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The New Speaker

June 15, 2009

 The New Speaker

Next week’s election of a new Commons’ Speaker is widely anticipated as the starting point for a brief period of frenetic parliamentary reform.

We should grasp this rare opportunity in the aftermath of the Allowances scandal to implement overdue, but lasting reforms to the way politics operates.

Pare back the control exercised by the Executive

Successive governments (and Opposition leaderships) shoulder much of the blame for the parliamentary expenses fiasco that has blown up so spectacularly over the past six weeks, having festered for many years. We have witnessed the repeated grandstanding by Party leaders, refusing to implement independent salary reviews but then turning a blind eye to the cynical – and at its extreme, fraudulent – manipulation of the second home allowance (whose annual uplift was never reduced, reversed or even capped) as a salary substitute.

Naturally the 24/7 media world in which politics operates militates towards close-unit teams around any Party leadership being ‘on message’. However I have been greatly encouraged by David Cameron’s surefooted response in recent weeks (a sentiment that has been echoed in correspondence from constituents). He has also explicitly accepted that the powers of Executive patronage (including his own) should be curtailed.

Select Committees to exercise real power

The appointment of all members of Select Committees should be by secret ballot of all MPs. Chairmanships have too often been handed out by the Executive to former Ministers or senior backbenchers on the basis of their compliance and willingness not to ‘rock the boat’. Scrutiny is largely illusory – remember that the most used oxymoron in politics is the phrase ‘the influential Select Committee’.

Select Committees should also be much smaller (ideally numbering between five and eight MPs) and all its Members should be fully committed to acquiring or developing genuine expertise in their field. Currently we witness the charade of ill-prepared MPs (on the rare occasions when they attend) parroting out planted questions cobbled together by the committee clerk rather than even pretending to hold witnesses or Ministers to genuine account.

A much smaller House of Commons

At the risk of talking myself out of a constituency (curiously MPs proposing a reduction in the size of the Commons invariably tend to be on the cusp of retirement) I reckon there ought to be a substantial reduction in the size of parliament. Conservative Party policy of a 10% cut in the size of the House of Commons should only be seen as a first step. Ideally a fixed sized parliament of 450 or 500 Members should be our medium-term goal. As a consequence the primary priority of all MPs should be the holding of the Executive to account, rather than acting as a local ombudsman on constituency issues more appropriately dealt with by local authorities, law centres and citizens’ advice bureaux to name but three publicly funded bodies properly designed to deal with parochial concerns.

Begin the process of separating the Legislature from the Executive

The final element of my wish list is probably a step too far even for my more reform-minded colleagues….for now, at least. However, if parliament is to have any future relevance beyond making up the essential numerical armies required by any government to get their legislation onto the statute book, we should regard law-making as an end in itself rather than as an essential stepping stone towards holding ministerial office.

There is a rather important caveat that needs to be addressed before we begin the headlong rush towards empowering individual parliamentarians.

The fact is that many – perhaps even, most – MPs themselves do not regard any of the foregoing as their main role, still less the constitutional duty of holding the Executive to account. Instead the House of Commons increasingly consists of a cadre of über-councillors, focusing much of their attention and burgeoning workload in a constituency focused comfort zone.

What does this all mean for the UK? Curiously, now that the price of our national profligacy has been put into sharp focus, policymakers seem determined to return to business as usual. Further borrowing and the maintenance of historically high levels of public expenditure seem the order of the day, as government remains reluctant to prepare voters for some very inconvenient truths. With typical impatience, the media is already beginning to ask when the recession will end as it hunts for green shoots in every dark corner.

No doubt, local connections to one’s seat are important. So too should MPs be responsive to the concerns of their constituents. The question is whether this generation of MPs and the next will be equipped to play its key role in the transformative parliament that democratic renewal so desperately requires.