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Andrea Leadsom Calls For Major Overhaul Of "Undemocratic" House of Commons Commission

5 min read

Spending decisions involving millions of pounds worth of taxpayers' money are being made by a Parliamentary committee without “scrutiny and transparency” according to a former House of Commons leader, who today launched a major broadside against the way Parliament is being run.

Andrea Leadsom is calling for reform of the House of Commons Commission which has taken decisions on the refurbishment of Parliament, the restoration of the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben and reportedly endorsed the suspension of Westminster Hall debates and Friday sittings for MPs.

In a speech to The Institute for Government this morning, the former leader of the Commons described the Commission, which can only be chaired by the Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, as “opaque” in its decision-making and in “urgent need of change”. She wants to see its members elected by MPs, instead of being appointed by party whips.

"The current day to day workings of the HoC Commission are sadly lacking in democracy, scrutiny and transparency."

Her stinging criticism is not directed at Hoyle personally, or any of the members, as the commission structure was set up 40 years ago. 

Leadsom told PoliticsHome: “It cannot be the case that we rely largely on the benevolence of one individual – the Speaker – to protect and promote our Parliamentary democracy in the interests of those who sent us here. 

 “In our current Speaker we are fortunate to have someone with great respect for democracy and the conventions of the House.  

“This has not been the case with every Speaker, and it is surely in all our interests that the structure and processes of the House of Commons Commission are urgently reformed to ensure transparency of decision making, proper debate and protection of the Palace for future generations.”

The Commission was established in 1978 and is responsible for the administration and services of the House of Commons, including the maintenance of the Palace of Westminster, and the rest of the Parliamentary Estate. 

In her speech, Leadsom said: “The HoC Commission does not publish detailed minutes of its proceedings and its decision process is entirely behind closed doors. Commission decisions are published without explanation or context.”

The recent outcry around access to the Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben, is just one example of where the commission could have been more transparent, she said. 

That restoration project was due to cost £30 million but is now likely to cost £80 million, and will not have disabled access throughout the entire tower. 

She said when she sat on the Commission in 2017 they were “clearly told that the project would provide disabled access – this was billed as a key reason why he project should go ahead in spite of a trebling of the cost.”

“My concerns were outvoted by my colleagues and when the decision was finally published, there was no elaboration on why this had taken place, nor the reasons behind it. 

“Fast forward to today – Elizabeth Tower does indeed have a 300% cost overspend and a 200% time overrun from the original plan – but sadly without the disabled access we were promised. This in my view is a clear example of why greater transparency is vital and the current set-up is undesirable from every perspective.”

Friday sittings, which are vital for the passing of private members bills, and Westminster Hall debates were reportedly postponed with the backing of the Commission to help Parliament cope with the volume of work on Covid. However Leadsom said she cannot understand why opposition MPs would want to limit the time for debate and scrutiny on the government if digital access participation is possible.

She said: “But of course, you would not be entitled to any answers because the Commission will not publish detailed minutes, or records of which members took which views.”

The commission also decided to rubber stamp the redesign of Grade II Richmond House on Whitehall so the Commons could be held there during Parliament’s £4bn restoration. This decision is now under review. 

She said: “If there were full transparency in our Commission dealings then we might be far closer to the preservation of our iconic Palace than we are today.  And what’s more, we might be cutting the spec of our decant plans according to our cloth.”

Reforms should include members of the Commission and its finance and administration sub committees being elected by their peers, with the exception of Speaker, Leader and Shadow Leader, who would remain statutory members.  

The clerk and director general who sit on the committee should also each have a vote, thereby ensuring they have both authority and accountability, she said.

Leadsom, who was well known for her stormy clashes with the former Commons speaker John Bercow in the 2017-2019 Parliament, is understood to have been frustrated by the meetings not being able to take place if they had a clash with his diary, as no-one else had permission to step in and chair.

The commission is currently made up of Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Conservative leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, Labour’s shadow leader of the Commons Valerie Vaz, deputy speaker Dame Rosie Winterton, Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker, SNP MP Pete Wishart, Ian Ailles, the Director General of the House of Commons, lay member Dr Rima Makarem, who was appointed through an open competitive process, and Commons Clerk Dr John Benger and lay member Jane McCall.

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