Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Parliamentary Reform

Last night the Hansard Society held a meeting at which the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw spoke. It was part of their "Parliamentary Reform Lecture Series". Mr Straw began by making the important point that constitutions are about how power is distributed.

The Lord Chancellor argued that a strong Executive, able to get its business through, is a strength of the British system. "Things get done". He contrasted this with the difficulties that President Obama faced in passing healthcare legislation - and expressed the view that had Britain adopted the American system, Nye Bevan would have been unable to create the National Health Service in the 1940s - to the great detriment of millions of British people.

But Mr Straw recognised that there is an imbalance between the Government and Parliament needing to be addressed.

The myth of a supine Parliament was challenged. Mr Straw argued that there was never a 'golden age' - and supported his arguments from comments made from 1895 to 1976. He pointed out that in the 1970s the government really did have the upper hand. There were no select committees - no broadcasting of Parliament - no Freedom of Information Act. The power of the whips has been greatly reduced since. The House of Lords was largely a docile body (at least when there were Conservative governments).

The Lord Chancellor put forward the proposition that reform has transformed Parliament since 1997. In support of this he pointed to

  • the way that select committees had been enhanced (paying handsome tribute to Mrs Thatcher for allowing Norman St John Stevas to set up the system of Departmental Select Committees)
  • the removal of hundreds of hereditary peers from the House of Lords - which is now smaller but more active and assertive
  • the establishment of the Grand Committee in Westminster Hall which offers greatly increased opportunity for MPs to raise issues
  • the creation of the Scrutiny Unit to assist committees
  • establishment of a regular practice of the Liaison Committee questioning the Prime Minister
  • introduction of "topical questions" in the Commons Chamber
  • more written Parliamentary Questions accepted than ever before
  • buttressing MPs' ability to get information through the Freedom of Information Act
  • the requirement in s19 of the Human Rights Acts for Ministers to state whether the bill they are presenting is in their opinion compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (something which he said had "changed the way Government operates"
  • pre- and post- legislative scrutiny
  • the replacement of Standing Committees in the legislative process with Public Bill Committees which are able to take evidence
  • the programming of bills. Mr Straw recognised the validity of some of the criticism of this - but noted that they avoided the unnecessary filibustering and guillotines which had curtailed real discussion of legislation. He argued that under the old system little scrutiny took place while the opposition were filibustering - then a guillotine would be imposed allowing very little meaningful scrutiny. He acknowledged that there was a need for more scrutiny on the floor and suggested that time limits on speeches rather than programme motions may be the best way to move ahead.

Four major areas for reform were highlighted

  1. Commons Reform - which was now moving ahead in the wake of the expenses scandal
  2. Lords Reform - upon which he said "the time has now come to complete the process"
  3. Wider Constitutional Reform - focusing on - the electoral system and addressing the crisis of trust.
  4. Discussing the balance between Direct and Representative Democracy (He pointed to recent events in California and Switzerland as warnings about too great direct democracy)

Mr Straw's final remarks concerned Conservative proposals for cutting the size of the House of Commons. He made an impassioned attack on this proposal - which is not to be put to the British people in a referendum, and which had not been discussed with other parties. He described it as "a dangerous piece of gerrymandering" which would disproportionately reduce the representation of urban areas, Scotland and Wales. He pointed to the Electoral Reform Society which had warned that the proposal would destabilise the link between constituents and MPs.

Details of this speech - and future meetings in the Parliamentary Reform Lecture Series will be available on the Hansard Society website.