Mon, 4 July 2022

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Impressive: Karen Bradley reviews 'Held in Contempt'

Impressive: Karen Bradley reviews 'Held in Contempt'

Book cover of 'Held in Contempt: What’s wrong with the House of Commons?', by Dr Hannah White

3 min read

An eloquent and impartial critique of the arcane mechanics of Westminster, Dr Hannah White’s debut book is a timely and fantastic tool for unpicking the workings of Parliament

Brexit and the pandemic have shown both how important parliamentary procedure is and how ripe it is for reform. In her new book, Held in Contempt, Dr Hannah White argues persuasively that for the public to have confidence in the Commons, they should stand a chance of understanding how it works. 

The deputy director of the Institute for Government, White previously ran the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the Cabinet Office, and before that was a clerk in the House of Commons advising on parliamentary procedure. Her extensive knowledge gained from over a decade of experience in Parliament and the civil service is evident throughout her debut book.

Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have placed Parliament front and centre in the public consciousness, so the book is well timed and should attract readers beyond SW1. Impartial expertise is often lacking from public commentary on how the House of Commons works, making this book relatively unique. For this reason, it has never been more important to understand how the House works. Held in Contempt is a fantastic tool for unpicking the workings of Parliament and offering the reader an insight to the House of Commons that very few have. White eloquently captures the importance of the work of the House, and particularly its ability to scrutinise the government.

White is also incisive in identifying where improvements to the parliamentary system should be made. Indeed, the difficulty in receiving timely answers to parliamentary questions has been a problem since the early months of the pandemic that continues, even now, to be a subject close to my committee’s heart. Other problems, such as the level of abuse received by (particularly women) MPs, are severe enough that they actively cause MPs to leave Parliament or to never want to join at all. White quite reasonably concludes that this has the potential to negatively affect the make-up of the House of Commons for years to come.

Her extensive knowledge... is evident

The book’s strength – its impartial expertise – is also perhaps why there is a lack of explanation of the politics of Parliament. While White acknowledges that the reduced role of Parliament “to some extent has been due to the unavoidable constraints on the operation of government, but it has also been a matter of political choice,” a further chapter expanding on how political context has shaped the House of Commons would improve what is already a very impressive debut – perhaps something for a second edition?

Brexit and the pandemic have – somewhat surprisingly – not proven to be crises leading to change. The Commons is still adjusting itself (slowly) to the new requirements of legislating in a United Kingdom which has left the European Union, and the balance of opinion in the House is to return to and reinforce many if not all of the traditional ways of doing things. The book’s conclusion acknowledges that no change will come until a government wishes it to.

Karen Bradley is Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee

Held in Contempt: What’s wrong with the House of Commons?
Written by: Hannah White
Publisher: Manchester University Press

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