Stung by the fear of irrelevance and the Hutton inquiry, parliament is little by little becoming a more effective scrutineerby Tony Wright / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
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…