Why parliament needs urgent reform

The Commons has allowed itself to become a mere rubber stamp of executive action
April 7, 2022
Held in Contempt: What’s wrong with the House of Commons?
Hannah White
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It was only during the Brexit crisis that I realised how the Standing Orders of the House of Commons regulated the interplay of power between the legislature and executive. Events were showing how some of these orders disempowered MPs—even when the executive could command no majority. We might have prided ourselves on our privileges and sovereignty but, in practice, MPs seemed doomed to be ineffectual.

In her readable and accessible new book, Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government and a former Commons clerk, addresses this issue—along with the decline in the standing of MPs and the state of the parliament building itself. She highlights the precipitous fall in public confidence in parliament, from 41 per cent in 1984 to 24 per cent in 2010. She shows how with Covid, the Commons has tamely allowed itself to become a mere rubber stamp of executive action, following the passage of very poorly scrutinised Brexit legislation. She sees the Commons as so focused on its supposed exceptionalism that it can’t see how detached it is from the electorate. Its self-regulation of MPs’ behaviour has been inadequate. It has been damaged by scandal.

But even so, White shows a marked sensitivity to what the Commons can do well and points out that some criticisms are misplaced. She recommends reform to modernise procedure and give the Commons greater control over its business, while emphasising the urgent need to make the houses of parliament fit for a modern legislature. The book avoids many of the gimmicks—from relocating parliament to building a horseshoe-shaped chamber—that are too often trotted out as “solutions.” Indeed, what shines through is White’s support for an institution that ought—and could, with sensible change—work much better than it does.

We must hope that MPs read it. And since good governance needs an independent and effective legislature, ministers would be wise to act on it too.