As we unlock Covid restrictions, we must make haste to bring proper democracy back
There are still significant barriers in place for MPs to bring forward debates, ask questions and generally scrutinise the business of government, writes Anthony Mangnall MP | Alamy
Like teachers, MPs must be back in Parliament from 8 March to ensure proper scrutiny can take place
For any new Member of Parliament, it is strange to reflect that in the time since the 2019 election we have only seen Parliament perform at its full potential for just three months. At the outset of the pandemic, many wrote long articles about the need for a flexible and modern parliament that could continue to function throughout the crisis.
In that time, we have seen the introduction of a hybrid Parliament whereby MPs are able to take part in proceedings virtually. From debates to voting, MPs have been able to do it all from the comfort of their own homes. But the question must be asked whether these new systems and tools have benefited our democracy and befitted the Mother of all Parliaments. Of course, the answer is no.
In recent months, the last vestiges of approved backbench activity have been struck from the list. Westminster Hall debates, a valuable platform to raise local and national issues, are no longer taking place. Private Members’ Bills, one of the only opportunities for non-payroll MPs to introduce legislation, have been put on hold.
For some this may be of little concern or consequence. But it should matter that there are now such significant barriers in place for MPs to bring forward debates, ask questions and generally scrutinise the business of government.
Now we must endure seemingly endless hours of three-minute monologues that do no justice to either the speakers or the legislation being discussed
The introduction of strict time limits and call lists have not only reduced the spontaneity of Parliament, they have turned a once famed debating chamber into a stage for Members to log in, read their speeches, and then sign off. Parliament for centuries has functioned at its best when debates were debated and arguments honed and altered depending on the direction – and often mood – of the House. Now we must endure seemingly endless hours of three-minute monologues that do no justice to either the speakers or the legislation being discussed.
In short, we have a hollow Parliament. The lights are on but quite literally, no one is home! As the great unlock begins, Parliament must shelve its Covid measures and get ready for MPs to return to Westminster. This could be done in line with schools reopening. From 8 March all MPs, like teachers, should be expected to return to their places of work. Provided with lateral flow tests and with the most vulnerable already vaccinated, we can lead by example rather than ask others to go first.
Such an act would have the knock-on impact of improving the level of scrutiny. Over the last 13 months there are countless examples of where a properly, fully functioning parliament would have been able to hold the government to account and iron out the creases of rushed legislation. Scrutiny matters and when done well it can be constructive, comprehensive, and penetrating, to the benefit of all.
Scrutiny reforms, shapes, and improves legislation by allowing Parliament and its Members to take on the responsibility for passing good legislation and addressing the unforeseen consequences that no government minister or Whitehall mandarin could have predicted. Just imagine if Parliament had had the opportunity to debate the notion of a “substantial meal”.
Whatever the post-pandemic world looks like, it is ours to shape. For those who believe it can be done by Zooming in from home, they are sadly mistaken. We have all seen the implications of legislation that is rushed through. Let us use the coming weeks and months to ramp up debating time, do away with time limits and provide our citizens with the parliamentary democracy that protects their freedoms and delivers a truly brilliant levelling up agenda.
Anthony Mangnall is Conservative MP for Totnes
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