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Why parliamentary scrutiny matters

The House of Commons will allow MPs to question ministers remotely using video conferencing technology

3 min read

As we enter the age of ‘virtual’ sitting, it will take time to adapt to the new ways of working. But we must swiftly re-establish our authority as Parliament, writes Bernard Jenkin

We are now in a fourth week in which the coronavirus crisis continues, while there has been little parliamentary scrutiny of government, except a few online select committee evidence sessions. There is still plenty of media scrutiny, but scrutiny by Parliament matters. There are countless occasions when the atmosphere generated as MPs scrutinise government causes government to reconsider and to change policy.

Proper, considered, penetrating, constructive scrutiny does really matter. The government, business, the NHS and our whole society is wrestling with the practical and moral dilemmas of this crisis; how to defeat the virus without wrecking our economy; and how and when the UK will emerge from the lockdown, without risking more lives.

There is understandable confusion, anxiety and anger that it has come to this. In normal times, strong governments welcome scrutiny, but these are terrible times. Ministers and departments are desperately overloaded, stressed and anxious. 

Our scrutiny would not help take the country forward if MPs were only about hauling ministers before MPs to blame them for the problems they cannot instantly resolve. We should try to foster an atmosphere which encourages candour and transparency from the government; that is what best enables fast learning, leading to better decisions and more effective action.

A wise select committee will not be prosecuting its witnesses to find blame. It will be exacting in its questions but welcoming of truth, however unpalatable. If there is an atmosphere of blame, people tend to hide uncomfortable truth. Fear of blame does not just affect a few frontline ministers and officials. It can permeate whole organisations. If we want there to be openness and transparency within government departments, between NHS England and the Secretary of State, between officials and ministers, then public scrutiny must foster the same atmosphere of trust, or government will clam up, and not just externally but internally as well.

You can see this in the way ministers react to the media. Journalists are channels for public anger and often looking for scapegoats, or to scoop the news with an admission of failure. Yes, Parliament often goes in for the same thing, but does anybody think it does any good? 

We should try to foster an atmosphere which encourages candour and transparency from the government

The strength of cross-party select committees is that they are set up for more considered and constructive scrutiny which aims to improve attitude, behaviour and performance in ministers, not to discourage them.

The government has proposed me as chair of Liaison Committee, which has yet to be formally constituted. Even so, I have been representing the views of those who will be its members, and pressing for ministers to appear in public before select committee chairs.

We should all understand that the government felt the need for a breathing space to grapple with events. This has been made all the more difficult by the illness and absence of the prime minister. 

Parliamentary democracy is historically effective because it reflects our natural affinity for face-to-face human interaction. As we return to a House of Commons that has been so speedily adapted to enable remote-working MPs, we will take time to adapt to the new ways of working, but we must swiftly re-establish our authority as Parliament.

The government should welcome this, giving the opportunity to show its own confidence in its willingness to accept high level public scrutiny from Parliament. In particular, it will enhance public confidence in the continuity of the government even while the Prime Minister is incapacitated.

Sir Bernard Jenkin is nominated to be Chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee


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