14th May 2013

All this talk of draft bills and Loyal Address amendments about an EU referendum raises several vital democratic issues of parliamentary process, not least that of the ways in which MPs, individually or collectively, can initiate debate or legislation on important topics of the moment.  At its heart, as always, lurks the core problem of Government control of House of Commons business and time.

Supporters of the ‘conventional wisdom’ parliamentary reform agenda over the last half century have justified the pace and route of reform as being incremental, evolutionary and practical, being the only way to achieve change in the face of the Government’s dominant position in the House of Commons.  Those more sceptical may choose to describe it more negatively, as being ad hoc, piecemeal, reactive, incoherent and devoid of any consistent guiding principle.

Some changes come not directly from demands from MPs or even the public, but from the initiative of the Government itself, and these, though dressed up as parliamentary reform to strengthen Parliament, often result in making life easier for Ministers.  Richard Crossman in the 1960s said there was a difference between parliamentary reform and modernisation, when he was distinguishing practical updating in infrastructure and facilities from procedural changes.  In the modern context, too often ‘modernisation’ has been the catchword for changes which assist the Government, or which can be absorbed by Ministers without serious inconvenience, whereas genuine ‘reform’, to make Parliament itself more powerful and effective, especially in relation to the Executive, has to take a back seat, awaiting Government permission and, worse, facilitation.

So it is with ‘parliamentary time’ and the control and order of business.  There have been some changes, especially to the scope for debate not initiated by Ministers, such as Westminster Hall.  There has been the innovation of the Backbench Business Committee, but that has been hobbled by the albatross of the Government’s e-petition wheeze around its shoulders.  Some ever-optimistic souls are still waiting in hope for the emergence of Government proposals for a ‘House Business Committee’ of some sort, originally promised for this year.

But we also wait in vain for fundamental change to issues like the current antiquated arrangements for backbench legislative initiative.  How different would the current ‘discussions’ of EU referendum legislation opportunities be if we didn’t have to rely on the various existing ‘private members bill’ processes, with its random ballot and limited scope for genuine progress of controversial bills, but if there were clear and efficient arrangements for the allocation of time for all types of parliamentary business, including scope for debates and legislative initiative by non-Governmental sources, such as backbenchers – getting rid of the unhelpful term ‘private member’ would be a small but symbolic reform – and committees.

The current confused mess – which may, in many ways, be helpful to Ministers – further undermines the Commons’ reputation with the public as an effective, responsive and accountable representative assembly, able to address coherently important issues of public interest.  Time for real, principled and all-embracing reform!


  1. Fair comment. But no matter how good Westminster may be in international comparative terms, there is vast scope for necessary democratic improvement (for which there has been for over a decade under devolution much of ‘domestic’ comparative interest and relevance!). My argument is that the Commons in particular needs to address its reform in a comprehensive, principled way to have a chance of being both effective and robust, and that the 2009 expenses scandal provided the perfect, and extremely rare, opportunity for tackling this, which was sadly missed.

    The traditional parliamentary reform problem has been how to reconcile a stronger, more autonomous House which can stand up to, and be an effective constitutional watchdog over, the Executive, with the twin countervailing internal pressures of the British ‘Government within Parliament’ model, and the central role of ‘party’ within Parliament. Nowadays that dilemma is even more acute and complex, with the growing recognition (especially with the advent of new technology and social media) of the more proactive role of ‘the people’ within government, and thereby within Parliament.

    In other words, the old ‘ParliamentGovernment relationship’ problem (intermixed with the ‘party’ overlay) is now a triangle of Parliament, Government and People. It is no longer an issue of just strengthening representative democracy, but of synthesising representative democracy with more ‘direct democracy’. I would argue that a parliament is the obvious and constitutionally proper forum where these three forces should best meet and interact so as to produce a modern form of representative, democratic and accountable governance. But to fulfil that core function, a parliament needs to be autonomous and robust so as to be able to play its own distinct dual function of ‘constitutional forum’ and representative assembly.

  2. But at least one single MP can put an item on the agenda and get mass media coverage and fame or notoriety overnight. In some parliaments a group has to be formed and they work through these. The power of the backbenchers in the UK is something despite everything which is the strength but yes the perennial question is the growing influence of the Executive; not solely though and how about the representation of minority parties on committees

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