When as an MP I go into work to the legislature today and pick up the House of Commons agenda I will hold a timetable written exclusively by the very government that we are meant to hold to account. Nothing more starkly reveals the central truth and problem of British politics: that there is no proper separation of powers. The myth of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ is an ever more flimsy delusion that now barely covers the core corruption of our politics - executive sovereignty.
Even the slightest challenge by the parliamentary midgets produces a roar of outrage from the 800lb gorilla of executive power. The 2010 Coalition Agreement included a clear commitment from the government to implement the Wright Committee’s recommendations for reforms to the House of Commons, stating:
“We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full — starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”
Despite this unambiguous statement, no action has been taken to implement this central recommendation made by the Wright Committee, and the government has now made it very clear that it has no intention of honouring its promise to establish a House Business Committee at all.
It seems governments of all complexions still fear an active, independent parliament, rather than having the confidence to see it as a partner. The Select Committee that I chair bent over backwards to help the government honour its promise, offering assorted compromises and possibilities but to no avail. As things stand at present, parliament is unable to even influence its own agenda, and remains a supplicant in its own House.
This was at the best moment for reform in my political lifetime with an historically high number of new MP’S, an executive divided by being in coalition and a clear proposition for change from Wright. Yet even in these helpful circumstances parliamentarians have only won the election of Select Committee Chairs and members and a Backbench Business Committee. All of these excellent gains can be quickly repealed when normal working resumes once parliament is taken over again by an incoming one party government. Desperate to inherit this bloated over-centralised power the race between the front benches of both main parties to be the least reforming incoming government in 2015 is already too close to call.
On 5 December my Committee published the government’s response to our report on Revisiting “Rebuilding the House”: the impact of the Wright reforms. Our report reviewed progress since 2009 on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons—known as the Wright Committee after its Chair, Dr Tony Wright.
Our report recommended:
- A key Wright recommendation—a House Business Committee which would give backbenchers an influence on the rest of the House’s agenda—can and should be introduced without delay. The Coalition Agreement said in 2010 that the Committee would be established by the third year of this parliament. The Committee argued that a consultative House Business Committee should be established, to give the House greater control over its time, whilst recognising real world constraints.
- The House’s petitions procedure is failing to meet public expectations. There is too much confusion between the roles of government and parliament. The Committee argued that there is still a case for the establishment of a petitions committee and recommends that officials work up a detailed and costed proposition which could then be put to the House for its endorsement.
Our report proposed a detailed model for a House Business Committee. It would have enabled the government to redeem its original Coalition pledge to introduce such a Committee, while ensuring that the government’s programme was still considered in a timely way. The government’s response rejected this proposal, saying that, although the Committee’s suggestion had “some merits”, there were also weaknesses.
I am disappointed that the government has not responded more positively to a serious attempt to find a way forward that serves the needs of Ministers and backbenchers alike, and I am unconvinced by the government’s attempts to justify its inactivity.
On e-petitions, the government questioned our assertion that the system was failing to meet public expectations, but agreed that “there is a case for some form of petitions Committee, which could provide support for petitioners, help the House determine what should be debated and help facilitate the provision of responses by the government, where appropriate.” This reaction was more encouraging than its response to many of our recommendations, and I am pleased that the government agrees that there is a case for some form of Petitions Committee to support petitioners and help provide effective responses.
Our Report also renewed our call for the government to commit to submitting legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny before presenting it to the House. Giving Select Committees the opportunity to scrutinise legislation in draft form improves the quality of Bills that are passed into law, not least by providing an early warning on problems. The recent Transparency of Lobbying Bill shows what can happen if the government attempts to dispense with this vital part of the scrutiny process. The government has now had to pause the Bill in the House of Lords to attempt to rectify problems that would never have made it into the final text if a draft Bill had been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. However, the government appears to favour “flexibility” over effective scrutiny, and rejected our view that pre-legislative scrutiny should be mandatory unless there is an accepted and pressing need for immediate legislation— something which is very rarely the case.
I strongly believe that the Wright process has strengthened parliament in many ways—not least through the election of Select Committee Chairs and members—but there is still a great deal to be done. I am pleased that the government stated that it “will continue to support efforts to improve the effectiveness of parliament”, but it needs to make firm commitments to how this will be done over the 18 months remaining in this parliament. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee looks forward to the government’s support as it pursues its work on making the legislature as effective as possible.