Parliament is in crisis. Just a few days ago we saw the election of two members of the BNP to the European Parliament. But I don’t believe that the British people are racist. Many MPs feel we need to make some radical changes to reassert the values of our democracy and to restore the public’s faith in its representatives. I’m one of those MPs.
This is a unique time and opportunity to reform Parliament. To do so the next Speaker of the House will need to be someone who will work to clinically shift power away from the Executive and from Parliament and place it firmly back in the hands of the people. Only then can we begin to put behind us the on-going destruction of public confidence over MPs’ allowances. It’s too late for evolution and time for us to be brave. I believe that if we firmly shift the pendulum of power back to the public they are more likely to put their trust in us again. To put these changes in place we will need a Speaker who is comfortable in, and able to communicate with modern Britain.
I think he or she will need to do 3 key things. Firstly, take Parliament out of Westminster. We need to give ownership of Parliament to the people. Hence Ministers, Shadow Ministers and whips will need to relinquish their control of the Parliamentary Agenda. Through new technology like internet polling the public should choose the issues for ‘topical debate’. And instead of poorly attended debates lacking atmosphere in Westminster Hall, Parliament should relocate Ministers and the entire apparatus for these debates to Town Halls around the country. A day of adjournment debates on local issues in the regions would be top billing in regional media and give us the chance to draw crowds to Parliamentary proceedings.
Secondly, we need to change our personnel to reflect modern Britain. The next Speaker needs to do much more than preside over committees and Parliamentary proceedings in the Chamber. In a more public way than ever, the Speaker will be the interface between Parliament and modern Britain, championing the role of MPs and encouraging greater participation amongst the public. But to truly change the settlement in favour of the public, the personnel who represent our Parliament will have to change too. At the current rate of progress Parliament will not be representative of its racial, gender or class mix at any time in the next 100 years. The Speaker must actively encourage political parties to make changes, through law, to catalyse these changes over one or two terms, not 100 years.
Just one example of Parliament’s abject failure to move with the times is the fact the Palace of Westminster still does not have even rudimentary crèche facilities to allow MPs access to child care. And then we leave MPs to face the music when they take it upon themselves to use their archaic allowances system to come up with alternative child care provision. Parliament not only stitches them up at the outset, it then hangs them out to dry afterwards. That’s not a defence of those that abuse the system, but an acceptance of how far removed from reality the system has become. Surely the Speaker’s job is to make Parliament more representative of society and to actively articulate how it will be done.
Finally, Mr or Madam Speaker needs to change the balance – to create a more relaxed executive, a stronger Parliament. As politicians we need to accept that we are living in changing times. It’s time for us to be more deferential towards the public. The British public want to see the executive loosen its grip. At present party whips don’t just influence membership and chairs of our committees; they even decide which MPs deserve a nice office. Parliament should elect its chairs, and all of the administrative matters (like allowances and accommodation) should be entirely independent of politicians.
In the current set up it is inevitable that there will be a large element of ‘buggins turn’ and a closed shop mentality, partly because our upper chamber is still full of political appointments and hereditary peers. Parliament is in danger of being left behind while the world moves on, so the next Speaker needs to be brave and play a leadership role in championing reform of the House of Lords.
I hope whichever candidate comes forward with a radical agenda encompassing these principles of reform will prevail on June 22nd. Just as importantly such an agenda will have the support of the public.