Wednesday, 28 March 2007

How can backbenchers be more effective?

I mentioned (14th March) the work that was being undertaken by the Modernisation Committee into the role of backbenchers.

The committee has been meeting on Wednesday mornings - and the evidence is published on their website. A number of issues have been raised - and I'm sure we will be discussing specfic topics in detail over the weeks ahead.

This morning I attended the hearing at which John Bercow MP (Con); Martin Salter MP (Lab) and Andrew Dismore MP (Lab) gave evidence. There was a real buzz in committee room 15 as the witnesses and members of the committee discussed ways of making the UK parliament - and its members - more effective.

Jack Straw (Leader of the House - and Chair of the Modernisation Committee) began by asking about "the retreat into constituency work" which has been observed at Westminster. Martin Salter corrected him, "not a retreat, but a tidal wave". He highlighted the need to put extra resources into aiding MPs deal with the massive increase in communications from constituents. Jack Straw recalled that in the 1950s the average member received 15 to 25 letters a week - now MPs are deluged with letters; postcards from constituents backing professionally organised campaigns by pressure groups; telephone calls and - most of all - email.

Mr Salter made the point - which most people in the room seemed to agree with - that if MPs are to meet the increased expectations of their constituents - they need the resources and staff - to meet them. John Bercow stated that MPs need to boldly argue the case for increased resources - and the campaign must be championed by the Leader of the House - particularly in the face of a predictable cynical reaction from the media.

Other matters raised included the value of Early Day Motions. Martin Salter described them as "parliamentary graffiti". [well that was better than 'parliamentary loo paper', a definition given by someone later]. These are "petitions" exclusively for MPs

[Definition from Parliamentary Website -

Early day motions (EDMs) are formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons. However, very few EDMs are actually debated. Instead, they are used for reasons such as publicising the views of individual MPs, drawing attention to specific events or campaigns, and demonstrating the extent of parliamentary support for a particular cause or point of view. ]

There was a suggestion, favourably received, that should an EDM attract a certain number of signatures, say 200, it should trigger a debate in the chamber of the House of Commons.

There were calls for more frequent topical debates. John Bercow said that chamber debates should be 'topical, relevant and subject to an outcome'.

Continuing professional development of MPs was also discussed. Already many MPs participate in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme or on a placement arranged by the Industry & Parliament Trust. It was suggested that MPs could serve internships with specialists in a field they wish to specialise in.

Dawn Butler raised a smile when she asked the witnesses, "does this place beat the modernisation out of you?"

This is a committee worth watching - and we can discuss some of their ideas in this forum - I hope you will!