In a new report, based on the best part of a year spent embedded in the Palace of Westminster, Sarah Childs makes recommendations for how the House of Commons can meet the international standard of a ‘truly representative, transparent, accountable and effective’ parliament. Here, she summarises the report and responds to media coverage that has focused on a small number of recommendations and lacked nuance.
Lots of people have to plenty to say about what is wrong with the UK parliament. Many do so at some distance from the Palace of Westminster. The Good Parliament report, launched on 20 July, is the culmination of a year working intimately with members and with House officials: its 43 recommendations are guided by this experience and expertise and offer a ‘menu of reforms’ that when implemented would meet the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s gender sensitive parliament status. Indeed, the report goes beyond this approach in developing and setting out proposals to deliver a diversity sensitive parliament.
The easy option would have been to avoid issues that the media would inevitably run with: breastfeeding and trans-toilets. If The Good Parliament report had two fewer recommendations, and note breastfeeding was part of larger recommendation regarding maternity and paternity leave, maybe the media coverage would have been more diverse and substantial. Some might have addressed the recommendation that the House make more information available to the public detailing what it is that MPs do. Others might have supported the recommendation that parliament collect more systematic data on the diversity, or rather homogeneity, of select committee witnesses. Yet others might have agreed that as the Palace of Westminster is repaired over the coming years that its buildings are made more disability friendly, or that the Women and Equalities Committee – which this week celebrated its first anniversary – should be made permanent.
Yet, as independent research it would have been academically remiss to ignore certain areas of debate simply to avoid ruffling a few feathers. From the very start The Good Parliament was designed to provide as comprehensive a set of recommendations as possible. It would show the Commons how it could meet the international democratic standard of a ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective’ parliament. The UK House of Commons currently falls a long way short of meeting the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s norm of a gender sensitive parliament. Despite some important changes over the last decade or so, the Commons’ membership remains disproportionately elite, white and male whilst its infrastructure and culture continue to reflect the preferences of those members who have historically populated it.
The recommendations contained in The Good Parliament would seek to enable the House to become diversity sensitive in the foreseeable future. It was not about suggesting that women can’t cope with Prime Minister’s Questions or with working late, as some critics have suggested. Of course women can, and they do. Nor is it about seeking to overturn traditions just for the sake of it. But unnecessarily complicated, antiquated, and exclusionary parliamentary procedure, language, and practices should be reformed. In short, a parliament should be accessible to all: visitors, those giving evidence to committees or lobbying members, staff, and MPs. A representative and inclusive parliament is going to have to look and feel very different. For this to happen, Parliament must accept an institutional responsibility to reconsider how it works. Until now there has been reluctance amongst members to see themselves as more than a collection of individually elected officials. This has limited reform. The Speaker has agreed that a new grouping of MPs should be created – the Commons’ Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion. Male and female, and reflecting the party balance of the Commons, the new Group will lead on this agenda, holding other actors within parliament to account for their response to particular recommendations as well as following up on those that were directed at the new group itself. The Group will be up and running after the summer.
What of the other recommendations? The ones the newspapers and critical MPs have failed to fully consider? Together these have the potential to fundamentally transform who sits in parliament, and how parliament goes about its business, substantively and symbolically. Each is attached to a responsible actor – a minister, a committee, an MP – who can importantly be held to account. In the past suggested reforms might well have garnered support but there was inadequate institutional will to see them implemented. There is often a choice between soft and hard recommendations, such as greater transparency and data collection or targets, and some recommendations are for the short, medium and longer term. Why not immediately hang portraits of women MPs who are still alive in the Palace of Westminster? The ’10 year dead rule’ was a misogynistic one from the start – introduced to prevent the acceptance of a portrait of Nancy Astor. Equally, parties could today commit to ‘no woman left behind’ at the next general election by agreeing to at least maintain their percentage of women MPs. If the percentages do not improve substantially, quotas might well need to be introduced for the election after that. Male MPs can pledge not to participate in all male panels (#nomoreallmalepanels). In the longer term, the physical repairs that are needed to the building offer a great opportunity for improvement, and for different ways of doing politics to be tried and tested by members: on estate voting; new rules for PMQs; consideration of a new chamber, one with enough seats for all members.
To return to breastfeeding and trans-toilets. These are both legitimate questions that the House should not shy away from, though they require rather more nuance than so far afforded to them. Allowing babies in the chamber and committees would enable all MPs to participate fully in the House – debates and committees can go on for many hours, and late in the evening. The lack of childcare has since the report was launched meant that the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman was ‘censured‘ for bringing her children to a Commons committee. The issue of breastfeeding is then about demonstrating that the Commons welcomes the full participation of those with caring responsibilities. As such it is one part of a recommendation for the House to draw up a statement on maternity, paternity, parental, and caring leave. Toilets are best thought of as simply an administrative concern to meet the needs of all those who visit and work in the Commons –something for any new body established for ‘restoration and renewal’ and the Chief Executive. The White House has already introduced gender neutral toilets, as do many other workplaces. Unisex toilets are mostly what we all use, we just rarely consider them ‘gender neutral’ or even less rarely ‘trans’, as the media like to frame it.
If any member or commentator remains unconvinced by any individual recommendation, or The Good Parliament report as a whole, I am able to offer two reassurances. First, although some members do not like them (as is their prerogative) these recommendations are absolutely grounded in parliament. They are the product of being embedded within the Commons for the best part of the year. This is no fantastical report. Secondly, as the report makes absolutely clear, it is ultimately for the House to decide which recommendations to adopt. This is the way in which our parliament works. Those who wish to see a representative, inclusive and effective House will now have to stand up and argue for The Good Parliament; those who do not will have to justify why.
You can read the full report at this link.
About the author
Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol. She has been on secondment at the House of Commons as a visiting academic since September 2015. Sarah tweets @profsarahchilds.