Rebuilding the House - House of Commons Reform Committee Contents


2  PRINCIPLES

    Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition. (Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament)[7]

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 agenda.

General principles

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 our recommendations.

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 Members

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 opportunities.

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 parliamentary proceedings.

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 are constraints.

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.

Constraints: time

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.

Achievable change

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 the executive.


7   Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament, 1970, p 259 Back


 
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Prepared 24 November 2009