There was a thought-provoking exchange between Deputy Leader of the House Chris Bryant and his Shadow Shailesh Vara yesterday.
"Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): “The Governance of Britain” document says that the Executive should be more accountable to Parliament, yet the Government have refused to ensure that the noble Lord Mandelson is answerable to Members in this House. At a time when thousands and thousands of businesses are in a desperate state, why is it that the Government will not allow the unelected Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to be answerable to elected Members in this House?
Chris Bryant: That is a load of poppycock. For a start, all Ministers appear before Select Committees and the hon. Gentleman undervalues the role of Select Committees when he says that noble peers are not able to appear at all. Secondly, I have never heard from him or any Conservative Member the suggestion that peers should be able to answer questions in this House, although some Labour Members have called for that. It would be a significant departure, but it seemed to be what he was calling for. Now he is looking rather shamefaced about it."
I’ve never been convinced by this argument about Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary. It is not, as far as I’m aware, Conservative Party policy that no big offices of state should be held by a peer. Statements from Lord Mandelson get read out in the Commons by a deputy, who is then subjected to questions. Other Business ministers are questioned regularly at oral sessions like those for other departments. MPs can write to the Business Secretary. Written questions are essentially answered by civil servants.
This risks appearing to be more about trying to benefit from Lord Mandelson’s public image than sincere constitutional politics.
I see no good reason why even the Prime Minister should not be a peer. If that did ever happen again, I would be in favour of them submitting – on a weekly basis – to a specially convened session of questions from MPs. But that would not be hard to organise. Perhaps Lord Mandelson would like to lead the way!
Does the Business Secretary lack a democratic mandate? Well I suppose so. But no minister is directly elected as a minister. And I think it’s a good thing if a few of them don’t have to worry about a constituency on top of their governmental duties.
What do you think?