Recent events herald a new opportunity to develop a more substantial and far reaching programme for reform of Parliament generally and the House of Commons in particular. A rare moment in politics has arrived when a confluence of circumstances and events means the current political imperatives point firmly in the direction of radical rather than incremental change.
An effective, well functioning Parliament has a unique and essential role at the apex of our representative democracy. It exercises two core but contradictory functions. Firstly, it sustains the executive by giving assent to its legislative programme, and secondly, through detailed scrutiny and monitoring, it is the principal means for holding the executive to account on behalf of the public.
Parliament’s authority rests on public confidence and consent. Last year our research demonstrated that only 19% of the public thought Parliament was working for them.1 So public trust and confidence, already at a low ebb, has been exacerbated still further by the expenses scandal. In the normal order of things, a general election would serve as a cleansing moment for the body politic. However, this scandal affects not just the incumbent party of government but all parties across the political spectrum. It is a crisis affecting the entire political class. Consequently, it raises difficult and far-reaching questions about the institutional design, structure and functions of our representative parliamentary democracy.
Parliamentary and constitutional reform – or the lack thereof – was not the cause of, and will not be the solution to, the problems with parliamentary expenses, allowances and potential conflicts of interest. But as a direct result of the enormity of recent events, a rare cross-party consensus on the need for far reaching systemic reform in order to re-establish the authority and legitimacy of parliamentarians individually and Parliament institutionally may now be emerging.
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