By refusing a Commons debate on the Wright committee’s proposals, the government shows it is not interested in reform
Originally posted on the Guardian’s Comment is free
On Thursday of last week, Sir Thomas Legg reported that more than half of MPs needed to pay back money they’d claimed in the previous five years, amounting to over £1m. That is an indictment of parliament – even before any proper consideration has been given to the practice of flipping second home designations and/or capital gains tax avoidance on the sale of second homes, which amounts, on the lowest estimate, to tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
Even on that day, MPs were still complaining about the judgments made in their cases, as if they were the victims, rather than the taxpayer. It is no surprise that the public’s view of their parliamentary representatives is that they are paid too well for doing too little.
It is therefore a missed opportunity of huge proportions that Harriet Harman, the leader of the House of Commons, has confirmed that reform of parliament itself would be dealt with in a way that could not have been designed better to demonstrate a collective unwillingness by MPs to reform the way in which they (fail to) perform their role.
Despite it being the primary role of the people’s representatives to scrutinise the executive and keep it in check, MPs are lousy at holding the government to account. It’s outrageous that important bills curtailing the freedoms of the British people, or governing the way our life and economy is shaped, can go through the Commons with many of the contentious matters never even being debated, let alone voted on.
It’s astonishing, too, that the Commons is not in charge of its own business. It cannot even decide what it debates and when: only the government can. The government can arrange, or rather fix, the report stage of bills (the only time at which the house as a whole gets to vote on specific issues and amendments) to ensure that the contentious parts are not debated and that any rebellions are avoided by putting the issue so far down the order paper that it’s never reached.
The recent Coroners and Justice Act – to mention just one of many – contained significant amendments to the law on murder, mercy killing, manslaughter and assisted suicide. While the media debates these matters and the public expects its MPs to, these weren’t even discussed in two days of debate because of the way the government organised the guillotines, as I protested, with no consultation and without regard to the lack of propriety involved in seeing the elected house passing laws “on the nod”. No other self-respecting democracy would tolerate this control of the agenda by the government.
When Gordon Brown was first elected to – I mean, appointed to – I mean, inherited – the prime ministership, he said he wanted to reform parliament. So far, we have seen nothing really change. Even the few measures that are included in the constitutional renewal and governance bill have little chance of getting through, if they are opposed by the Conservatives at this late stage in the parliament.
In an apparent response to the expenses scandal, the prime minister agreed to set up the reform of the house select committee under the chairmanship of the estimable Tony Wright. As if to prove the need for the Commons to have control of the agenda, the government failed – or refused – for seven weeks, to put the motion, setting it up on that part of the order paper that enables the measure to be debated – rather than simply fall if only one MP objects. In response to pressure from the house, the government kindly agreed to allow the committee to look into the management of so-called “government business”, as well as the important but less-contentious matters of “non-government business”, select committee reform and public engagement.
The Wright committee was finally debated and established on the very last day of parliament before the summer recess, but still managed to complete all its work by the end of the session in November. The reform committee was – uniquely – elected by each party, and thus has more legitimacy than any other select committee or any front bench team. Its final report was agreed overwhelmingly and recommended better public engagement, cross-house secret ballot elections of select committee chairs, intraparty secret ballot elections of select committee members and back bench control over so-called “non-government business”.
It also recommended that there should be a business committee of the house to ensure that the house decides what parts of government bills need debate and decision on the floor of the house while guaranteeing, of course, that the government gets its business in and out of the Commons at a prearranged time of the government’s preference, just as now.
Throughout the process and since, the government has tried to argue that when the Commons passes laws proposed by the government, that is somehow not “house business” but simply a rubber stamp of government business and the house has no right to decide what bits of bills it debates and votes on. This is despite Gordon Brown saying only last week: “I believe that the proper role of parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive and it should be given all the necessary tools to do so.”
Although the Wright committee’s reforms have been welcomed on all sides, until now there has been no sign of the government’s willingness to provide time to debate and decide all the recommendations. The obvious thing to do would be for the government to table the resolution proposed by the Wright committee itself in an amendable form for a free vote of the house, with or without government-sponsored amendments. Then the house itself could decide how it wanted to perform its functions.
Instead, the executive appears to have decided that the house is not to be allowed to make these decisions, which again demonstrates exactly why it’s important that the government of the day should concentrate on running the country while the House of Commons should decide how it scrutinises the government in doing that.
The latest government wheeze, as of this week, is for the house to debate the issue on the first day back after recess, on a neutral motion merely noting the Wright committee’s report. At 10pm, a series of unamendable resolutions of the government’s choosing – leaving out many of the important provisions intended to give the house real power to scrutinise the executive – will be put before the house. If a single member shouts “object”, the resolution will fall. No parliamentary reform can be expected to be approved unanimously, so the process is designed purely to make the house appear to be resistant to change and to allow the government to somehow claim that it has given the house the opportunity to reform itself.
At the liaison select committee last week, the prime minister half-hinted that there might be an opportunity to have a proper vote on the proposals (but only the ones the government tolerates), but no day has been mentioned. He said: “If we have to go through line by line, dot and comma on each of these proposals then we will not have the parliamentary time to be able to do that.”
This is nonsense. All that is needed is an agreement of the house in principle to the clear proposals of the Wright committee. Harriet Harman denies that this is a devious plan to prevent reform, but has no answer but a suggestion that the government simply table the full resolution of the Wright committee for amendment, debate and decision, just like any normal parliament – which did not have a control-freak government – could.
Bizarrely, in his speech on reform to the IPPR last week, the PM said: “I am happy to confirm that we will give parliament itself more control over its business and the elections of its committees.” Hold on a minute, Gordon. “We”? It is not for the government to tell the house what reforms it is permitted to make! This is a free-vote issue for the house itself and should be a matter for neither gracious gift or venal veto by the executive.
Is it unfair not to trust the government on constitutional reform? The 1997 Labour manifesto promised a referendum on electoral reform between the current first past the post system and a proportional one proposed by Roy Jenkins. That never happened. Twelve years on, democratic House of Lords reform seems as remote as ever and real decentralisation to local authorities is a distant dream. As reported in this newspaper, this week the Wright committee is summoning Harriet Harman to explain herself.
This gives her the perfect opportunity to say that the government understands the need to get out of the way, that it will put a proper voteable resolution down on 22 February or another named day, and that the house can seize the moment to get off its knees and seize control of the parliamentary timetable to deliver more effective scrutiny, more topical debating and, as a result, better government.
With 200 new MPs – pure, poor creatures of the whips – arriving in a few months’ time, this really is parliament’s last chance.