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Mon, 19 October 2020

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By Hft

Parliament has seized up. We must takes steps to get it functioning again

Parliament has seized up. We must takes steps to get it functioning again

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6 min read

Parliament thrives on the exchange of ideas, on people arguing, socialising, plotting. All that has been replaced by tumbleweed. We must takes steps to get it functioning again

In the chaos of the last 12 months or so, Parliament has become weaker and the Executive stronger. Brexit, Boris, prorogation, Covid – absorbing as they have been, have they not risked emasculating Parliament?

A maximum of 50 people in the Chamber at any one time and the necessity to put your name in a ballot before saying anything, has ended any pretence at spontaneity. Preset questions merely tend to endorse what the government is doing (or ritualistically attack it); debates are sterile and predictable; 157 of us have given our votes to the whips as proxy.

There are, in normal times, a host of activities which ensure an MP’s diary is full 24/7. No one could have accused us of being idle. Or at least not until now. With most functions on Covid-hold, Parliament is a ghost town. Visitors, lobbyists, journalists, the general public are all banned; All-Party Groups are non-existent, social events dim memories.

Parliament thrives on being the workplace and meeting place of 10,000 people in a normal day – swapping ideas, arguing, socialising, plotting. All that has been replaced by tumbleweed. So do we really have a properly functioning Parliament?

MPs have, in essence, seven core functions:

  1. To make, amend, improve, or stop the making of laws.
  2. To examine the daily workings of the Executive branch of government, and hold it to account.
  3. To represent the interests of our constituents in Westminster.
  4. To support our party or colleagues in a collective effort to govern or to oppose.
  5. To advance causes national or local in Parliament.
  6. To liaise with or scrutinise the devolved administrations.
  7. To carry out casework and constituency matters.

The social distancing arrangements under which we are labouring mean we are currently able to perform fully only the seventh – namely constituency casework.

We cannot make speeches; we cannot easily ask questions; we cannot give minsters a hard time; we cannot speak up for our constituents; we are not scrutinising the detail of legislation in committee; we do not have Westminster Hall to let off a bit of constituency steam. We cannot even get together in the tea room for a good old moan. All we can do is casework and ritualistically controlled voting.

Of my seven core functions, I put constituency casework at the bottom of the list. MPs are now routinely engaged in immigration appeals, benefits disputes, Child Support Agency arguments, planning applications and school placements, not to mention looking into every pothole. And while no one would dispute that the MP has an important role in unlocking bureaucracy or correcting injustice, is there not a risk that we have allowed ourselves to be diverted from our real tasks by this fixation? 

The empty shell of a Parliament which Covid has forced on us suits the government very nicely thank you

If casework is our main preoccupation, who is running the country and holding the government to account? Doing more things in the constituency presumably means we do less in Westminster, which may well suit the government’s agenda very nicely. In recent years our sitting hours have become shorter, and under Covid they barely exist except in skeletal format.

Yet the complexity of government is greater than ever. Legislation has increased in quantity and 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?

Programme Motions are now an accepted norm with the concomitant absurd time limits on speeches and complex matters rushed through at breakneck speed.

Time is one of the few weapons Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has at its disposal. It can hold up bills, keep government backbenchers in Westminster by delaying things, spring surprises and ambush the government, and generally make life as difficult as it can for ministers. That is, of course, the opposition’s real role and precisely why the government will always prevent them from doing it.

If all of that is true, then the empty shell of a Parliament which Covid has forced on us suits the government very nicely thank you. Neither government nor opposition backbenchers are truly able to hold them to account, which is best done in questions and interventions rather than votes.

There are some long-term things that ought to be done to reverse this emasculation of Parliament. We should sit longer (days as well as hours), not shorter. We should abolish, or at least significantly weaken, Programme Motions and other forms of guillotine of debate. We must strengthen the conventions by which ministers are answerable to Parliament. All statements must be made in the House, a much larger part of the ministerial day spent here.

We must give no ground to those who would change the present system of voting in the Commons, arguing that it is dreadfully inconvenient to leave their comfortable offices, or be dragged away from their local campaigns and casework to trouble themselves to vote. How wrong they are.

Votes should be closely linked to the debate which preceded them (abolish deferred divisions, too). And divisions have an important role to play in the collegiate nature of the place. That is why what is currently happening is so fake. If we cannot be in the Chamber to debate and listen and argue, then why should we be asked to vote in person?

It should be made possible for us all to be there, using facemasks and speaking from a sedentary position if necessary or making better use of the galleries, the only argument against which seems to be that the TV cameras cannot see us up there. Well hard cheese. Either the BBC finds a way round that, or our voices will anyhow be heard.

But if we cannot be in Westminster in person, then the government and House authorities together must accept that a properly functioning Parliament is not possible under these conditions and put structures in place to replicate it.

The electronic voting system worked perfectly well during lockdown. The whips didn’t like it because they couldn’t control it. That of itself should be a good reason for bringing it back, but only for as long as the pandemic lasts. Thereafter physical voting through the lobbies must become the norm (albeit allowing proxies for pregnant MPs and those on maternity or paternity leave).

Ours was once the greatest Parliamentary democracy in the world. But in recent years, we have allowed our strengths to be eroded by an over-mighty Executive anxious to further increase its powers. They would be secretly content if backbenchers put them into power and then went quietly off into the night – little moles working away at casework, emerging blinking into the sunlight just in time to ensure their re-election to power at the next general election.

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 duty to preserve and enhance that primacy. A proper pandemic Parliament would be a good place to start.

 

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