A seismic shift from ‘Punch and Judy’ politics

20 March 2015

Foreword to How to run a country. A Parliament of Lawmakers

The Coalition Government has worked to introduce the internal Commons reforms proposed by the Public Administration Committee before 2010, otherwise known as the “Wright reforms”. Reform now shows us where we could go further, strengthening MPs’ hands in their role as lawmakers.

A developed role for select committees forms the core of Reform’s ambition for the House of Commons. What they propose would mean a seismic shift of time and attention away from ‘Punch and Judy’ plenaries in the chamber, into bolder, more expert select committees. Members of Parliament would develop themselves as leaders in a given field and focus on it, not just in their scrutiny of the executive, but in their line-by-line examination of legislation.

For my part, I would want to see these committees operate in tandem with those in the House of Lords; with a second chamber radically renewed and strengthened by the injection of democracy into its ranks. The necessary and vital constituency role of an MP will always place pressure on the time individuals can devote to the detail of legislation. A dedicated, democratic revising chamber is therefore crucial, especially if Parliament takes on a new capacity to amend secondary legislation.

The UK Parliament could also deal with fewer laws altogether if the far-reaching devolution the Liberal Democrats seek in England became a reality; making Westminster’s product all the better in the instances where it still needs to be involved. With a diminished workload for the central state, and a strengthened second chamber, the number of MPs could be reduced as Reform suggests. In future the House of Commons should be a place of fewer people, doing better work.

Anyone interested in good government should want a strong Parliament. If a minister’s proposal cannot withstand scrutiny from an active, informed and assertive bicameral Parliament, it will never withstand the manifold difficulties of policy implementation within Whitehall. A good minister knows that, and uses Parliament to expose and plug the weaknesses in their proposals before putting them into law. After eighteen years in the House of Commons, with two and a half as a minister, I welcome any and all ideas to make the legislative process more constructive and the legislative product more effective.

These Reform proposals – which echo some of those in the recent Parliament First booklet – are extremely timely, and I look forward to the debate they will undoubtedly provoke.

Tom Brake MP, Leader of the House Spokesman for the Liberal Democrats

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