The PCRC Report
Surprise, surprise. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s review of the 2009 ‘Wright Committee’ package of parliamentary reforms, published on July 18, endorses and continues the traditional incremental, pragmatic ad hoc approach to ‘strengthening’ the House of Commons. It welcomes the various ‘Wright reforms’ that have been implemented in some form, and calls for the implementation of those which are still outstanding. These include old favourites of the ‘Mark 2’ conventional parliamentary reform agenda, like select committee elections, business committees (backbench and wider), petitions and better legislative scrutiny. As has now become almost a parliamentary convention, the report concludes with a call for its proposals to be implemented quickly to, in the words of the Committee’s press release, “maintain the momentum for reform.” This was reinforced during the PCRC Chair’s statement to the House that day (immediately after the usual weekly ‘Business Questions’ farce where our representatives beg the Government to allow them to debate various important issues, including procedural changes discussed in the PCRC Report!)
Need for a broader approach to reform
All well and good, and no doubt the coterie of reform-minded parliamentarians, academics and commentators will welcome this further predictable reinforcement of their broad consensus. But the report does nothing to tackle the fundamentals of radical change in the Commons, especially the need to provide a comprehensive principled framework for the operation of an effective and autonomous parliamentary body, one that can set its own parameters for doing its core democratic tasks, such as scrutinising government, and representing the public who elected it.
Ad hoc reform – whether at the initiative of ministers, academics or parliamentary committees – will do no more than, at best, improve matters at the margins. Ministers, with the power of initiative over parliamentary business and time in the House, remain in overall control of any such change process. Just look at the early paragraphs of the Wright Report itself on the delays by the Government in allowing it to be set up; what that report called ”the impotence of the House to find time to debate and decide its own internal affairs.” When changes are made, the Executive can nobble them to suit its own interests – as with the disruption to the Backbench Business Committee and petitions proposals by unilaterally inserting its own e-petitions system into the mix.
A narrow focus on piecemeal procedural reform misses the two main areas of change required – the institutional and the cultural. Both reports talk the talk on these essential aspects, but focus on procedural/structural changes, which, in the Wright Report’s own words, “we hope … will lead gradually to a change of culture.” The new report worries away at the conflicting evidence from its witnesses about whether Reform A or Reform B has ‘changed the culture’ or not.
When will it be realised at Westminster that this is the wrong way to go about meaningful and beneficial change? Piecemeal reform cannot fundamentally change the culture of the Commons or sufficiently rebalance the Executive-Parliamentary relationship. There needs to be a serious examination of what a modern parliament is for and about, and how – as the central democratic institution – it can be designed to operate effectively as the unique forum where the various actors like the Executive, the public and others come together in our governance. The trend towards more ‘direct democracy’ via technological innovations and rise in public expectations makes this all the more urgent. Without needing to resort to a US-style ‘separation of powers’ model, the ‘Westminster Model’ has the potential to provide a framework for democratic, accountable and effective governance, which appropriately involves the public as well as politicians and officials. There are variants of the traditional Model around the world – even within the UK! – which deserve more than cursory examination (of the ‘having popped up to Holyrood for a day or so, I can say that procedure X or process Y does/does not work, and would/would not work at Westminster’ variety).
If the Commons developed a culture of institutional autonomy and a strong corporate identity that could, to some degree, challenge the dominance of party and of the closed Government-Opposition battle, and if this were based on coherent, comprehensive and robust principles against which any reform proposal or parliamentary action or conduct could be measured, then particular processes, rules and procedural reforms could be developed to flesh out that framework in a logical, consistent way, able to withstand knee-jerk ‘something must be done’ ministerial reactions or hysterical moralising from the media and others.
Remember the Wright Committee was set up in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal – a perfect example of the wrong sort of culture – not because of any particularly compelling demands for procedural change. Similarly, this new report comes out a time when the focus is not on procedural change but on ethical issues like lobbying or ‘ethicalised’ issues like MPs’ pay and expenses. Reforming select or legislative committees or the like will not be seen as obvious ways of addressing these supposedly priority issues. Only changing the culture and the constitutional ‘place’ of the Commons can do both that and the necessary process stuff.
A ‘Wright way forward?
How would such a comprehensive examination of parliamentary reform – encompassing the institutional, the procedural and the cultural – be constructed? Well, how about starting with the Commons setting up some mechanism itself to monitor and, where appropriate, champion reform? Rather than the usual impotent promises from select committees that they will revisit progress, or that they hope their successors will, what is stopping the House authorities, especially the Speaker and/or the HC Commission, setting something up themselves, distinct from conventional select committees, to test and contextualise reform proposals?
A cursory look at the Westminster website reveals an explosion in the number of bodies and groups established (by SOs, statute, Speaker or Commission etc.) to deal with particular aspects of House administration and activity. Some even have non-MPs as members. Indeed one of the problems with the current arrangements is that, not only do many of these important committees operate in virtual practical anonymity (despite varying degrees of online transparency), they also appear to exist within a rather byzantine governance ‘system’, (see the House ‘organogram’). What, if any, is the relationship between, say, the Speaker’s Advisory Council on Public Engagement (SACPE, with no current MPs on its membership); Management Board (with 2 external members as well as the departmental heads); Administration Estimate Audit Committee (with 3 MPs and 3 external members); Finance & Services Committee; Administration Committee; HC Commission; Office of the Chief Executive; Speaker’s Office (interestingly, of these last three, only the Speaker’s Office appears to have no direct public contact details, with a request that enquirers contact the HC Information Office) etc etc?
Whatever impact this governance structure may have on the normal institutional running of the House, it seems hardly likely to foster a comprehensive, holistic approach to monitoring and responding to – never mind, initiating or evaluating – parliamentary reform policies or proposals, whether they come from the Government, external academics and organisations or internally via the Procedure Committee, Liaison Committee, PCRC etc (including those in the Lords, especially where there are, as is often the case, cross-House or Parliament-wide aspects)? For example, is any procedural reform routinely ‘public engagement assessed’, eg by SACPE? Which of these bodies have an input into the work of IPSA (either directly or via yet another internal body, the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA, with a mixed membership of MPs and lay people) whose resourcing powers and functions are so crucial to the working of the House and its members, not least in relation to the public?
All this suggests that there is a need for some House-owned group to monitor ‘parliamentary reform’ in all its procedural, institutional and other aspects, with a broad overview remit to consider the wider implications of particular changes, or proposals for change, of procedure, policy, structure or operation, including any unintended or unexpected consequences for, as appropriate, public engagement, procedural effectiveness and efficiency and so on. There is sufficient precedent for such a body to be set up internally, especially by or on behalf of the Speaker, and for its membership not to be confined to MPs or Commons officials.
It would need some set of principles and objectives to measure any proposals against, similar in function and purpose to, say, the Scottish Parliament’s ‘founding principles’. Whether this was, for example a variant of the existing published Strategy for the House of Commons Service – probably the nearest thing the House has to such a set of overarching principles of its role and purpose – or something newly drafted in some way, would be a matter for consideration.
If all the self-proclaimed reformers around, including the Speaker and the Chair of the PCRC, really want to ensure continuing meaningful improvement for the Commons, in line with the ambitious rhetoric of the Strategy, then this proposal for a dedicated group within the House may be something they should think about – and quickly.