The mother of parliaments degraded by endemic neglect

20 March 2015

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

The mother of parliaments should no longer posture and preen as an exemplar to the world. Mother still deserves respect but she is now degraded by endemic neglect.

The great wealth of talent, intelligence and creativity in Parliament is largely wasted. Ossified archaic rules slow reforming progress to the pace of an arthritic sloth. Voices for change are muted. Pressures of personal or party ambition slow the drive towards the common good. Energy is diverted into channels of futility. When confronted by crises, dogs bark, babies cry and politicians legislate. A colossal 77 bills were not implemented in whole or in part during the 2005-2010 Parliament because they were overtaken, impracticable, or defective. Most were under-prepared, under-scrutinized or misconceived.

Little has improved. The signature bill of the current zombie parliament was mocked as “a major landmark in legislative futility.” The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill was described by a former Tory Attorney General as “utter tosh”. It sets itself the impossible task of creating volunteers and heroes by legislation. Lord Lloyd contemplated moving against all the three absurd clauses of the bill so that only the title would remain. It’s a lamentable headline-seeking example of crude populism that exploits the defects in legislative processes.

Reform has trawled the wisdom of academics and the experience of parliamentarians to shape 13 recommendations for legislative renovation. Their evidence of parliamentary sclerosis is devastating. Tory David Nuttall MP described how ministers are sent off to bat for the government and resist any proposed amendments to bills. One former Conservative Chief Whip is quoted as having said that, when in Opposition, it was unclear “whether my job was to make the Government’s legislation better or worse”. Committee time and energy is squandered on macho party posturing to achieve pyrrhic victories not beneficial laws.

This blueprint for A Parliament of Lawmakers is 13 practical, soundly based reforms. They include maximising select committee talent to include legislative scrutiny before and after second readings, collaboration between the executive and committees on timetabling, widening the work of departmental committees to amend statutory instruments and to encourage joint committee work, adjusting committee numbers to optimum sizes to match their tasks, salary increments for committee members to reflect workloads, a cut in total number of MPs to 600 to invest in improved committee staffing, and weakening the power of the ‘payroll vote’ to induce more independent action from MPs.

The initial agendas of the new legislative committees will be off to a flying start if they embrace these recommendations at their first meetings in May 2015. The mixed bag of parties in the new Parliament may induce sensible, cross-party co-operation and fundamental reform.

Paul Flynn MP, Member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and author of How to be an MP

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