This series of lectures came at the end of the most turbulent Parliament in living memory. The expenses scandal aggravated, but did not create, a growing sense of public disenchantment with the world of Westminster. Even before a vote has been cast at the general election, a record number of MPs have decided to leave the House of Commons.
The scandals – both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords – have triggered wide-ranging demands for reform. The revelations over MPs’ misconduct led to legislation ending control by MPs over their own expenses and allowances and the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to take over this role. Further proposals would also make IPSA responsible for pay and pensions. In the Lords, too, the suspension of two peers over ‘cash for amendments’ allegations led to a review of its code of conduct and the creation of a commissioner, similar to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the Commons. Proposals to reform the system of payments to peers have also been made by the Senior Salaries Review Body, though the changes will not be completed until after the general election.
However, the scandals have also prompted soul-searching about the role and effectiveness of Parliament itself. One of the most striking, and damaging, findings in the Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement was the sharp decline in the number of people regarding Parliament as an important institution affecting them. Leading parliamentarians are well aware of these attitudes and many have been arguing for reform of their procedures for many years.
Last autumn, the Hansard Society hosted a lecture by Mr Speaker, John Bercow, who made a number of proposals for strengthening the role of backbenchers, and a lecture by the Lord Speaker, Baroness Hayman discussing ways in which the Upper House had changed and needs to change further. We decided to take this series further by inviting leading representatives of the three main national parties to give their thoughts on parliamentary reform in March 2010, in the closing weeks before the election campaign started. These lectures came just after the debates and votes by the Commons to accept the thrust of the package proposed by a special select committee chaired by Tony Wright to have the chairs and members of select committees elected and to create a new House Business Committee to decide on the allocation and timing of non- government business.
These are important changes but all three lecturers – Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor, who has taken a close interest in the Commons throughout his career; David Howarth, his Liberal Democrat shadow who has made a big impact on constitutional issues during his five years in the Commons; and Sir George Young, the Shadow Leader of the Commons, and a long-time champion of Commons reform – each highlighted areas where more needs to happen. There were disagreements – for instance, between Mr Straw and Sir George – over the impact of a reduction in the number of MPs by equalising the size of constituencies, and between Mr Howarth and the others over electoral reform.
But there was agreement by all three on the need to build on the Wright reforms – not only in the internal procedures of the Commons but also, particularly, in trying to re-engage voters with Parliament; to renew the legitimacy of representative democracy. Longstanding proposals for electronic petitions have so far gone nowhere – and need to be addressed. There are now more ambitious proposals for voters to be able to set the agenda by triggering debates and the presentation of bills – though final decisions would still remain with MPs.
It is misleading to believe that the general election and big changes in the membership of the Commons will be enough to restore confidence, let alone trust, in Parliament. Far more needs to be done. These lectures point the way.
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