openDemocracyUK

Coalition delivers on reforms to strengthen parliament

Andrew Blick
21 June 2010

While some are proclaiming the death of Thatcherism, in some senses the Coalition government is following the pattern of the Thatcher governments; and not only in the field of fiscal and budgetary policy. 

Early on in her tenure, a set of reforms to the House of Commons proposed in the previous Parliament, namely the establishment of a set of Select Committeees shadowing particular Whitehall departments, were enacted, a major development in the role of the House as an assessor of government policy.

Thatcher soon came to regret this change - a sure sign that the committees were doing something right - but in practice reversing it was not considered a practical option. Similarly, in the early days of the Coalition government, recommendations from 2009 by the Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, set up under the chairmanship of the then (Labour) MP Tony Wright at the request of the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have been put into affect.

The most significant of these measures are the election of the chairs and members of select committees (rather than their being in effect appointed by the whips); and the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee, which will enable backbench MPs collectively to decide how to use the time available to them (roughly one day a week) and make the Commons more responsive to contemporary concerns.

The former change had already been written into the Standing Orders in the previous Parliament, but the latter, though voted for in principle by MPs, had been delayed. Both are to be welcomed because they create a Parliament better equipped to perform its task of holding government to account.  As Graham Allen MP put it last week: 

Governments should welcome a strong Parliament. A strong Parliament is not a threat; it helps to produce better law and better value for money. It makes life better for our citizens. It complements and is a partner to Government, occasionally drawing attention to their defects. 

But those of us who support these shifts should not assume that a complete victory has yet been won. A particular cause for concern is that the existence of the Backbench Business Committee is not as secure as it might be and will be subject to a review after a year. If in the meantime the government has begun to have second thoughts about the value of a strong Parliament - as it did in the Thatcher era - it may seek means of diluting this valuable reform. 

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