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House Of Commons Reform

December 15, 2009

Competition: The Ultimate Consumer

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I welcome the fact that we are having this debate today and I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) for introducing it. Regrettably, I must say that I do not entirely agree with the thrust of what he said. I am afraid that the report to which he has referred was far too timid; it needed to be a good deal more robust. I accept that there was an element of compromise about it and one certainly hopes that at least what has been proposed in the report will go through as a starting-point to what I think will be a radical reform.

I say that because I think that there is little doubt that the allowances scandal, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, will cause what I suspect will be the largest shake-up in parliamentary practice since the Great Reform Act of 1832, and not before time. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the momentous upheaval in 1832 came as a result of a crisis of confidence in many other institutions. At that time, it was the established Church of England and the monarchy-after the scandals that had surrounded George IV and George III before him-that were in crisis. Of course, today’s crisis in confidence in Parliament arrives hot on the heels of an unprecedented economic firestorm in the past two years, whereby the catastrophe that has befallen financial institutions has shaken public confidence in the capitalist system and with the inquiry that is currently being conducted into our going to war in Iraq there is again a sense that the Executive has been allowed to get away with blue murder.

However, I feel that the reforming steps that we have taken so far will not necessarily be sufficient. In the next Parliament, I suspect that we will see a huge turnover of MPs, even without the turnover that my own party hopes will happen as far as the general election result is concerned. However, there is a concern that we will be filling this House with a lot of inexperienced men and women who will regard themselves as being little more than cheerleaders for their party leaders. The worst possible outcome, in my view, would be the reinforcement of a parliamentary class made up of people with little or no experience outside the political sphere.

It is also possible that expenses woes will encourage many of Edmund Burke’s “good men”, and women, simply to give up on the idea of democracy. I do not lament the scandal’s unveiling, but I mourn the hopeless way that politicians dealt with a time bomb that had been waiting to go off for years, as many of us recognised. It did not have to be that way. We must grasp the rare opportunity in the aftermath of the scandal to implement overdue but lasting reforms.

I reiterate some of what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said. First, we must pare back the control exercised by the Executive. In my view, successive Governments and Opposition leaderships deserve much of the blame for the parliamentary expenses fiasco that has blown up so spectacularly over the past six months. We have witnessed repeated grandstanding by party leaders who refused to implement independent salary reviews but turned 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, and which became a salary substitute. The 24/7 media world in which politics operates militates in favour of any close-knit team around party leadership being on message, but Executive patronage must now be curtailed.

I agree with much of what was said about Select Committees. They need to exercise real power. In my view, the appointment of all Select Committee members, not just Chairmen, should be by a secret ballot of all MPs. As was rightly pointed out, chairmanships have too often been handed out by the Executive to former Ministers or senior Back Benchers on the basis of their compliance and willingness not to rock the boat. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to the late Gwyneth Dunwoody and to Ian Gibson. Unfortunately, they are the exceptions that prove the rule about our Select Committee system. One of the biggest oxymorons in British politics is a phrase that one often hears in the media: “the influential Select Committee”.

Select Committees should be much smaller. I am grateful that the report goes in that direction. The number mooted was 11, but in my view, Select Committees should number between five and eight members, who should all be fully committed to acquiring or developing genuine expertise in the field. The current situation involves a ludicrous charade in which ill-prepared MPs, on the rare occasions when they attend, parrot planted questions cobbled together by a Committee Clerk rather than even pretending to hold witnesses or Ministers genuinely to account.

We should also have a much smaller House of Commons, although I risk talking myself out of a constituency. Curiously, the only Members who tend to propose reductions in the size of the Commons are those on the cusp of retirement. I see a few such individuals here. [Interruption.] I hasten to add that in their case it is voluntary retirement rather than involuntary. The size of Parliament should be reduced substantially. My party’s policy is a 10 per cent. reduction, but I think that that should be a first step. Ideally, a fixed-size Parliament of 450 to 500 Members should be our medium-term goal. The primary priority of all MPs, therefore, should be holding the Executive to account rather than acting as local ombudsmen 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.

I would like the process of separating the legislature from the Executive to begin. That final element of my wish list is probably a step too far even for my more reform-minded colleagues, for now at least. If Parliament is to have any future relevance beyond making up the numerical armies required by Governments to pass their legislation, we should regard law-making as an end in itself rather than an essential stepping stone towards holding ministerial office. My preference-it will not happen at this election, but perhaps at some future election-is to have two votes on election day, so people can vote for the Prime Minister and for their local Member of Parliament. It might well result in a split slate, but I do not think that that would be an unhealthy state of affairs.

There is one important caveat, which I mentioned in my intervention, that must be addressed before we begin a headlong rush to empower individual parliamentarians. Many MPs-perhaps even most of us-do not regard any of the foregoing, and still less the constitutional duty of holding the Executive to account, as their main role. Increasingly, the House of Commons consists of a cadre of super-councillors who keep much of their attention and their burgeoning work load in a constituency-focused comfort zone. We are all proud of the work that we do in our constituencies, and it is important to have a finger on the pulse, but if we are to ensure reform and put power back into the hands of Parliament, this generation of MPs and the next must be properly equipped to play their key role in the transformative Parliament that democratic renewal in this country so desperately needs.