Reforming parliament

Stung by the fear of irrelevance and the Hutton inquiry, parliament is little by little becoming a more effective scrutineer
October 22, 2004

As part of the Blair government's constitutional reform programme, the House of Commons has been living through a period of significant upheaval. The house sits at different times. A second debating chamber has been added. More bills are considered in draft. Select committees have more resources and tasks. These have not caught the public eye in the manner of devolution or reform of the Lords but, like those latter measures, reform of the Commons, insofar as it increases the accountability of government, can be seen as part of a broader movement to reduce the concentration of executive power in Britain.

But I want to suggest, first, that the process of reform has not gone far enough; second, that the reforms so far have lacked coherence and have sometimes been contradictory; third, that there are inherent constraints on parliamentary reform; and fourth, that the prospects for radical reform will depend upon what happens on other fronts.

Who will drive reform?

Behind the rhetoric about the sovereignty of parliament lies the reality of executive dominance in a political system which concentrates power rather than divides it. The primary function of parliament is not to act as a check on the executive, but rather to form and sustain government and opposition.This is Britain's version of "strong government," the product of a particular history and set of constitutional arrangements, given added force by the 20th-century development of disciplined political parties.

Any discussion of parliamentary reform has to be anchored in this reality. Too often it is not, which explains why it can seem to go around in circles. The difficulty has never been to draw up an agenda for reform, nor to describe the institutional disabilities that make reforms desirable. A raft of reports and pamphlets on these matters stares down from my bookshelves. The real question is not what it might be desirable to do, but why it has proved so difficult to do it.

Who should mobilise a reform project, and how? The short answer is that, in a parliamentary system in which the executive is drawn from the majority party, it requires executive leadership, or at least compliance. This means a government that is well disposed towards parliamentary reform, usually expressed through a leader of the house who drives the initiative (this was the case with the Crossman reforms of the 1960s and the St John Stevas agenda for select committees after 1979). The house itself, not being in control of its own business, lacks an effective mechanism to take the initiative, and therefore has to wait for executive leadership. Even then, success is not guaranteed.

The period since 1997 is instructive in this respect. The Blair government included the House of Commons in its constitutional reform agenda, but it was not clear what this would mean in practice. There were both worrying and hopeful signs. On the worrying side, Tony Blair told his new parliamentary army in 1997 that their essential job was to be "ambassadors" for the government in the country. The whips took this literally, putting in place a rota to enable Labour MPs to spend weeks away from Westminster, and taking MPs off select committees in order to join parliamentary campaign teams. This was a brutal reminder of the realities of British political life, and of parliament's role in an executive-dominated system. It was not an encouragement to parliamentary scrutiny, or to reform initiatives designed to make parliament count for more. Its purpose and effect was to encourage MPs to face away from Westminster rather than towards it. They were helped in this by a supply of professional campaign materials and a big increase in allowances to pay for more staff and support services. It is not yet fully realised what an impact this has had on the activities of MPs of all parties. In the US, the "incumbency factor," fuelled by some of the same ingredients, is now huge. A similar trend may establish itself in Britain, as office-holders use their increased resources to try to keep themselves in office in a permanent election campaign.

It could be argued that this development is merely a recognition of reality. If parliament is weak in our system, and if there are few rewards, either for governments or MPs, in seeking to make it stronger, then it might seem quite rational to conscript it for other purposes that are thought to matter—above all, getting oneself and one's party elected or re-elected. In this sense the prospects for parliamentary reform have become even less promising in recent times. It could be argued that there are some gains in this, as the role of MPs in their constituencies has grown considerably, not just in the familiar caseworker sense but as community catalysts and political entrepreneurs. But this has undoubtedly been at the expense of parliament itself.

What kind of modernisation?

The more positive side of the recent account is that the Blair government not only came in with modernising ambitions for parliament but identified the problem of mechanism by setting up a new modernisation committee to act as the instrument of reform. Two main meanings of the term "modernisation" may be discerned, with different, and often contradictory, implications for action. First, there is the kind of modernisation favoured by governments and many of their supporters. This is the kind that wants to process business more efficiently and predictably, at more agreeable hours. Second, there is the kind of modernisation that wants to shift the balance between executive and legislature by strengthening parliament's scrutiny function. This is much less attractive to governments because of its potential to make life more difficult for them, and does not connect with the career paths or reward structures of most MPs.

It is not surprising that the first kind of modernisation has enjoyed more success than the second. Robin Cook has been the leader of the house most committed to radical reform. He sought to build a coalition of support for change among both kinds of modernisers, but there were always intrinsic tensions between them. Cook eventually found himself out on a limb as the party machines conspired to ensure that radical excess was curbed. But those who denounce wicked governments for blocking reforms to strengthen parliament should never forget that when Cook provided MPs with an opportunity to decide on a free vote whether they wanted the composition and chairs of their select committees chosen by the whips and the party machines, as at present, or by themselves, they voted for the status quo.

This is not to say that the recent modernisation has delivered only on one side of the account. The picture is a mixed one. For example, the way in which the programming of legislation has come to resemble the guillotines it was intended to avoid is a loss for scrutiny, as many amendments to bills now go entirely undiscussed. But the extension of pre-legislative scrutiny through the draft bill procedure is a big gain for effective scrutiny. When it is not employed, as with the recent human tissue bill, serious problems with legislation are too easily overlooked.

The greater success of modernisation as efficiency in comparison with that of modernisation as scrutiny was made more likely by the way in which the modernisation committee set about its business. If this new committee was to serve as the mechanism for a sustained process of reform, it would have been sensible at the outset to identify the purpose of modernisation. What would a reformed or modernised House of Commons look like? What were the key objectives to be pursued? Was reform required to enable government business to be processed more efficiently or to strengthen parliament in relation to the executive? By not engaging with such questions the committee gave itself no yardstick against which to measure progress.

This also meant that no real connection could be established between proposals being made for the Commons and the debate about the reform of the House of Lords. This debate was flawed by not being anchored in a reform project for parliament as a whole. If government was too strong and parliament too weak, and if this was reflected in a scrutiny deficit, then both the Commons and the Lords had a role to play in an enterprise of constitutional rebalancing. In the absence of a coherent approach, Commons reform was dogged by the lack of general purpose and Lords reform collapsed in abortive fiasco. If we are to return seriously to the reform of both houses, the chances of success would be greatly improved by a common prospectus.

How is this to be engineered? Executive support is probably essential. There is no "voice of parliament" that can be collectively orchestrated. Parliament is a place where the parties do permanent battle, and this fundamental reality trumps attempts to build up parliament itself. MPs do not inhabit a career structure in which service to parliament, distinct from party, brings reward. Those accounts which say that parliament should do this or that to make itself more effective fail to understand that there is no "parliament," in a collective sense, at all. If there were, we would be living in a different kind of political system.

Reform is inevitably an uphill slog in such a system. It is a matter of exploiting cracks and getting wedges into doors, which is easier when governments do not offer too much resistance. Sometimes the wedges can be big ones, as with the select committee system or draft bills, which provide the basis for further strengthening and extension. Relentless pressure and ingenuity on the part of those who want to strengthen parliament is essential.

Sometimes this can bring unexpected advances. An example makes the point. For some time I had been pressing the case for the prime minister to appear before a parliamentary committee on a regular basis, as other ministers do. This was a gap in parliamentary accountability which needed to be filled. In my correspondence with Downing Street on the issue, I was repeatedly told that it was an established convention that prime ministers did not appear before parliamentary committees (not true, by the way, as there were pre-war precedents and the post-1979 select committee system could and should have included the prime minister). The exchanges reached the point at which Robin Cook, as leader of the house at the time, took me on one side and asked me to drop the proposal as the prime minister had decided that he was never going to agree to it. A few weeks later came the announcement that the prime minister had decided to appear twice a year before the liaison committee, as an expression of his commitment to parliamentary accountability. One convention was thereby replaced in a splendidly British way by a new and opposing one, which future prime ministers will be expected to adhere to.

Such advances need to be banked, and built on. Another example of this process is the parliamentary vote on the Iraq war, conceded after intense pressure. This blew a hole in the power of the prerogative that enables governments to wage wars and make treaties without the ratification of parliament. Here again it will be difficult for governments in future to remove the parliamentary wedge from this particular executive door, as the foreign secretary has acknowledged. This in turn makes it more likely that, at some point, a wider parliamentary incursion into the range of prerogative powers will be able to be mounted. So we find an ebb and flow of forces.

The parliamentary disconnection

Fortunately, there are now factors at work that strengthen the hand of those who want to see parliament play a more active and central role. Foremost among these is the mounting feeling, in parliament and outside, that it needs to matter more, and that its present condition is not healthy for our democracy. Above all, there is the ever more embarrassing disconnection between the parliamentary game and the way in which issues are handled and discussed by everyone else. The Commons sits in a tribal timewarp (or pretends to, which is even worse). The yah-boo adversarialism is just the unlovely manifestation of an approach to politics that is demeaning to those who are expected to engage in it and a disservice to those they represent. It is also a waste of the talents and experience of large numbers of MPs, who are required only to be cheerleaders and footsoldiers. When party counts for less in the electorate than it once did, and when old ideological divisions are blurred in the face of new realities, parliamentary politics increasingly takes place in its own bubble. People look in, are sometimes amused and entertained by it, but it feels like a game from another planet.

Consider for a moment how the game works. A government proposes something. The official opposition opposes it. The third main party also opposes it, but on different grounds. These adversarial polarities are then paraded in parliament and repeated in the media. The formulaic predictability of this pattern of behaviour engages the participants and disengages everybody else. It is also foolish, as it prevents sensible agreement in some areas, such as the financing of higher education, or pensions policy, where consensus is desirable, and invites damaging policy discontinuities. This is not an argument for a difference-splitting consensus, but for a more grown-up way of doing politics. Nor is it an argument against the indispensable role of party, but party should structure political life, not suffocate it. At present there is an embarrassing mismatch between the way in which parliament operates (as with the sterile adversarialism of the legislative standing committees, mercifully kept from general public view) and the way issues are discussed and handled in the outside world.

There comes a point at which such acute mismatch has to be remedied, unless the institution is content to slide into irrelevance. There is no shortage of ideas about what can be done, borrowing innovations in Scotland and Wales, and much else besides. It all comes down to incentive and will. The failure of a reform-minded house, with a massive governing majority, to carry through a coherent programme of parliamentary reform after 1997 shows how difficult the task is. Yet it becomes more pressing, not less. Good scrutiny really does make for good government.

If parliament abandons functions, or does not reclaim them, they will still be performed, but by somebody else. The media will take over political debate even more completely. This is why the public administration select committee successfully demanded that the government should restore to the ministerial code the requirement that policy announcements be made to parliament first. If parliament does not control its own business, the executive will. If representation is ineffective, other channels will be found. If inquiries are needed and parliament is incapable of mounting them effectively, then they will be conducted elsewhere. As was widely observed at the time, the contrast between the Hutton inquiry, with no formal powers at all, and a parliamentary select committee in terms of the ability to undertake an investigation into the matters under consideration was stark. This has reopened the issue of the powers available to select committees to get access to persons, records and papers, and the ability of committees to undertake such inquiries effectively. Parliament should insist on equipping itself with what it needs for this purpose, which includes owning the so-called Osmotherly rules under which civil servants give evidence.

What prospects?

The preceding paragraph lapsed into the familiar rhetoric about "parliament should insist" when the whole point is that there is no parliament, in that collective sense, to insist on anything. There are simply MPs who have preoccupations, and inhabit a career structure, in which attention to the sustained strengthening of the institution is not a central priority. In a system of parliamentary government in which the executive sits in the legislature, and routinely controls its operation, there are inherent limitations on parliament's ability to develop a collective character and to act as an effective instrument of scrutiny and accountability. The real question is whether it is doing as well as it might do in this situation.

Of course, if this context changes, then the prospects are inevitably transformed. How could this happen? If a government lacked a secure parliamentary majority, then parliament would clearly count for more. Whether this would merely produce turbulence and instability or a strengthening of parliament as an institution it is difficult to say. Previous experiences of such situations are not encouraging in this respect. However, it is at least possible that coalition partners (if it came to coalition government) might press the case for institutional reforms to make parliament work differently, sharing power rather than concentrating it. This is certainly more likely than a single opposition party coming to power with a secure majority and implementing a major reform programme—whatever that party might say in opposition.

The development which would transform the prospects for parliament is a changed electoral system, perhaps as a consequence of the sort of political circumstances just described, when coalition partners exact a price for their co-operation or a major party decides that its long-term fortunes are better served by a shift away from a simple plurality voting system. There have been moments in the past when such developments have seemed possible, if not likely, including the establishment by Tony Blair of an electoral reform commission under Roy Jenkins. Such moments may come again, and now in a context where there are already a variety of electoral systems in the UK. The effects of the latter have been precisely those anticipated, pluralising power and creating a new kind of relationship between the executive and the representative institution.

This is not intended as an argument for electoral reform for Westminster, simply a statement that a changed voting system would have transforming implications for parliament. If parliament is like it is because our political system is like it is, then a change that would fundamentally alter the political system would necessarily have huge implications for how parliament operated.

It is worth registering in all this talk of reform that parliament performs some functions extremely well. It provides an arena in which the party battle is conducted on a continuous basis, and where brute accountabilities are demanded and identified. It makes, and destroys, reputations. Most MPs are tireless in the service of their constituencies. None of this should be dismissed lightly. Yet its failings are serious too, and now require to be remedied. Above all it fails in the task of continuous scrutiny and accountability—something becoming even tougher to achieve as EU legislation complicates the picture. It is content to exchange appearance for substance, and daily adversarialism for grown-up debate.

Parliament remains our central representative institution. Whatever other channels there may now be to debate issues, represent views and enforce accountability, parliament still sits at the apex of formal representation. It may be too much to say that it is an institution in crisis, but there is a growing feeling that it is falling down on the job expected of it.

A longer version of this article will appear in a special edition of "Parliamentary Affairs" in October