Sir George Young MP, Leader of the Commons.
This is not my entry in a caption competition for a Bateman cartoon: “the MP who said that Parliament is working well”. Compared to before the General Election, today’s Parliament is a different beast: more confident, far more assertive and rather than trying to catch up with old news, it is finally setting the day’s agenda.
Our thanks for this are partly due to the large intake of new MPs – untarnished by the expenses scandal – who have brought fresh ideas and energy into the House at a critical juncture; and also partly to the Speaker, who has put back some zip in our proceedings by applying some much-needed lubrication to the procedural gears.
But it’s not just that the atmospherics have changed. There’s been a real shift in power from the government to the backbench – and therefore to the citizen – and for this, it is the Coalition who must take the credit.
For years, the real scandal in British politics was that government was allowed to treat the Commons as an irrelevance. The House is not just a debating chamber: it is there to keep ministers under the microscope: probing, interrogating, scrutinising, auditing and holding it to account on behalf of the people. The terms of trade are finely balanced. Over the last few decades, they tipped too far in the executive’s favour.
Under the last Labour government, the situation worsened significantly. Our political life was dominated by a hyperactive administration, which seized power from Parliament and rendered it unable to carry out some of its most basic constitutional duties. If there wasn’t some new initiative being launched at a Number 10 press conference, then the newspapers were kept busy following the latest plot twist in the Tony and Gordon Show. In this atmosphere of frenetic news management, Parliament itself was managed into the margins. MPs felt more like extras in Britain’s longest-running soap than the pilots in the cockpit of the nation. Rather than a proper check on executive authority, the Commons was widely viewed – most of all by Labour ministers – as a bureaucratic rubber-stamp.
It’s no surprise that according to a recent survey conducted by the Hansard Society, the majority of British people use the terms Parliament and government interchangeably and don’t understand the difference between the two institutions. The omnipotence of the executive left Parliament without a distinctive identity of its own.
I, along with my reformist deputy David Heath, want to reverse that. We know the only sustainable way to restore voters’ faith in Parliament is by allowing MPs to demonstrate that they are doing the job they are meant to be doing. Fighting for their constituents; holding the Government to account; and debating issues that really matter to people’s lives. In practice, this means Parliament needs to be less poodle, and more bulldog. It needs to get back its bite as well as its bark.
In the last six months, the Government has overseen a quiet revolution in how Parliament operates. Just as the Coalition itself was formed out of the call for a more mature and collaborative politics to pay down the fiscal deficit, so our approach to Parliament has been more consensual and grown-up in order to deal with the democratic deficit.
That’s why for the first time in over a century, this Government has voluntarily given up its power to control all business in the Commons by establishing a Backbench Business Committee – a decision Labour consistently ducked and, astonishingly, still seem to oppose. This more than anything reveals that the Labour Party have not learnt anything about what the public vocalised during the expenses scandal and remain tethered to the authoritarian instincts they displayed over the last 13 years.
Until this year, almost all parliamentary time was chosen and scheduled by the government, leaving backbench MPs powerless to debate issues that the government viewed as off-limits. That’s why Parliament found itself in the embarrassing position of being almost the last place in the country to have a proper debate on the banking crisis during the financial crash of 2008. Gordon Brown just didn’t want to hear it. Now the Government is forced to listen.
At a stroke, the Coalition has delivered the most important reform in a generation. We have given away a huge chunk of parliamentary time to backbenchers – the equivalent of a whole day every week in the Chamber – giving them the right and responsibility to schedule debates on matters which are relevant to backbenchers and their constituents. Now we have regular debates, and votes, on substantive issues which are often challenging to the Government’s agenda. So far they’ve covered everything from House matters to growth to immigration, giving MPs a platform to question ministers and raise the agenda of things which really matter to their constituents. That is the sign of a healthy, engaged and dynamic democracy.
Parliament has also dramatically strengthened the Commons Select Committees: letting these watchdogs fully off the leash by ending the Government’s ability to place them under what are euphemistically called ‘safe pairs of hands’.
We have ended the traditional long summer recess, during which the Government enjoyed a holiday – if not on the beach, then at least from parliamentary scrutiny. This year, Parliament sat for two highly productive weeks in September, bringing back MPs for a proper audit of the Government’s activities over August.
And instead of resorting to punitive time-table motions, we have provided proper time on the floor of the House for our debates so that legislation is properly scrutinised before being sent up to the Lords.
This is my tenth Parliament. I first entered the House in 1974. Those who complain about the rowdiness of Prime Minister’s Questions should have seen what happened then. Late night sittings led to some well-refreshed exchanges – and it was not unknown for debates to be punctuated by punch-ups. It was not an atmosphere conducive to democratic scrutiny, nor one that encouraged the broadest range of candidates to enter Parliament. It was no surprise that at that point, female representation was almost non-existent.
Over the last 36 years, Parliament has come so far. I welcome some of the changes introduced by our predecessors which, for example, have led to more civilised sitting hours. Many practices have improved, and our membership has become more diverse. But we still need to do more to rebuild the confidence of voters, and convince the electorate that their Parliament is fit for purpose. A good government has nothing to fear from a strong Parliament; if they make us raise our game, then everyone wins. We have started well in the first six months, and all Conservatives can be proud of that; but the momentum must be maintained if we’re to reverse the decline of the last thirteen years.