More than a century ago, prime minister William Gladstone declared that the British constitution ‘presumes more boldly than any other the good sense and faith of those who work it’. In 2009, those MPs who have been caught flipping homes and claiming expenses for duck moats have shattered public confidence in their good sense and faith.
Gordon Brown has rightly responded by promising to end the era of ‘self-regulation’. The prime minister’s proposals for change include an independent parliamentary standards authority and a statutory code of conduct for MPs, while Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry into MPs’ expenses will report in the autumn.
But more fundamental reform of Parliament is needed to restore trust in the political class. Brown has asked the veteran constitutional reformer Tony Wright, chair of the public administration select committee, to lead an all-party committee to investigate how Parliament should be transformed. Wright should find an ally in new Speaker John Bercow, who campaigned for the role claiming he would be ‘an agent of change’. The prospects for genuine reform are better than they have been for a long time.
So what needs to happen? As a first step, Wright and his colleagues need to diagnose the nature of the crisis effectively so that their proposals directly respond to public concerns about the way politics is conducted in Britain. This is not straightforward but it seems two distinct factors need to be addressed.
First, there is a crisis of confidence in politicians. The public perceive them as untrustworthy and out to serve their own ends or those of their party, rather than to serve the wider public good. This explains why people strongly dislike some features of parliamentary behaviour: whipped votes, petty political adversarialism and careerism. In contrast, they still respect aspects of MPs’ roles that are seen to be serving the public interest, such as their constituency work and the role they play in holding the Executive to account.
Reform therefore needs to strengthen the features of parliamentary life that appeal to the public and are crucial for rebuilding the reputation of MPs. This demands rebalancing power between the Executive and Parliament so that MPs have a more influential role in the legislative and policy-making process. This would also give them a distinct and alternative career path to that offered by the front and opposition benches. Such a rebalancing should also help produce a less tribal parliamentary culture.
There are a number of ways to achieve this. One is to give MPs greater control over their own agenda. A period of time should be set aside each week to allow them to debate and vote on matters of their choosing. A cross-party backbench committee, rather than the whips, should allocate time for such activity.
To ensure that there is enough time to cover both government and parliamentary business, the house would need to sit for longer. But this shouldn’t pose a problem: in the 2008/09 session the House will sit for only 128 days. Why not use some of the 12-week summer recess?
Select committees also need beefing up. They should receive more resources and staffing to enhance their ability to scrutinise departments and hold ministers to account. Chairs and members should be chosen by a free and secret vote of the whole House.
The committees could also be given confirmation powers over senior appointments made to the major public bodies they oversee. For instance, the education select committee should confirm the appointment of the head of Ofsted. In extreme cases, they might also be given the power to remove senior public servants by issuing a declaration of no confidence.
Specialist and permanent legislative committees should be introduced to replace the non-expert Bill committees. This would enable more effective scrutiny of legislation and allow MPs to develop expertise in specific areas. Not only should these committees consider Bills, they should also be asked to conduct post-legislative scrutiny to see whether the policy aims were achieved.
Rather than reduce the number of MPs, as the Conservatives suggest, reducing the number of ministers would do much more for the effectiveness and independence of Parliament. The cap on the number of ministers needs lowering and each department should be limited to just one parliamentary private secretary. Perhaps Speaker Bercow could apply some pressure here: in 2002/03 he introduced a Private Member’s Bill advocating cutting the number of ministers.
And if Parliament is to be taken seriously as the ‘home’ of accountability, it needs stronger powers over the ballooning number of unelected bodies and actors that exercise influence in Britain. For instance, there should be confirmation hearings for heads of quangos and regulators; the conventions and rules protecting civil servants and special advisers from full parliamentary scrutiny should be scrapped; ministers in the Lords should have to answer to the Commons; a joint committee of both Houses should be convened to quiz the new Supreme Court justices; and there should be regular question time sessions with the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels.
Secondly, the expenses scandal has exposed the powerlessness of the public in terms of their ability to hold MPs to account for their behaviour and to influence what goes on inside Parliament. Reform should, therefore, aim to strengthen the accountability of Parliament and MPs to the public. If Parliament is to lose its gentleman’s club reputation, the public will need to be given a stronger voice. A public petitions committee, similar to the one in the Scottish Parliament, should be established and empowered to take petitions from the public and to act on them. For instance, the PPC might pass a petition to the relevant Bill committee, which could revise or even initiate legislation on the back of it. Symbolically, such a reform would be significant: for the first time the public would be able to shape and influence the agenda of Parliament.
More radically, a ‘Citizens’ chamber’ might be convened at Westminster, with members appointed by lot from the general public. It would be asked to consider and debate specific policy issues (constitutional matters would work well) that would feed in to the policy process.
There is also a case for introducing a recall mechanism. However, the right to trigger one should be narrowly defined around ethical issues – for example, if an MP has breached the new Code of Conduct – and not on the policy positions of individual MPs. The threshold for triggering a recall should be set high (25% of voters) and funding of recall campaigns should be tightly regulated.
Rebuilding trust in Parliament will not be easy. It will take time and a lot more than institutional reform. Nonetheless, in a quiet and understated way, changes to the way Parliament works could help reanimate the public’s relationship with their elected representatives. And since it costs nothing and doesn’t require legislation, it could all be done relatively quickly.
All it takes is political will on the behalf of the parties to agree a way forward.
Guy Lodge is an associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research.