Thursday, 21 October 2010

Should we get rid of whips?

As I am currently working on a study of whips in the UK Parliament and US Congress, I was very interested in the Ten Minute Rule Bill proposed by Wellingborough MP, Peter Bone. Although the Bill got its first reading on Tuesday - there is little chance of it progressing further. Mr Bone was using the prime time opportunity to make criticisms of the system of whipping in the House of Commons.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con):  I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to disqualify for membership of the House of Commons any person who holds the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, Deputy Chief Whip, Government Whip, Assistant Government Whip, Chief Opposition Whip or Assistant Opposition Whip; and for connected purposes.

I am introducing the Bill to rebuild trust in politics. We have a problem in Parliament. A Bill

"gets sent to the House of Commons where it's debated without diligence-because automatic guillotines cut time short. It's passed without proper scrutiny-because standing committees for Public Bills are stuffed with puppets of the Government. And it's voted through without much of a whisper-because MPs have been whipped to follow the party line.

We've got to give Parliament its teeth back so that people can have pride in it again-so they can look at it and say 'yes: those MPs we elect-they're holding the government to account on my behalf.'"

Those are not my words, but the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. One may even say that his words are uttered in the same spirit as those of Edmund Burke, the great Conservative thinker, who in 1774 said of the perfect Member of Parliament that

"his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice . . . to any set of men living."

That is what we as Members of Parliament should do, and what Parliament itself was set up to do. We should be acting on behalf of our constituents and, using our "'unbiased opinion" and "mature judgment", scrutinising every piece of legislation that comes our way to hold the Government properly to account, regardless of party politics. But Burke could surely not have foreseen how difficult it is today for a Member of Parliament to live up to his ideal. Sadly, all too many of us do indeed succumb to pressure from a very particular "set of men living"-that is, the flatterers, cajolers and sometime bullies who make up our party Whips.

Parliament was originally intended to act as a check on the Executive and to hold it to account, yet with the advent of the party and such concepts as party loyalty and party manifestos, Members of Parliament have put their individual judgment to one side increasingly frequently and, more often than not, are treated by the Whips as little more than sheep. In fact, the Whips even divide Members into groups which they call flocks. These flocks are then blindly herded into Division Lobbies and told to vote a particular way on a subject that they know nothing about. Many Members of Parliament today go through the Lobby not even knowing what part of the Bill they are voting on.

Such behaviour is an insult to our constituents and to British democracy. It was particularly bad under the last Labour Government, when the Whips, working in secret, skilfully used flattery, enticement, patronage, threats and downright bullying to get Members of Parliament to ignore their better judgment and, in many cases, the opinions of their constituents, and vote in whichever way the former Prime Minister wanted.

The ways of the Whips Office are, by their very nature, secretive. After all, what party would want the public knowing precisely to what lengths a few men and women will go to secure what they arrogantly assume to be the best option for the country?

Let me give the House just one story, an example of how the Whips blatantly use disinformation even in the current Session. The disinformation in question concerned the Backbench Business Committee. The Whips sent an e-mail to Members claiming that the Committee had decided always to hold its business on a Thursday and to table motions for discussion only a day or so before. Both those alleged facts were completely incorrect. It was in fact the Whips Office that decided that the debate should be on a Thursday, against the advice of the Wright report, and the Committee should have been given earlier days in the parliamentary week, not Thursdays. It was also entirely untrue to state that the Committee tabled motions only a day or so before the debate; the Committee normally provides several weeks' notice. The purpose of that disinformation was clearly to show the Committee in a bad light to Members, because it will inevitably take power away from the Whips.

It is frankly astonishing to think that, in an age when employees have more rights than ever before, and workplace bullying has thankfully become increasingly unacceptable, Members are still treated in such a manner. If I were to treat my staff in that way, even for an instant, I would quite rightly be taken to an employment tribunal and sued faster than you can say, "Your career is over." Yet, it is through those unsavoury and often underhand methods that the Whips use to ensure that the party line is strictly obeyed. The public are therefore denied independent-minded Members and, indeed, the Parliament that they deserve.

What is more frustrating is that the individual members of the Whips Office are often very talented Members who would be better employed helping to run a Department or seated on the Back Benches holding the Government to account, rather than wasting their time as Whips. In my experience, Whips are extremely hard working and carry out their functions, including their pastoral care, with great diligence. Nor am I saying that they have not in the past usefully performed certain functions to ensure the smooth running of the House, such as communicating Back-Benchers' views to the leadership and vice versa, and organising House business. Yet, with the admirable and long-awaited changes to Parliament which our new Government have already enacted, such as setting up the Backbench Business Committee and the soon-to-be-created business of the House committee, business could be organised perfectly well without the Whips and the usual channels.

Although my Bill would abolish the position of Whip, it would not abolish the Whips Office, an entity already run by civil servants and which would continue to deal with day-to-day House administration. As for the channels of communication between the leadership and Back Benchers, in each party there are vocal Back-Bench groups, such as my party's 1922 committee, which perform such a function admirably and efficiently.

The position of Whip could be made redundant easily. The only role left for Whips to perform is that of strong-arming Members and ensuring a less democratic and efficient Parliament as a result. The public are clearly crying out for a change in the way that Parliament operates. They want a less powerful and overbearing Executive, and Members who are able to represent their views and use their judgment, not Members who act just as Lobby fodder in order to rubber-stamp the decisions of the Executive, blindly following the party's view and not even knowing what Bill they are voting on.

This Parliament is moving steadily towards a separation of its powers from those of the Executive. My Bill is a further step on that progressive journey. In fact, it would benefit not only British democracy but the British economy. Following recent events, the public have become increasingly irritated by the scale of expenditure, yet by abolishing the Whips' positions we would save approximately £6.5 million per Parliament in ministerial salaries-a quite extraordinary amount. Surely it is only right that alongside the Prime Minister's plans to reduce the number of Members of Parliament, we make at least some effort to reduce the size of the Government.

I should like to end by quoting the words of a man who I know has the best interests of our democracy and our country at heart:

"We will give the House of Commons more control over its own timetable so there is proper time for scrutiny and debate. We will make MPs more independent, with more free votes so that they can vote as they wish and not as they're told to."

Those were the words of our new Prime Minister, uttered in 2009 in his powerful speech about rebuilding the connection between Parliament and the people. I am introducing this Bill to try to help the Prime Minister to achieve his aim.

The Bill was allowed to proceed to first reading - MPs can vote to refuse that - but one MP did speak up on the subject -

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con):  I yield to no one in my admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who has a proven track record of raising thought-provoking questions. His speech has raised a thought-provoking question in my mind-why he has not given much more weight to the pastoral care that the Government Whips Office, and indeed the Opposition Whips Office, gives to individual Members.

I make this point not because I am a Whips' nark-although it is for other hon. Members to judge whether that is the case-or because I am a member of that formidable trade union, the ex-Whips Office, but rather because in the past six months I have had experience of the personal advice, support and care of Her Majesty's Government's Whips Office. That has been given to my staff and to me; it was necessary after my temporary leave of absence after the general election.

I suggest to hon. Members that they view the Whips Office, or the Opposition Whips Office, as being bit like the NHS. We hope that we never need it, but it is very good to know that it is there if we do. That has been my experience. All of us in this place come into politics because we want to serve, and that calling brings with it its own unique demands. I am not for one second suggesting that we are a special case in that sense, but I would suggest that most other jobs have very highly developed human resources or personnel departments that individuals can go to. In this House, we do not have a similar support network-except, that is, for the Whips Office. The House relies on the Whips Office for the delivery of pastoral care. In my case, that has resulted in my full return to health and a full recovery. I hasten to add that I do not want to overdo it-it was not just the Whips Office that delivered my speedy return, but the Whips Office contributed to it, and I must say that I am enjoying it hugely.

It is for those reasons that I oppose the Bill. I am aware, however, that there is important business to be got through this evening, and I will therefore not force the matter to a Division.

My studies are exploring many of the issues (and a lot more besides) raised in that brief debate.