Brexit can revive our weak and idle Parliament
Leaving the EU can provide the stimulus our emasculated Parliament needs to reclaim its role in holding the government to account
Over 40 years or so, Parliament has become weak, emasculated and muddled. Brexit may be just the Viagra it needs.
Our powers to scrutinise and hold to account the government have been eroded – by the EU, devolution to Scotland, Wales and local government, and 24 hour rolling news providing an opposition singularly lacking elsewhere.
That has suited the covert agenda of an increasingly powerful and centralised Executive who have found ways to tempt Parliament’s backbenchers down harmless diversionary routes like pointless debates and non-Parliamentary ‘casework.’
We must never forget that Parliament’s job is not to run the country but to scrutinise and hold to account those of its members who, by right of their Parliamentary majority, seek to do so. It’s about scrutinising bills, and like them or loathe them at least making them into good, workable law.
It’s about keeping a watch on ministers through debates and question times, Select Committees and so much more; it’s about holding them to account, holding their feet to the fire, and ensuring that all of those things which they do by ministerial dictat, unconnected with legislation, they do in the best interests of the nation as a whole.
It’s about shouting the corner for the unique local needs of the individual MP’s own constituency; and it’s about speaking up for minorities and for the weak, and for those unable to speak for themselves.
Parliament should be a powerful institution making ministers and civil servants quake in their boots, asking awkward questions, making themselves difficult; ensuring that whatever the governing party promised in their election manifesto is exactly – no less than and no more than – what they deliver in their five years in office.
Tony Blair was the first PM to realise that the weaker Parliament is, the more unfettered will be ministers’ freedom to act, and he took steps to further that erosion. It was under him that we first saw the near universal use of Parliamentary ‘guillotines’ –the time-limiting of debate. By that means, he abolished one of the few real weapons at the disposal of the opposition: time.
We Conservatives voted against timetable motions for thirteen years arguing that they were a scourge of Parliamentary democracy. But in government, of course, we love them and have preserved and extended them.
Time limits on speeches, which are a corollary of timetabling, means that we err on the side of quantity rather than quality. No matter how learned or distinguished, how expert or how impassioned a speaker may be, he or she gets the same three minutes allotted to the newest backbencher.
Debates are pretty shabby little rags by comparison with the great old days of Thatcher, Churchill, Disraeli, and the quality of the legislation we send up to the Lords is as a result so poor that it demands dozens of amendments, many of them from the government itself, during the much more thorough Lords’ scrutiny of our bills.
Mr Blair’s emasculation of Parliament went further. He used to send his backbenchers home for ‘constituency weeks’ and brought in bogus ‘family friendly hours’ to keep Parliament out of his hair.
He brought in innocent amusements to keep the backbenchers happy. Westminster Hall debates are worthy enough, but being incapable of a vote are in no way ‘binding.’ Even less so are the recent invention of debates on public petitions which give people the entirely false impression that if they raise more than 100,000 signatures, they will get a vote in Parliament.
The four million who petitioned for a second EU Referendum must have been more than a little disappointed at three hours of discussion concluded by a wind-up from a junior minister.
Regular opposition day debates in the main chamber are routinely voted down by government backbenchers who have not been present for much of the debate; and the fairly recent invention of ‘Backbench Business Committee Debates’ allows a good airing of some topic dear to an MP’s heart, but has little effect on policy or governmental behaviour. They used to be more potent – the EU Referendum, for example, originated in one – but the government soon realised that the best way of dealing with awkward backbench debates was to ignore them. Today they are a dozy backwater on an ill-attended Thursday afternoon.
Debates and question times are largely formal and formulaic, the prime minister and ministers pay them little attention, numbers attending from the backbenches are low, debates end early through lack of speakers. Thursdays and Fridays have become largely non-days, populated by those who long for their youth in the Oxford and Cambridge Union, and who like debating for debating’s sake.
Most MPs head for their constituencies on Wednesday nights, where an obliging government lavishes expenses on them to set up offices in the high street, and to employ large numbers of ‘caseworkers’ to man them. The more marginal the seat is, the keener we are to undertake massive ‘casework’ with an eye more to our Parliamentary longevity and majority than anything to do with helping constituents with central government matters. We rush around receptions, meetings, briefings; we campaign; we make speeches no-one listens to.
Now they are keen to get rid of the visible signs and symbols of Parliament – the funny clothes, ancient traditions, wigs for the clerks at the table; the long tradition of impartiality by the Speaker; the careful language, the powerfully influencing speeches.
Soon they will close the building under guise of ‘modernising it’, making it more public-friendly and the rest of it. And in the meantime, unheeded by us, the government are allowed to get on with whatever they want to unhampered by our only mildly irritating scrutiny.
It is a weak, idle and emasculated Parliament indeed.
So what do we need to do about it? First, we should, as we Conservatives always promised to do, abolish timetable motions. That might well make life less comfortable for we backbenchers. The Parliamentary day would be less predictable. We might have to cancel some of our overseas trips, perhaps stay in Westminster for longer in the evening.
It might well be a bit of a bore; but it’s the job we signed up to. Until recently Thursday was a full sitting day with government business, quite often Fridays too. Ours should be at least a four day a week Parliament, if not five days.
We should limit the worthy but perhaps relatively ineffectual Westminster Hall debates, Adjournment debates, Backbench Business Committee debates and Opposition Days. They give us the warm illusion of holding the government to account, but are in reality largely ignored.
We should limit the number of constituency staff, and seek to cut back on ‘case-work’ which largely involves us in doing things which actually ought to be done by local councillors, social workers, immigration lawyers.
Is it really right that HMG spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year enabling us to do things which are not truly part of our job descriptions, largely in order to ensure that we get re-elected? “He’s a good Constituency MP” now tends to mean not that “he is representing Loamshire well by speaking up for us in Parliament”, but that “he is always here.”
Do we represent Loamshire in Westminster, or Westminster in Loamshire? It is my view that the pendulum has swung too far towards the latter.
Post-Brexit, many of the powers which we have lost to the EU over 50 years will be returned to the UK. We must ensure that they are not just hoovered up by the government; and that Parliament is the body which must decide how they are used and then keep a watchful eye on it.
Brexit may be the moment, and the means, to reinvigorate Parliament.
James Gray is Conservative MP for North Wiltshire