It’s obvious, you might well think. Making the laws of the land, providing the Prime Minister and Government and then examining everything they do, fighting the corner for their constituency and constituents, waving their particular party political flag. But what do they actually do? And what should they be doing? And how should they be dividing their time amongst those things?
The Procedure Committee of the House of Commons is currently (once again) studying sitting hours. As they do, they should start not by asking ‘What is most convenient for MPs?’ but ‘What is an MP actually FOR? What does Parliament do? What should it be doing that it currently is not? And how can we change the procedures and sitting times to better enable it to do that job?’
So what are MPs for? In essence we have seven core functions:
- To make, amend, improve, or stop the making of laws
- To examine the daily workings of the Executive branch of Government, and ‘hold it to account.’
- To represent the interests of our constituents in Westminster
- To support our party or colleagues in a collective effort to govern or to oppose
- To advance causes national or local in Parliament
- To liaise with or scrutinise EU and devolved administrations
- To carry out ‘case-work’ and constituency matters
‘Constituency case-work’ comes intentionally – if knowingly controversially – at the very bottom of that list.
The truth is that it has become commonplace for MPs – and I have always prided myself on being in their vanguard – to become engaged in immigration appeals, benefits disputes, Child Support Agency arguments, planning applications, school placements and the like. Now no-one would dispute that the MP has a real and important role in unlocking bureaucracy or correcting injustice. But have we not allowed ourselves to be diverted from our real tasks by this fixation? Is all of that really what we are elected to Parliament for? Surely ‘being a good constituency MP’ should be a means to an end, not the end itself. Or to put it another way, surely our job is representing the constituency in Westminster, not vice-versa? After all, if all we are is glorified town councillors, then who is actually running the country and holding the Government to account?
It may be instructive that forty years ago there was a total of 25 secretaries in Parliament to look after all 630 MPs. Today there are 2,700 members of staff. Doing what? And why? Is it really a proper use of Parliamentary funds to have a team of three or four sitting in a High Street in one’s constituency generating more and more case-work, rather than in Westminster helping us with our true parliamentary work?
In other words, may I not be right in guessing that the huge increase in ‘casework’ in recent years has tended to divert us away from our true role – as Parliamentarians. Is there not a directly proportional link between the increase in casework, and the growth in the powers of the Executive at the expense of Parliament?
In recent years our sitting hours have become shorter and shorter, and there are once again simmering pressures to make Parliamentary life more ‘family friendly.’ Yet the complexity of Government is certainly no less today than it has ever been. Legislation has in fact vastly increased in numbers in recent years, and vastly decreased in quality. Why? Because we are failing to scrutinise it properly in Parliament. Why? Because we don’t have enough time to do so. Surely we should be seeking to extend Parliamentary hours and scrutiny rather than shortening them?
Only by doing so can we hope to re-establish Parliamentary supremacy over an over-mighty Executive, to re-establish our influence (or supremacy?) over institutions like the EU and devolved administrations; and to re-energise the press and public’s interest in and respect for the Parliamentary process.
So I’d like to see some real fundamental changes in the way we set about our work:
- Parliament should sit for longer, not shorter, hours.
- We should be there Monday to Friday, the annual calendar also being adjusted to ensure more sitting days, for example over the Summer Recess and the Party Conference Season.
- Our allowances system should be changed to encourage and facilitate MPs spending longer in Parliament, and to make it possible for them to be accompanied by their families.
- We should abolish, or at least significantly weaken, Programme Motions and other forms of guillotine of debate. If that means that the Opposition keep the House sitting at what some people might find inconvenient times, then sobeit. If we have to sit all night, or at weekends properly to discuss matters of huge import to the people we represent, then we must allow that to happen.
- We must give no ground to those who would change the present system of voting in the Commons, arguing that it is dreadfully inconvenient to have to leave their comfortable offices, be dragged away from their local campaigns and case work to trouble themselves to vote. How wrong they are. Votes should be closely linked to the debate which preceded them. And divisions have an important role to play in the collegiate nature of the place.
The collegiate nature of Parliament – ‘the place where people speak’- should be enhanced, not diminished. Macmillan was of the view that of the 2,000 rooms in the Palace, the young backbencher need only trouble himself with two – the Chamber and the Smoking Room. Parliament works because people move around the building attending events, talking, swapping experiences, plotting. That would be destroyed at a stroke by ‘family friendly hours.’
Now if all of that sounds like a radical reversal of some of the ‘modernisations’ that have occurred in the last 13 years, then I plead ‘guilty.’ Modernisation for modernisation’s sake has no merit. When people enter a profession or career at a senior level – be it the army, an airline pilot, director of a merchant bank, editor of a newspaper or Member of Parliament – they realise that they are going to have to make a significant personal sacrifice in order to do it.
It is simply not possible to be an effective MP and still whinge about unsocial hours. Running the country and holding the Government to account is not an easy job. We can’t do it in our lunch hours. It does have consequences for family life, our health and stress levels, which of course we should minimise, but which, at the end of the day may be a necessary evil. Lawrence of Arabia, Florence Nightingale, Captain Cook, Winston Churchill: they did not demand family friendly hours. And nor would they have achieved what they did had they had them.
Ours was once the greatest Parliamentary democracy in the World; it evolved over hundreds of years, the envy of emerging democracies everywhere, truly the Mother of all Parliaments. But in recent years it is a sad and undeniable fact that we have allowed our strengths to be eroded by an overmighty Executive anxious to further increase its powers. They would be secretly content if backbenchers put them into power and then went quietly off into the night – little moles beavering away with our casework, emerging blinking into the sunlight just in time to ensure their re-election to power at the next General Election.
Cromwell, Disraeli, Churchill, Macmillan and Thatcher would not have allowed that. They believed in the power and supremacy not of Government, but of Parliament. It is our inheritance and our duty to take radical steps to preserve and enhance that primacy.