Friday, January 22, 2010

What Is Parliament For?

On the left is the cover of a Report published by a Commons' Select Committee on 24 November 2009. The full report can be found via the link here.

Natascha Engel (see the photo below) our local MP served on the Select Committee and produced a Minority Report which can be found here. Then when the Report was debated in Westminster Hall in the Commons on 15 December she made the following speech.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) on securing this debate. It takes place not just as a result of the report "Rebuilding the House", by the Select Committee on which I served, but against the backdrop of the MPs' expenses scandal, which is not going away. Part of the reason is that there is a much wider democratic deficit. I had hoped that the report would address it, but it has failed absolutely to do so, which is why I submitted a minority report. I am grateful for this opportunity to explain briefly why I did so.

One main reason why I thought that the report missed the mark slightly is that we never defined at any point what we meant by reform. Unless we have a clear idea of what it is we mean by reform or modernisation-there is lots of talk about modernisation as well-it is perfectly possible that I could be discussing something completely different from any other Member of the House. Also, we must define our purpose. What do we want our Parliament to do, and therefore, what do we see our role to be as Members of this House?

None of those questions was really addressed. Although the report is important-it considers Select Committees, the question of who scrutinises business and how best to do so-those are details. Unless the context is much wider and we consider exactly what we do and why we do it, we could end up making things worse rather than better. One key element of the report that many Members have spoken about today-it has also been discussed in the Committee and elsewhere-is wresting control away from the Executive. We may all agree that the Executive has too much control, but how we wrest it away from them and who we give it to is a key issue not addressed in the report.

The proposal for a House business Committee-not a Back-Bench business Committee, which I support-to determine who controls Government time in the House would give such decisions to a group of seven sensible Back Benchers elected by secret ballot of the whole House, but it could make the situation worse. We did not go into detail about how we would do so and exactly what the outcomes would be, but they could be dangerous.

I will be brief, because I intervened on my hon. Friend many times. I think that we all agree that Select Committees are good. They are the one thing that enhances the reputation of the House. Again, I urge caution. What are we proposing, and why are we proposing it? What are we trying to improve? Gwyneth Dunwoody and Lord Anderson, formerly MP for Swansea, East- I was not a Member of the House at the time, but I remember watching from outside-became members and Chairs of their Select Committees, so even though the system was imperfect, it worked.

I am worried that by saying, "We don't think it works well enough; let's do something completely different, like having an election by secret ballot of the whole House," we might make things worse. We have not thought through the consequences. The only time when we hold a secret ballot of the whole House is to elect the new Speaker, and many Opposition Members felt that, like it or not, somebody whom they found unpalatable was foisted on them by a Government majority. Given that this is a party political institution and that we tend to revert to type, what guarantee is there that we would not do so when electing Select Committee Chairmen?

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I partly agree with my hon. Friend. However, it is not fair that certain Members, who have been democratically elected, are blocked from ever joining a Select Committee because they are independently minded.

Natascha Engel: I do not know the details of individuals who have been blocked. I was elected in 2005, which was quite late in the 12 years of Labour Government.

The current issue with Select Committees is filling the spaces because there is no mad clamour to serve on them. There are four or five big, sexy Select Committees that everyone wants to be on, including the Home Affairs Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Treasury Committee. Members will not put their names down for any number of other Select Committees, and cannot be persuaded to do so for love nor money.

If Select Committee members are elected by the House by secret ballot, how can we ensure that there is an adequate gender balance, the right amount of age and experience, and a regional mix? The Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons considered that in detail and it is not possible. Through the gain of making Select Committees more democratic, something else would be taken away. We must caution against making the situation, which we all agree is not perfect, an awful lot worse because we might not be able to go back to the system that we think works okay. Nothing is perfect.

Finally, I will make a point that I made time and again on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. It is six months before a general election. As other hon. Members have said, there will be an unprecedented number of new MPs and they will have fresh ideas on what to do. They will have fought an election against the backdrop of the MPs' expenses scandal and will have to have an idea of how Parliament can be reformed. If we go too far down the line of House business committees deciding who controls what bits of time, we risk tying the hands of the future generation, which is not fair. I would welcome the opportunity to debate this in greater detail on the Floor of the House, but I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few brief points today.

The full Westminster Hall debate (including numbers of other contributions by Natascha) can be found here.

The above material formed the background to the talk Natascha gave at the January meeting of our Discussion Group under the title "What Is Parliament For?". We are keen to pursue the matters she raised in our future activities. In the photo below she is addressing the Commons.

1 comment:


    Some of Natascha's problems seem to revolve around the fact that (as far as I know) THERE IS NO WRITTEN CONSTITUTION governing British politics. There is of course Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus, but as I see it that hardly constitutes any rules or binding guidelines about how a country such as our should be run.

    If I am right (and I may NOT be) everything seems to depend on precedent - what did we do last time this problem came to the surface?

    I would guess that Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers LOVE this arrangement. It gives them maximum room for manoeuvre and an ability to tinker with previously established practices without having to take a legally binding constitution into account. And I do not forsee that there will be any change in this position within the forseeable future. Systems of Government will stagger on unchanged until a time comes when they can no longer be sustained; and just in case anyone wishes to make any real change of the system BEFORE THE TIME IS ABSOLUTELY RIPE, we have armed forces and police to prevent us from such an adventure.

    There is no government or system of government anywhere in the world that is entirely free from corruption, from the two most powerful countries, right down to smallest and apparently more idyllic states. Corruption varies in its depth and character of course, but its central quality is that there is room for cheating within the "rules"; large scale or small scale, accepted or unacceptable; and sometimes it can be managed within the legal framework that exists, it it exists at all. For example - in recent years there have been two major scandals (1) the ROBBERY from pension funds and (2) MP's expenses; and in spite of one being more sensational, the other was far deeper and more destructive and it was certainly managed within the legal framework as it existed at that time (I don't know whether it has been changed).

    Within my lifetime there have always been two factors at work. One of them is engaged in drawing up cast iron laws to prevent fraud and the other sector is engaged in finding ways round those cast iron laws; and the game is never ending.

    Finally - we pay a VERY high price for our democracy and as yet, I don't know of a more acceptable system. The Chinese have a capitalist system of production, organised and run by a communist regime. IF it survives, it may develop into something worthwhile IN THE LONG DISTANT FUTURE.