Parliament remains broken - why would the coalition fix it?

Turner's Burning Of The Houses of Lords And Commons
Turner's Burning Of The Houses of Lords And Commons
Alex Stevenson By

I've already written about the implications of the Hansard Society's latest Audit of Political Engagement, which was released yesterday and featured some truly shocking statistics. Among them were some worrying stats for parliamentarians.

Now, in Westminster we all know the primary purpose of parliament is to hold the executive to count. Stands to reason, as they say. Unfortunately the great British public disagrees. Bizarrely, just 23% of respondents prioritise 'holding the government to account' and 13% think 'scrutinising proposing new laws' should be top of the list of its functions. Instead, the representation of the UK's 'national interests' - whatever that means - tops the list. Very odd.

Let's not beat about the bush here: this is an exercise carried out by people who know exactly how Westminster works trying to work out what it's like inside the brain of ordinary people - those who, in the main, have barely a passing interest in the day-to-day politics of this country. It's interesting to note their ongoing scorn for the 'childish', yah-boo nature of politics, and their enthusiasm for the 'Murdoch trial'. What matters, though, is their scepticism about its relevance.

That is a problem which has been around for a long time. And it's now been three years since the expenses scandal, which triggered a serious wave of reforms to try to improve the situation. The Wright committee, which reported before the 2010 general election, was set up "to find ways of restoring public confidence in the House and consider proposals for reform". Among its biggest legacies was the backbench business committee.

Earlier today this committee released a progress report updating MPs on how it was finding things. It is far from happy. The government, which takes a lot of credit for being the first administration to relinquish its absolute grip on the parliamentary schedule, could still be doing much more to open up the Commons to ordinary MPs. Today's report complains about ministers not giving the backbench committee enough warning as to the days on which it will be allowed to debate. It wants those controversial e-petitions, which aren't nearly as significant as people think they are, to be handled by a separate committee. More than anything else, though, it wants more time to hold its debates in.

The coalition's response is cautious, at best. Only earlier today the leader of the House, Sir George Young, was refusing to consider Chris Bryant's suggestion that next week be entirely given over to backbench debates. The government, having wrapped up its legislative programme, sees no point in parliament sitting, meaning David Cameron gets a couple of weeks off prime minister's questions, and any underfire ministers - Jeremy Hunt, anyone? - won't have to face the wrath of the parliamentary bearpit. Parliament, clearly, is still very much controlled by the executive.

Parliament remains irrelevant because the government, protecting its own interests, likes to keep it that way. It's no coincidence the only really positive news to come out of the Hansard Society's Audit relates to backbenchers working on their own: a quarter of the public are now likely to turn to their MP for help if they have a problem. As the Audit notes, "this places them second only to GPs as a source of support". It predicts constituency caseloads will continue to creep up slowly over time.

MPs are supposed to be taking on the government, not acting as social workers. This could change, if the coalition was willing to make it easier to hold them to account. But why would they? What's in it for ministers like Jeremy Hunt to support more accountability? 


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