sometimes struggle to maintain a quorum. Thirty years ago, in the closing period of the 1974-79 Parliament, our predecessors took the bold step of proposing a system of departmental select committees, which have now become integral to the work of the House. Unlike our predecessors, we have had to work at high speed under a very tight timetable, but hope to have produced proposals which—if implemented—may have an equivalent impact.

6. We are conscious of the fact that the large number of Members standing down at the next General Election will lead to an exceptional influx of new Members. In fairness to the incoming Parliament we propose that after two years of operation the changes recommended here be reviewed by an elected committee - as this one was.

7. The Prime Minister told the House on 10 June 2009, in the course of a wider statement, that he was 'happy to give his support' to a proposal from Dr Tony Wright MP, Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, 'to work with a special parliamentary commission…to advise on necessary reforms, including making Select Committee processes more democratic, scheduling more and better time for non-Government business in the House and enabling the public to initiate directly some issues for debate'.[2] The proposal arose out of a suggestion for a new special committee set up for a defined period only with a mandate to come forward quickly with parliamentary reform proposals, of which the key one would be to separate the control of Government business from House business. Dr Wright's letter to the Prime Minister drew particular attention to a report by Meg Russell and Akash Paun of the Constitution Unit, University College London, which had proposed the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee.[3]

8. The story of the delays in setting up the Committee need not be set out here in detail.[4] In outline the Motion to establish a select committee for this purpose was tabled on 23 June. On 8 July, a fortnight later and a full five weeks after the Prime Minister's announcement, the Motion appeared for the first time on the day's Order Paper. No time was provided for debate. On 20 July it was again on the Order Paper. On this occasion—effectively the last opportunity before the House adjourned for the summer recess—the Government allowed time for debate and tabled a motion to oblige the House to come to a decision. The Motion was duly passed without a vote, nearly seven weeks after the Prime Minister had put his authority behind the move to establish a committee to come up with speedy proposals for reform.

9. This matters because it illustrates one of the key problems to which we have been directed to offer solutions. This is the impotence of the House to find time to debate and decide its own internal affairs, unless the Government enables it to. This is not a satisfactory situation for a sovereign legislature. We note that the Ombudsman recently observed that "What…I think citizens at large see is no visible distinction between Parliament and Government".[5]

10. It is unfortunate that so many weeks were wasted, especially as our timetable was already very tight. We have worked intensively, so that the momentum for reform in this Parliament is not lost. Although we have found our terms of reference to be somewhat constraining, it would in practice have been impossible to give proper consideration to any wider matters in the time available. We have had to leave on one side some relevant matters which bear directly on the vitality of the Commons and its relationship with the executive, such as the number of Ministers.

11. We draw strength from the fact that, uniquely, Members of this Committee were elected in democratic and open procedures within the principal party groups to serve on the Committee. This is an indication of future possibilities.

12. We have not taken formal oral evidence, partly because of the time constraint. Many of the issues are well rehearsed and require political judgement to be applied to them. For the same reason, the Government did not submit detailed written evidence to the Committee.[6] We have held informal and private discussions with a range of people, including former and current whips and business managers. We are grateful for their help and advice. We have also held a private meeting with Mr Speaker.

13. We issued an invitation for written evidence and the Chair asked all Members for views on the principal matters before us. We received useful contributions and are grateful to those who wrote to us.

14. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to our principal specialist adviser, Dr Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit, University College London. We have also benefited from expert advice on election systems from Professor Iain McLean of Oxford University.

15. It is conventional that a select committee report receives a written Government reply within two months. This is because most select committee reports, although formally made to the House, contain conclusions and recommendations directed at Government. This report is rather different. It is addressed to the House, Ministers and backbenchers alike. We do expect a Government reply on some points. However this is essentially a matter for the judgement and will of the House. What we would now expect is a debate within the next two months when a House majority can freely determine the outcome. To make it easier for a conclusion to be reached, and to avoid any doubt about what is being agreed, we have drafted a resolution to be put to the House.

16. The proposals which we make must only be implemented with all-party agreement, and not imposed on the House by a Government majority. They will inevitably need implementation in stages. Some changes can take effect in the course of the last session of this Parliament, such as some of the changes to petition procedures we recommend. Others can only come into effect in a new Parliament, such as the changes relating to select committee Chairs and members, and the scheduling of business. The necessary Standing Orders can and should be passed in this Parliament so that the new Parliament can start with new procedures and practices. As we recommend in para 6 above, they can then be reviewed after a couple of years.

17. This Committee remains in being for the rest of the Parliament. We do not intend to revisit our conclusions, or to undertake a further body of work, but we will reconvene as required to consider progress on our recommendations. We also recognise that this report is the start of a process of change which will take more than a Parliament to complete, and on a wider front than that considered here.

1   See for example: Commission to Strengthen Parliament, Strengthening Parliament, July 2000; Hansard Society Commission, The Challenge for Parliament: Making Government Accountable, 2001; Parliament First, Parliament's Last Chance, April 2003; and Conservative Party Democracy Task Force, Power to the People: Rebuilding Parliament, 2007. Back

2   HC Deb, 10 June 2009, col 797 Back

3   Meg Russell and Akash Paun, House Rules?, Constitution Unit, University College, London, 2007 Back

4   Library Standard note SN/PC/5140, Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons Back

5   Uncorrected transcript of evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 5 November 2009, HC 1079i, Q 24 Back

6   Ev 1, letter from the Leader of the House  Back

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Prepared 24 November 2009