Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms

WR 05

Written evidence submitted by Barry Winetrobe,

formerly Reader in Law, Napier University, Edinburgh, and

Honorary Research Associate, Constitution Unit, UCL

1. I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to this important inquiry. I worked in and for parliaments, including this House, for many years, and have written on many aspects of parliaments for over 30 years. I am making this submission in a personal capacity.

2. The 2009 expenses scandal provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the UK Parliament, especially the House of Commons, to reform itself and make it ‘fit for purpose’ as a 21st century democratic and accountable representative assembly.

3. It blew it.

4. Instead, as usual, what happened was yet another round of incremental, worthy procedural reform, largely orchestrated by the Government, and accompanied by the usual bouts of self-congratulation. The fundamental reality of a Parliament dominated by its Executive, procedurally and operationally, remains virtually untouched, with these most recent reforms, like most before them, absorbed by the Government or appropriated for its own purposes.

5. Acceptance of this situation, so embedded in the culture of the Westminster Parliament, its members and its staff, is so complete that it is relatively rarely even recognised, never mind questioned or opposed. It is taken for granted that if parliamentary reform is required, you ask a Government Minister, the Leader of the House, because he or she is the one holding all the aces. To quote S. O. no 14: "Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting." This makes the House of Commons, in a very real sense, irresponsible.

6. This would be bad enough for a Parliament of the 18th or 19th century. That it still applies in the 21st century is an affront to modern democratic principles. It is an abdication of responsibility to the most important section of the constitution – the people, the ones Members are elected to represent.

7. This culture of subservience and acquiescence is corrosive, and the whole Wright Committee episode and its continuing aftermath, as well as the expenses scandal that preceded it, further embeds this culture.

8. Almost everyone looked to the Government to ‘deal with’ the expenses crisis, and they made a real mess of it, with knee-jerk legislation and a stripping of another layer of parliamentary autonomy, through IPSA and related legislation. Though it is the public that is ultimately harmed by the enfeebling of their MPs through any lack of effective and available resources, the same public’s distrust of MPs has blinded them to these consequences. The prevalent parliamentary culture of insularity and privilege – a corruption of constitutionally acceptable self-regulation – which culminated in the expenses scandal, understandably convinced the public that MPs could not be trusted to run themselves.

9. What has happened since? Promises by the Government to ‘allow’ the creation of a real Business Committee seem to be on hold, to judge from the recent Coalition review documents. The Backbench Business Committee innovation was side-tracked by the Government’s unilateral decision to enmesh it into its new Governmental, not parliamentary, e-petitions scheme, to the general confusion of both Parliament and public. The fundamentals of Executive control of Parliament, its business and its operation seem to be untouched. MPs and others still look to Ministers, rather than to the institution itself, and to the public it serves, to initiate parliamentary reform.

10. To accept the Wright Committee path as the only way to meaningful reform is to accept all the existing fundamental inadequacies of the current arrangements, to sign up to many more years of the Oliver Twist Syndrome of asking ministers for "more, please", and to a refusal to confront the status quo for fear of losing the supposed ‘ultimate prize’ of the Wright package, a Business Committee.

11. Your Committee can try to turn this tide, however difficult that may be, by rejecting the path of continuing dependency and incremental, piecemeal reform. It must reject the implicit prevailing acceptance that the only path of reform is one where change has to be wrung out of Ministers, however and whenever achieved, not grasped proactively on behalf of the public.

12. It can genuinely engage with the public about the creation of a modern, responsible, accountable and open Parliament, one that combines the best of Westminster Model representative democracy with the resources and demands of a more direct, participative democracy. It can address its views and recommendations not to Government, but to Parliament itself, and to the public. This more ‘revolutionary’ approach is the only way to break the stranglehold of Executive dominance, not least over parliamentary reform.

13. The Commons should not just take more control of its own business, sittings, committees and so on, and end the ‘Leader of the House’ mentality. It should also run itself, free from undue Executive control, but subject to appropriate independent audit and full public scrutiny, whether its functions are carried out ‘in-House’ or, as in cases like MPs’ pay and allowances, operated externally on its behalf. Only then can it do its necessary  constitutional job properly. Parliamentary autonomy and appropriate self-regulation are essential preconditions for a mature democracy, and they can only exist where the Parliament is fully open and accountable, to show that it is operating effectively on behalf of the public and is not abusing its autonomy for self-interest or worse.

14. All this would require a modern and robust institutional framework and culture, with truly accountable internal management (where was the searching examination of the role of senior Commons management in the culture that allowed the expenses abuses to exist and flourish?). This needs a logical and effective inter-relationship between parliamentarians and staff, because it is in this intertwining of the institutional and the procedural that the ‘efficient secret’ of Parliament lies, and on which an effective institutional culture can be built.

15. Westminster needs both fundamental structural and cultural changes. If we don’t want a US-style separation of Executive and Legislature, we need a new form of ‘Westminster Model’ Parliament. Some, like Holyrood, for all their failings, do operate in a more autonomous, responsible way. So it can be done, and the Commons should deign to look properly and rationally at these nearby models, and not just as a source ad hoc cherry-picking.

16. Parliament is the ultimate constitutional watchdog. If any other watchdog operated under a regime of effective control and manipulation by those it is supposed to scrutinise and hold to account, it would be rightly criticised by public, media and parliamentarians as ineffective and unconstitutional.

17. The traditional Westminster model of a modified ‘separation of powers’ envisages three arms of government: executive, legislature and judiciary. A 21st century model requires the acceptance and involvement of the fourth, and most important, arm – the people. They are no longer the ‘passive governed’, but should be participants in their governance. Parliament is the appropriate constitutional forum for them to engage in this activity, and that requires a truly autonomous and accountable Parliament. In other words, a Parliament for the People, not a Parliament for its Members or for the Government.

18. That is what your Committee should be aiming at in this inquiry, not just an audit of the Wright Committee reform path, and all that that accepts. Parliament totally missed its golden opportunity in 2009 at a radical insurgency by MPs, a popular ‘Parliamentary Spring’. This inquiry may be a last chance at snatching democratic victory from the jaws of continuing defeat.

February 2013

Prepared 12th March 2013