Parliamentary control of the executiverightly
conceivedis not the enemy of effective government, but
its primary condition. (Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament)
18. This Committee was established in the wake of
the expenses crisis, which triggered demand for wider parliamentary
and political reforms. The reforms sought often have little or
no direct connection with the cause of the crisis, which was largely
cultural rather than structural. Yet the crisis has functioned
as a catalyst to release pent-up demands which had been pressed
in vain for some time.
19. Only some of these wider demands for change within
Parliament are reflected in the matters referred to the Committee
by the House: the appointment of members and chairs of select
committees and the Deputy Speakers, scheduling business in the
House, and enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings
in the House. Some would no doubt welcome a more wide-ranging
inquiry. But each of the three distinct though interconnected
matters referred to us, as set out below, reflects in some way
the wider agenda for change in the way the House does its business.
Together, they reflect common cross-cutting concerns about the
vitality of Parliament.
- Control of the parliamentary
agenda. It became clear
in June that the House was dependent on the Government to provide
time for debate on the motion of no confidence in the former Speaker,
something which was quintessentially a House matter. This incident
crystallised concerns expressed for some time about Members' inability
to control the business in their own House. These concerns are
wide-ranging, including the choice of topics for general debates,
control over procedural reform, programming of government bills,
Private Members' Bills and much else.
- Select committees.
The select committees are widely respected and seen as generally
functioning well. They have won more resources in recent years.
Their work on pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny, examination
of expenditure and pre-appointment hearings is gaining ground.
There is a strong desire to strengthen yet further these forums
for cross-party work and government scrutiny and indeed extend
the way they work to other parts of parliamentary life. Some have
long held the view that it is crucial to create a parliamentary
career path focussed on select committee work. Concerns have particularly
focused on the role of the whips in selecting committee members
and, in practice if not formally, Chairs, as well as the powers
of committees and their need for access to the Chamber agenda,
where despite some improvements they remain essentially noises-off.
- Public initiation of proceedings.
The expenses crisis and the nature and force of the public reaction
to it heightened concerns about Parliament's connection to the
public it serves and its public reputation. These matters have
been the subject of various inquiries in recent years. There have
been many improvements in communication outwards (for visitors,
through the internet and the media) but no major changes in terms
of the public's ability directly to influence the parliamentary
20. The key principle that guides our recommendations
is that Government should get its business, the House should get
its scrutiny and the public should get listened to. Everything
within this report can be measured against that simple proposition.
21. We have also applied a number of general principles
which we have relied on in carrying out our work, and in making
Parliamentary control of business
22. We should seek to enhance the House of Commons'
control over its own agenda, timetable and procedures, in consultation
with Government and Opposition, whilst doing nothing to reduce
or compromise such powers where they already exist.
23. The most important common theme is the House's
lack of control over its own business. There is a well-established
concern (dating back many decades) that Government in general
is too dominant over parliamentary proceedings. The House is notionally
in charge but, partly because of difficulties of collective decision-making,
partly due to imbalance of resources, and partly as a result of
its own Standing Orders, the coordination of decisions often rests
with the executive. There is a feeling that the House of Commons,
as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest
control back over its own decisions rather than delegating so
much (as it does now) to Ministers and frontbenchers. Where the
House does retain at least notional control, such as the approval
by the Chamber as a whole of select (but not public bill) committee
membership, that must not be compromised. There are in fact many
aspects of organisation in the Commons which are not directly
controlled by the whips: for example the allocation of questions,
adjournment debates and Private Members' Bills by ballot (rather
than by whips, as in some other parliaments) and the strict neutrality
of the Speaker. These should be protected, along with those conventions
which sustain respect and fairness in the House's proceedings.
Collective working and individual
24. We should seek to enhance the collective power
of the Chamber as a whole, and to promote non-adversarial ways
of working, without impeding the ability of the parties to debate
key issues of their choosing; and to give individual Members greater
25. The House of Commons is not just a collection
of individuals, but a forum for debate between political parties.
Parties are integral to democracy and to coherent political choice.
Almost every Member is elected on a party ticket and the continuous
party battle between a Government and an Opposition is fundamental
to political and parliamentary life. However, there is public
concern at the extent to which party considerations (and party
games) have come to be too dominant, leading to needlessly adversarial
behaviour. One of the characteristics that is most valued in the
select committees is the way in which Members work together constructively
across party boundaries, with the emphasis being on the quality
of policy decisions. This style of working has obvious appeal
to the public, particularly in an era when partisan affiliations
outside Parliament are much weaker than once they were.
Transparency and accessibility
26. We should seek to enhance the transparency
of the House's decision making to Members and to the public, and
to increase the ability of the public to influence and understand
27. Decisions on matters such as which issues are
to be debated in the House or who gets a seat on which select
committee or public bill committee seem to be taken through informal
hidden procedures (most obviously the 'usual channels'), rather
than in more transparent and accountable ways. The public may
also have the sense that the parliamentary agenda does not reflect
their concerns but is some sort of strange ritual put on for the
benefit of insiders.
28. These are all noble sentiments, which we trust
are widely shared. However we also have to recognise that there
Constraints: Government business
29. We should recognise that the Government is
entitled to a guarantee of having its own business, and in particular
Ministerial legislation, considered at a time of its own choosing,
and concluded by a set date.
30. One of the principal functions of parliament
is to scrutinise, debate and ultimately vote on Ministerial legislation,
rooted in an electoral mandate. An elected Government must be
able to govern. But strong government needs to be matched by strong
accountability. There is therefore a balance to be struck between
Government's legitimate demands for parliamentary time and the
demands from other sources. Our recommendations must respect this
need for balance.
31. We should recognise that time in the Chamber,
Westminster Hall and committees is necessarily limited, and therefore
should work broadly within the existing framework of sitting days
and sitting hours.
32. There is a limited amount of time available within
the parliamentary week and within the parliamentary year. While
wanting to enhance democracy, accountability and transparency
within the Chamber and improve Members' opportunities for influence,
we must recognise that there will be little appetite for reforms
which put significant additional pressure on Members' time or
make unrealistic assumptions about the time that is available.
There will always be tough choices to be made about how existing
time in the Chamber should be used.
33. Changes should be devised with sensitivity
to real-world political constraints, and in a way which maximises
the likelihood of achieving majority support in the House.
34. We are all aware that the issues we have to
consider are both sensitive and challenging. There is always a
danger that a reform committee makes proposals that are theoretically
attractive, but which in the end achieve nothing because they
are seen by some as too threatening or radical. The present moment
offers a limited window of opportunity, where reform is genuinely
achievable. It would be a great pity if this was squandered. We
have therefore sought to recommend what might actually be adopted
and thereby strengthen the House and its reputation with the public.
35. These principles have informed our deliberations
and are reflected in our approach to the specific matters on which
we have been asked to report. We aim to make the Commons matter
more, increase its vitality, and rebalance its relationship with
7 Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament, 1970,
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