Chris Bryant Wants Radical Reform Of Westminster's Standards Regime
Labour MP Chris Bryant has called for radical reform of the way that parliament operates. (Alamy)
Labour MP Chris Bryant, the chair of the standards and privileges committee, has insisted that radical reform of parliament's processes must make it into his party's next manifesto.
Bryant, the MP for Rhondda, spoke to PoliticsHome ahead of the release of his new book Code of Conduct Why We Need to Fix Parliament – and How to Do It about the sort of wholesale reform he would like to see from the next government and why he thinks it is necessary.
He believes that now is a "key moment" for the issue because parliament has "brought itself into disrepute" with a succession of scandals, including numerous allegations of misconduct, and Boris Johnson's demise over partygate.
"Lots of people in the public have lost confidence and trust – the figures and polling are quite stark, they're the worst ever," Bryant said.
"I think that that gives us a unique moment, either for this government or for a new government, to seize hold of the moment and say: 'right, we're going to do radical reform'."
Among his list of suggested reforms are structural changes to the way Westminster operates. Bryant has argued for an elected second house to replace the unelected House of Lords, as well as some decentralisation of power from Downing Street to the House of Commons.
"I really want [Labour] to commit to saying: 'We want parliament to do a better job. We want it to be enabled to do a better job. We want being an MP to be about public service. And we're going to have strictly enforced rules. And we're going to hand some of the power over from Downing Street back to the House of Commons'," Bryant explained. "All of that I would like to see in the manifesto."
Examples of decentralising power he would like to see include allowing the House of Commons to set its own timetable for debates, rather than it being decided by Downing Street, arguing the UK would be better off if power was "spread around".
"The fact that we've got such a concentration of power in Downing Street, I think is one of the things that has made our whole system discredited," he said.
Bryant also said he would like to see reform of the structure of MPs elected to the House of Commons and a move towards proportional representation (PR) instead of the current first past the post system (FPTP). PR would mean the vote share a party receives at a general election would translate into the number of seats the party wins – with candidates often picked from a list.
In contrast FPTP, the UK's current system which operates by constituency, requires voters to pick a candidate and the candidate with the highest number of votes wins; this has lead to criticism that political parties who could receive a significant amount of individual votes nationally could still fail to translate that into any seats in the Commons.
"I like having a constituency, and I think that roots MPs in a way in the UK which doesn't happen in countries which only have proportional systems," Bryant said.
"But I like the additional member system, so you have some other voices who are elected on the basis of proportional representation. Because if you have 10 per cent of people in the UK vote Green, they should have more than one MP."
Bryant also said he would also like to see "much clearer and stricter" rules about conflict of interests and the consistency in the application of rules to ministers, MPs, and Lords.
For example, ordinary MPs have to register free hospitality they receive – like tickets to concerts, music festivals or football matches – giving full details of the cost and who paid within 28 days and it is published almost immediately. But ministers don't have to register free hospitality which they have received 'in their ministerial capacity' with the Commons but with their department which doesn't publish it for months – and they never provide the full details such as the cost.
MPs also have to give the precise details of any outside employment they have, including the amount they are paid for specific work, and the amount of time they spend on it. Lords only have to register the fact that they have outside employment and the name of the employer, but do not have to provide any further details.
"It's crazy that ministers have fewer rules governing them than backbench MPs do," he said.
"They don't have to declare things backbench MPs have to instantly; it's also true that the House of Lords don't have to declare as much as MPs do."
Bryant also said he would like to see stricter rules on misleading the House of Commons. Ministers are expected to tell the truth to MPs in the House of Commons, and correct the record as swiftly as possible if they are found to have misled the house, but this often does not happen.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson was recently found to have misled parliament when he was in office about what he knew about lawbreaking on Downing Street during lockdown. The system of holding him to account has been criticised – in particular the fact that it took almost a year for the privileges committee to conclude its investigation into the breach, and ultimately MPs had the final say on whether the committee's recommendations should be implemented.
"We've got to change the rules on what to do about when an MP has misled the house or lied," Bryant continued.
"As things stand, the person who gets into trouble is the person who says that another MP has lied and refuses to retract it – whereas the person who has lied gets away with it pretty much.
"So for instance: I think that if a minister is told by the UK statistics authority that they must correct the record because what they said is factually untrue, then I think it should be considered a breach of the Code of Conduct if they haven't done it."
Ultimately, Bryant said the motivation to devote his book to standards, and his dedication to parliamentary reform in his work as an MP comes from a place of "worry about the state of democracy in the UK". He says this was shaped partly by being brought up in Spain under General Franco, as well as living in Argentina after the dictatorship in the 1980s.
"I think sometimes we get complacent, because we kind of like to think of ourselves as the oldest democracy; in fact, we're not – Iceland is older," he said.
"We like to boast about the rule of law, but sometimes we undermine it. That's why the book's fundamental premise is that I don't want MPs to be perfect, but I want us to be good enough. I don't want parliament to be perfect, but I want to be good enough.
"I don't think we do things well enough at the moment."
Bryant's book Code of Conduct Why We Need to Fix Parliament – and How to Do It will be released on 17 August 2023.
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