People understandably are angry at what they see as a raucous and rowdy mob at PMQs and at the MPs’ expenses scandal recently rehearsed by the Rifkind-Straw scandal of access for cash, but these are the more visible aspects of Parliament’s activities. Sadly it is the much less visible dimension of how Parliament routinely works which is the real problem. The purpose of Parliament is to hold the government to account, though most MPs spend much of their time scheming to secure their party advantage and to promote what they hope will be their ministerial career. But in terms of holding the government to account, the real raison d’etre, Parliament is currently not fit for purpose.
At the committee stage of bills, when government legislation is supposed to be stringently scrutinised, the Whips choose the members of the committee, so that radicals or dissidents are kept out. The government has an inbuilt majority on the committee, so that regardless of who wins the debate, the government virtually always wins the vote. At the report stage of bills when the House as a whole has a change to change important legislation, most MPs follow their own Whips into the lobby and haven’t taken the trouble to find out what they’re voting for. When the Lords send back (often very sensible) amendments to the Commons, they are often overruled by Ministers sitting in a tiny back-room with a small majority without debate.
Moreover, private bills presented by individual Members require 100 MPs to vote in favour, but are allocated by the Whips to Fridays when almost all MPs have departed to their constituencies, and even if a bill survives this hurdle it only has any chance of becoming law if it is wholly in accordance with government policy. Votes at the end of Back-Bench Business Committee debates, where MPs themselves choose the subject for debate for the first time for 50 years (only conceded by the government after the expenses scandal), are simply ignored by the government. When a major debacle occurs, Parliament fails to exercise its right to set up a public inquiry if the prime minister refuses to do so (e.g. after the 5 days of rioting in August 2011). Too few cabinet ministers and other top public sector appointees are held to account, either at appointment or recall, by Select Committees. And MPs themselves are not held to account by the electorate through a right of recall.
All of these failings can be remedied by a sustained public campaign demanding a radical reform of Parliament – sadly it won’t come about from within Parliament alone because too many MPs are concerned with playing along with the Whips to enhance the prospects of a ministerial career. This whole issue should therefore feature strongly in this coming election. Full details of all proposed reforms are set out in a booklet edited by me entitled ‘What They Never Told You about Parliament and How It Should be Put Right’, which is being launched next Tuesday and can be obtained free from my office in the House of Commons.
To obtain the free book, write to Michael Meacher MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA with your name and address or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that the book will not be despatched between 30 March and 7 May whilst Parliament is dissolved. Alternatively you can download the book as a PDF.