Does Parliament need a facelift or a new body politic?

It is ironic that the Palace of Westminster building is badly decayed and a major refurbishment is required at the very time that there is such a backlash against Westminster politics in general. It is as though the need for members to temporarily vacate the building could be just the time to consider a more major revamp of the UK’s most hallowed of institutions.Houses of Parliament, London, UK

Firstly, the structure of the early 19th century Gothic Revival building does need attention. It suffers from damp, flooding, vermin, and decaying stonework. Its facilities are archaic, such that much work now occurs across the road at the very modern Portcullis House. To watch proceedings on TV will show very quaint, old-fashioned and at times very crowded chambers when most other such bodies across the world are vastly more professionally equipped.

To move out  temporarily is one option. Another is to use the time to review what Parliament is lacking, which is much more than merely problems with an antiquated building, and could give itself to perform more effectively in the 21st Century, and in the process correct some of the dysfunctionality in today’s politics.

Reform of Parliament

So what reforms are possible? Here is a list of some that are often mooted:

  • A semi-circular chamber, in a larger space, rather than the adversarial, confrontational and very noisy seating at present, with desks, mics, computer facility and electronic voting
  • Larger office suites for each MP and fully professionally resourced to equip them to do a 21st century job, rather than sharing offices and staff and relying on unpaid interns and no serious support for their own research and investigation
  • A location outside London, in the Midlands or the North, to get away from the seeming dominance of London and the South-East of England, the most wealthy part of the UK, and be closer to the centre of the British Isles.
  • Better-paid MPs, not a popular option but badly needed: keeping pay low is a recipe for corruption, and denies us quality personnel as any serious business will know
  • Enhanced powers for the select committee system, one which has been progressing well recently, as witness the work of Margaret Hodge’s Public Accounts Committee. They still don’t have the power to require attendance and compel the production of evidence. They could become an even more  powerful counter-balance to the executive than they are
  • A House Business Committee to give MPs more control over their agenda, which is still controlled by the Leader of the House, in effect the Government
  • Right of recall of MPs by their constituencies, which was in the coalition agreement but was seriously limited in scope to have instead a motion by MP’s to remove those judged guilty of wrongdoing. In the light of recent scandals, a true recall would be a major step, with safeguards against abuse by campaigning minorities hijacking a by-election
  • Proportional representation in multi-member constituencies instead of the current single-member “First Past the Post” system. There was an attempt at a very limited Alternative Vote system, which was defeated in 2011
  • Equalisation of constituency sizes: this normally happens every few years due to population movements but Labour have refused a boundary revision since reform of other parts of the  system were refused by the Coalition. The bias to Labour is unfair
  • 5-year fixed term Parliaments, whereby a Parliament must serve out a full five years: this was agreed in 2010 and has happened, but it is an innovation that not all like. Another “hung” Parliament may make it very inconvenient, since it deprives the PM of the power to choose the date of the election to suit his/her party
  • Reform of the House of Lords: a very contentious issue, which arguably links more broadly to Constitutional Reform, with no clear line of agreement amongst politicians. The hereditary element, the real “Lords”, were greatly reduced in 1999 and now almost all are appointed by the Royal Prerogative on the advice of the Prime Minister. The judicial function as the land’s final court of appeal was removed to a new Supreme Court in 2009. So it is a nominated assembly, with a limited delaying power to legislation of up to about a year. Yet we could have a body that more reflects the nations and regions. It could, and many say should, be elected, and if elected to have more tangible powers than at present. Right now further reform is stuck
  • Devolution: A shift of power from Westminster to national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This started in 1998 and after the Scottish Referendum of 2014 will increase further. However the various proposals are not being thought through systemically, in relation to the effective functioning of the UK as a whole, and contain elements that could lead to further conflict and increased separatism.

Key themes

There is more to the reform of Parliament that can be discussed than the above very brief summary. However there are key threads emerging:

  • Parliament needs to enhance its representative role, and bring members closer to the people it seeks to serve
  • It needs to be more accountable than just once every five years, and there is a danger that a “political class” could after an election become dangerously isolated from voters. Many say that is already so
  • MPs need to work hard to restore their reputation ethically
  • The national aspirations of the various nationalities of the United Kingdom need to be better represented, and either a federal system and/or a reformed House of Lords may better assist this than the current ad hoc and unsystematic proposals
  • The trend away from Prime Ministerial power needs to balance an effective executive with democratic accountability. Many see an enhanced select committee system as helping create a better balance
  • More thorough-going reform of the Constitution as a whole is needed to reflect these changes

It is only as good as those that use it

In the end, a system can only work as well as the people who  use it, and thus there is also a need for politicians to adjust their behaviour to the changing expectations of those whom they serve, rather than giving the repeated impression that they only serve themselves and the interests that seem to fund them. The more the democratic part of the system of government is eroded, the more this impression can be reinforced, which in turn undermines consent, the real bedrock of the system.

That also applies to the voting public, who are in a sense part of the “body politic” too.


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