Babysteps on the road to Parliamentary reform

Alexandra Runswick
25 November 2009

The publication of the House of Commons Reform Committee’s report Rebuilding Parliament is a small but crucial step to reforming Parliament.  The principles of strengthening Select Committees (one of the few areas of effective scrutiny in Parliament) and rebalancing power from the Executive to Parliament itself are important.  The Committee’s terms of reference meant that radical reform was never going to be likely but they do move in the right direction.  For those of us who share Graham Allen MP’s frustration about the pace of change in Parliament and his sense that more fundamental change is required, the challenge is to support what is good in this report and fight for more. If Parliament can at least recognise the necessity of these fairly basic reforms then maybe there is hope that we can push them further.

As Unlock Democracy has pointed out, the huge gap in this report is the need for electoral reform. There is little hope of rebalancing power within Parliament while we have an electoral system that allows one party to dominate the House of Commons with a minority of votes. Where the voting system creates safe seats where MPs are more dependent for their election on their party label than voters, how can there true accountability? The Single Transferable Vote or some Open List systems would be more proportional so that the number of seats each party won broadly reflected the number of votes cast.  Crucially it would also allow voters to choose between not only the different parties but also different candidates standing for the same party.

They may not be exciting, but there are some sensible, long-overdue proposals in the report.  It seems obvious to most people outside Parliament that the chairs and members of Select Committees should be elected and that backbench MPs should have the right to table a substantive motion in the House of Commons and have it voted on.  It’s shocking that our elected representatives can’t do that. Moving backbench business to Wednesday, when all MPs should be in Westminster rather than leaving it to the end of the week, when most rush back to their constituencies is also a good idea.

The proposals for engaging the public are weak, as Unlock Democracy and the Hansard Society have both pointed out.   The Committee’s endorsement of agenda initiative, the system where voters can petition to have a topic debated, is very welcome. However the Committee’s position on petitioning is particularly confused. Rather than suggesting a Petitions Committee as has operated very successfully in Holyrood for the last ten years, the Committee has endorsed Procedure Committee’s complicated and bureaucratic proposals for e-petitions.  

Would I like far more radical reform of Parliament? Absolutely - and Unlock Democracy will continue to campaign for a stronger and more accountable Parliament which genuinely engages with voters rather than seeing them as an inconvenience.  Having said that, I do think these proposals need our support.  They are not perfect, but they are important first steps in towards the ability of Parliament to hold the Executive to account.  Reform of Parliament, even when the changes seem obvious, is often slow. Even changing the name of the area where the public sit to watch debates in the House of Commons from the Strangers Gallery to the Public Gallery, was considered a step too far by some Parliamentarians. 

It is important to remember that there are ‘small c’ conservative elements in Parliament, not to mention the Whips’ offices, who would happily abandon even these baby steps in the direction of a stronger, more effective Parliament. I understand that there have already been discussions with some senior Parliamentarians about watering down or preferably blocking these reforms. We cannot allow that to happen.  That is why I have joined Jo Swinson MP’s campaign in support of the proposals and urge you to do the same. Reform of the Parliament is a journey and while I would love MPs to take several giant strides, I want to make sure they at least make a start.

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