James Gray: What is an MP for?
The months since the election have been stuffed with Parliamentary excitements. The newbies rush around getting indoctrinated by the whips; the Labour Party tears itself to shreds; the Scot Nats play musical chairs trying to prove they are the real Opposition and upsetting Dennis Skinner; the Government gets going at a cracking pace; Reshuffles, All Party Groups, Select Committee elections, the 1922 and PLP. It’s been a kaleidoscope, a merry-go-round, a roller-coaster.
But what’s it all for? Is there a real purpose behind the frenetic activity? Does Parliament (as opposed to the Executive Government) have a real role to play? Perhaps at the start of a new Parliament it is worth just reflecting on the basics by asking the question: “What’s an MP for?”
In essence we have seven core functions:-
To make, amend, improve, or stop the making of laws
To examine the daily workings of the Executive branch of Government, and ‘hold it to account.’
To represent the interests of our constituents in Westminster
To support our party or colleagues in a collective effort to govern or to oppose
To advance causes national or local in Parliament
To liaise with or scrutinise EU and devolved administrations
To carry out ‘case-work’ and constituency matters
Of them, you will have spotted that I have put ‘Constituency casework’ at the bottom. Some will not agree. The newly elected, whose priority is to establish themselves in the patch, or those with a small majority, will argue that ‘casework’ is their first priority and duty.
Yet is it really our job to deal with immigration appeals, benefits disputes, Child Support Agency arguments, planning applications, school placements and the like? Is there not a risk that it diverts us from our true purpose of running the country and holding the Government to account?
It may be instructive that 40 years ago there was a total of 25 secretaries in Parliament to look after all 630 MPs. Today there are 2,700 members of staff. Doing what? And why? Is it really a proper use of Parliamentary funds, for example, to have a team of three or four sitting in a High Street in one’s constituency generating more and more case-work, rather than in Westminster helping us with our true parliamentary work?
It may well suit the agenda of the Government very nicely. The more we do in our constituencies (and in harmless, if worthwhile, pursuits like backbench debates, all party groups and the like), the less we will trouble them.
How wrong all of this is. The complexity of Government is certainly no less today than it has ever been. Legislation has in fact vastly increased in numbers in recent years, and vastly decreased in quality. Why? Because we are failing to scrutinise it properly in Parliament. Why? Because we don’t have enough time to do so. Surely we should be seeking to extend Parliamentary hours and scrutiny rather than shortening them?
There are other aspects of this too. In Opposition, the Conservatives opposed all Programme Motions. Yet in government – surprise, surprise – we are applying them just as enthusiastically as did Labour. Yet time is one of the very few weapons which Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has at their disposal. It can hold bills up, keep government backbenchers in Westminster, spring surprises, ambush the government, and generally make life as difficult as it can for Ministers. That is their proper role and all governments hate it.
They would be secretly content if backbenchers put them into power and then went quietly off into the night – little moles beavering away with our casework, emerging blinking into the sunlight just in time to ensure their re-election to power at the next General Election.
Is it not time to reverse this decline; to strengthen Parliament at the expense of the over-mighty Executive, to re-establish our supremacy over institutions like the EU and devolved administrations; to energise the press and public’s interest in and respect for the parliamentary process; and to correct the increasing belief that ’case-work’ is what we are all here to do?
The collegiate nature of Parliament – ‘the place where people speak’ – should be enhanced, not diminished. Macmillan was of the view that of the 2000 rooms in the Palace, the young backbencher need only trouble himself with two: the Chamber and the Smoking Room. Parliament works because people move around the building attending events, talking, swapping experiences, plotting. That would be destroyed at a stroke by ‘family friendly hours’. And ‘decanting’ us elsewhere to make life easier for the vastly extravagant mending of the mechanical and electrical engineering systems which some people are proposing would end it for all time.
Cromwell, Disraeli, Churchill, Macmillan would not have allowed that. They believed in the power and supremacy not of Government, but of Parliament. It is our inheritance and our duty to take radical steps to preserve and enhance that primacy.
James Gray is Conservative MP for North Wiltshire