It has been three years since The Good Parliament report made its recommendations on how to make parliament more diversity sensitive. Since then, the Cox report in the Commons has emphasised that reform of parliament and its internal processes remains necessary. In this post, the author of The Good Parliament, Sarah Childs, examines how the next Speaker could improve upon the work of their predecessor.
The next Speaker of the House of Commons will be elected on 4November. The procedure involves a secret ballot of MPs, with successive ballots ‘until either a candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, or only one candidate remains’. The election comes at a time of political and, possibly institutional, crisis. Parliament is beset by swirling questions about its constitutional role and about what it means to hold elected office in the UK. On this blog, Dr Mark Bennister has drawn attention to the context, one marked by the politics of Brexit, parliamentary sovereignty, Speaker impartiality, institutional trust, backbenchers’ ‘rights’, and the building’s restoration and renewal. The question of the bullying and harassment of staff on the parliamentary estate and the Commons’ wider culture are also rightly part of this.
The culture of the Commons was one of the three dimensions identified in The Good Parliament, areport published back in 2016. While only looking at Members, the report laid bare the extensiveness of diversity insensitivities at Westminster. Together with redressing inequalities of participation in the House and discriminatory and exclusionary parliamentary infrastructure, the report identified 43 recommendations that would transform the Commons into the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective parliament’.
Much has been achieved since then via the Speaker’s Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, which was set up and chaired by John Bercow. It comprised male and female MPs with an established interest in equalities from across the parties, and included longstanding and newer MPs. Some dozen recommendations have been implemented in full, with another good handful still in train. Its most high profile successes include in 2017 the permanent establishment of the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC), which is chaired by Maria Miller, and in 2019 – working with the Mother of the House, Harriet Harman – the introduction of proxy voting for MPs on baby leave. The new EU SI Committee is required to be gender balanced because of an amendment tabled by members of the Reference Group; the diversity of Committee witnesses is now monitored by the administration and is a key concern of the Liaison Committee; and in a first for an established democracy, the IPU undertook a Gender Sensitive Parliament Audit (on which WEC was taking evidence at the time of prorogation).Continue reading →
Progress on the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) project has been slow, but despite the time taken, there has been limited engagement with the public on the issue. Alexandra Anderson, Alexandra Meakin and Matt Flinders express optimism that amendments to the legislation responsible for R&R indicate a promising change of direction, creating an opportunity not to simply restore and protect the past but to embrace a positive vision of the future.
It is now three years since a Joint Select Committee warned that ‘The Palace of Westminster, a masterpiece of Victorian and medieval architecture and engineering, faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore’. This crisis, the Committee continued, was likely to be a catastrophe, such as a major fire or flood, or a succession of failures of the infrastructure, leaving the building unusable. There can now be no doubt about the validity of this warning: since the Committee reported we have seen the House of Commons flood during a debate, a ‘football-sized lump’ fall off the Victoria Tower, and wardens are currently patrolling the building twenty-four hours a day to address the regular outbreaks of fire (now totalling 66 in the last decade). As the then Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, told MPs in May — referring only to the instances of crumbling masonry — ‘It is only through luck that none of them has led to any serious injuries or even fatalities’. If any further warning was necessary, the tragedy of Notre Dame in April demonstrated the potential devastation of fire.
This week has marked a significant step forward in plans for a major renovation, aimed at keeping the building—and the visitors, parliamentarians, and staff within it—safe from disaster or tragedy. The Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, which has now received Royal Assent, will establish the necessary governance bodies so that the planning work for what will be a multi-billion, multi-decade project can begin in earnest.
Not only will the Act offer the best opportunity for preventing a crisis hitting the Palace, it also offers the opportunity to place the public at the heart of this renovation: the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) Programme. This is hugely significant. The original text of the legislation (and the projects associated with the wider programme) were designed to address only the crisis of the building, and not the broader crisis of UK democracy. Amendments tabled in the House of Lords and approved by the Commons on Monday have ensured that public engagement will be an integral part of fixing the Palace. Continue reading →
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.