MPs: Let backbenchers have more say

24 November 2009

• Committee urges quick vote on Commons reform
• Call for public to suggest debates via e-petitions

"Achievable" but radical change to rebuild parliament's independence from the executive, including a new body of elected backbenchers responsible for organising Commons business, is proposed today by a prestigious select committee set up by Gordon Brown.

The report also suggests that the public should be a given some direct say over what MPs debate, through devices such as e-petitions. Prime minister's questions would be shifted from Wednesday to Thursday afternoon to liberate more time for backbenchers on Wednesday.

It calls for Commons select committees to be streamlined and given more independence from the government so they are able to scrutinise Whitehall departments more thoroughly. Their chairmen ought to be elected by the whole house in a secret vote, rather than effectively agreed between the party whips, it says.

The reforms are intended to reverse a near two-century-long process whereby the executive has gradually taken over the control of parliamentary time from MPs.

The proposals by an all-party select committee chaired by the Labour backbencher Tony Wright are intended to be implemented before the general election. Wright hopes MPs chastened by the ignominy of the expenses scandal will be eager to recover their reputation by taking more responsibility for reviving parliament.

"A strong government improved by strong accountability is the best antidote to the political disengagement and anti-politics that characterises our age," the report says. It admits: "At present many MPs do not see the point in attending debates or making the house the primary focus of their activities. Backbenchers are fed up with their inability to make a difference and the deadweight of timeworn procedures."

In a bid to avoid seeing its work disappear, the committee proposes that MPs have a free vote on its proposals within two months so most of the changes can come into force in the new parliament.

Initial reaction from Conservative and Labour whips, the biggest losers from the reforms, is that they may be willing to relinquish some influence and patronage, but not on the scale proposed. They are likely to seize on a minority report by the Labour MP Natascha Engel to argue that the reforms are divisive and should be delayed for further discussions by the next parliament.

Harriet Harman, the leader of the house, gave a lukewarm response to the report. "We will look to make early progress whilst needing to allow government to continue to deliver its legislative programme and deal with emerging challenges," she said. "The government will make time available for a debate."

But the reforms have the backing of Jack Straw, the justice secretary. In a lengthy speech last night on constitutional reform, he denied that parliament had been emasculated, but accepted that criticism of the greater timetabling of bills was justified. He said he wanted "a better system for handling public petitions, which could enable citizens to influence the parliamentary agenda by triggering debates or select committee inquiries".

Sir George Young, the shadow leader of the house, also welcomed the plans. "We now have a real chance in the dying days of this parliament to ensure that the next parliament can get off to a fresh start. It's crucial that the government do not squander this opportunity for reform," he said. "Harriet Harman must ensure that these proposals are debated and voted on quickly, so the house can put in place some changes, particularly to select committees, before the general election."

The committee recommends that chairmen of all select committees are elected in future by a secret ballot of the whole house using the alternative vote system. Currently committee chairmen are formally selected by the committee of selection, on which the whips have huge influence.

The distribution of chairmanships between political parties would continue to be settled to reflect the general election's outcome.

It also suggests that parties would be be required to hold elections inside their parliamentary party for the membership of committees, and that the reports of these internal elections would have to be published by the Commons.

Currently internal elections take place inside the parliamentary Labour party, but critics claim they are guided by whips.

The report also proposes a reduction in the size of committees from the current 14 to 11, and a reduction in their overall number.

The Wright committee also recommends a radical overhaul of the way in which time in the parliamentary chamber is distributed, pointing out at present nearly half the amendments to major bills never get debated collectively by MPs, so ensuring the government has its way.

The committee says ministerial business should have priority, but "it is wrong in principle that, in addition to controlling its own legislative timetable, the government, rather than the house, decides what is discussed, when and for how long".

A house business committee should arrange governmental business for a weekly vote. A new backbench business committee elected by MPs would arrange all business which is not strictly ministerial. One goal would be to ensure that select committee reports are given greater time to be debated, and more space is given for backbenchers to raise issues at a topical time.

The proposals, if implemented as outlined in the report, open the way for a spate of democratic elections as soon as the new parliament is elected. MPs would be expected to vote a for a new speaker and three deputy speakers, as well as for 34 or so permanent select committee chairmanships, and participate in internal elections for select committee memberships.

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