TERRY DIGNAN: There was a time when
we regarded our Parliament at Westminster as the envy of the world. Lit
up at night by the Thames it still makes an impressive sight. Yet in the
eyes of many its image is tired. Robin Cook, and other Labour MPs, fear
voters are losing interest in Parliament. Four in ten can't even be bothered
to vote for someone to represent them here.
GRAHAM ALLEN MP: I think in the country there's
a sense that Parliament itself is irrelevant.
TONY WRIGHT: I just think now there
comes a moment in the life of an institution where you really do have to
reform or die. And I think we almost got to that point with Parliament.
DIGNAN: If Parliament is to regain
the respect of the public, it may have to become a stronger, more effective
institution. Yet a more powerful Parliament is bound to make life difficult
for Tony Blair and his ministers. But keeping Parliament weak carries with
it the risk that voters' confidence in our political system will decline
ALLEN: You look at the low turnout
there was at the last election, you look at the way some Members treat
Parliament as well and indeed the way the House itself is run, it doesn't
DIGNAN: Parliament needs a makeover
because there's evidence that faith in our politicians has fallen to a
new low. British Social Attitudes has been asking voters if they trust
governments to place the nation's needs above their own party interests.
Back in 1974, thirty nine per cent said they did. By 1996, under John Major,
the figure had fallen to twenty two per cent. Last year, under Tony Blair,
just sixteen per cent said they trusted governments to put the nation's
needs above their own party interests.
PETER RIDDELL: There is, if not a crisis
in democracy, there is a scale of disillusionment, particularly amongst
younger people and particularly amongst the socially excluded, which is
very serious and has to be addressed by Parliament.
DIGNAN: In the past week Robin
Cook has been explaining to those who want reform how he'll do it. To increase
media coverage of the Commons, questions to Mr Blair and his ministers
would start earlier in the day. There'd be more debates held at shorter
notice to give MPs a greater chance to speak out on issues which matter
most to voters. But Robin Cook's real aim, as he told the think tank of
the Constitution Unit, is to reinforce Parliament's ability to hold ministers
to account on behalf of the people.
ROBIN COOK MP: If we want the Commons to
retain the affection of the British public then we must be willing to reform
it so that it can match its status as the central institution of our democracy.
LORD NORTON: A lot of the attention has
been on hours of sitting, Prime Minister's Question Time. To some extent
those are marginal to the real issue which is how do you strengthen the
House of Commons in calling government to account?
MARK FISHER MP: The objective of reforms
must be the greater effectiveness of Parliament in scrutinising the government
and holding it to account. At the moment Parliament's ability to scrutinise
is out of kilter with the power of government, the whole balance has shifted
towards the government away from Parliament.
DIGNAN: They're building a new
visitor centre at the Commons. Robin Cook hopes the public will be equally
impressed by his plans to strengthen all-party select committees. Made
up of backbench MPs, they're allowed to question ministers and their officials
in detail. But the government decides who sits on them.
ALLEN: I used to be a Whip, I know
how the process works, I know how you get people on select committees and
I know you put people on there very often who are going to give the government
an easier ride than perhaps are more independent-minded members.
FISHER: Both the choice of chairs
of the select committees and indeed the membership have got to be taken
out of the hands of government. These are the bodies that scrutinise the
work of departments and they have a very important scrutiny role. It's
ridiculous that the people who are scrutinising government should be appointed,
effectively, by government.
DIGNAN: There's currently some
high quality craftsmanship on display at the Commons. Some might argue
it puts to shame the poor quality of much government legislation that comes
before Parliament. Still, MPs are there to put right any flaws. In truth,
ministers are loathe to make changes.
WRIGHT: The bit of Parliament that's
shocked me more than any other while I've been there, is what we call the
standing committees which are the places where bills, legislation, is looked
at. If you're on the government's side, it's seen as a form of dissidence,
even to contribute to debate. I mean it's an absolute nonsense. No wonder
we get bad legislation because it's an appalling way to do it, it's just
really like a sausage machine and there's no real scrutiny in that at all.
LORD NORTON: There's nothing worse than
bills going through, becoming the law of the land and then it's realised
they're not working. We've had all sorts of examples of that over the year.
It makes for bad law, it undermines the reputation of parliament and of
government and it just clogs up parliament and government because you need
more legislation later on to correct that which they got wrong in the first
DIGNAN: Robin Cook wants to strengthen
the ability of MPs to expose and correct defects in government legislation.
One idea is to make greater use of outside experts and take more account
of the views of the public. But some ministers may not like increased scrutiny
of their legislation especially if it makes it more difficult for them
to push their bills through parliament.
Getting it right at the new visitor centre meant paying attention to detail
at the drawing board. Many MPs would like a bigger say when legislation
is still at the planning stage. But this pre-legislative scrutiny happens
ALLEN: I think what we need to
do is to make sure that it becomes the norm, there may be certain bills
that it's not appropriate for, but I think we should say as standard practice
a Bill should go through so many weeks of pre-legislative scrutiny.
DIGNAN: But reformers want to go
further. They believe that scrutiny should be bolstered by allowing outside
experts to give their views of proposed legislation.
LORD NORTON: This is central, that the
House of Commons has information and advice that is alternative to that
provided by government. If the government is a monopoly supplier or a near
monopoly supplier of information to the House of Commons, the House of
Commons cannot do an effective job in challenging government.
DIGNAN: But what ministers want
is to be allowed to carry bills over into the next session of Parliament
if time is running out. Robin Cook agrees. Yet even Labour MPs concede
this would deprive the opposition of an important weapon.
FISHER: It takes away the weapon
of power and time, from not only the opposition parties, from parliament
as a whole, and it's only time at the moment that puts pressure on the
government to make concessions and to compromise on their legislation.
DIGNAN: Although he made no mention
of it to the Constitution Unit, Robin Cook has a compromise in mind. In
return for allowing ministers more time to get their bills through, the
government could hand control of the day to day parliamentary timetable
to a new all-party business committee. But he's been forced to keep quiet
about the idea because some ministers don't like it.
RIDDELL: This proposal was made
by Robin Cook, when he put it to Cabinet there was a kind of horror from
the traditionalists, people like Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, Jack
Straw the Foreign Secretary who's very interested in Commons matters, and
Margaret Beckett the former Leader of the Commons who's very conservative
on these matters, and so Robin Cook was forced to drop this idea.
FISHER: We've got to convince the
Prime Minister and the Cabinet and a number of other vested interests.
The reason for it is that the moment the government takes complete control
of all the business of the House, so it's not parliament's business, it's
the government's business.
PAUL TYLER MP: I think there's resistance
from people who like to see Parliament as really the lap dog of the Executive,
you know, something that's got to be organised and run, but it isn't something
that's allowed to interfere with the, with the business of government.
DIGNAN: Down the corridor from
the Commons there's another house which needs modernising - the House of
Lords. But Tony Blair's plans are seen as merely cosmetic. He's shown again,
that when it comes to parliamentary reform, his taste is somewhat restrained.
The dilemma is over electing the Lords. That might increase its power -
so ministers have decided only one in five peers should be elected.
RIDDELL: They want a subservient
House which essentially tidies up for the failings of the House of Commons
and has a veneer, a pretty small veneer of democracy of elected members.
ALLEN: The proposals don't go far
enough, we have got a massive landslide victory in 1997 and 2001 and I
think history will not judge us very well if we don't use that tremendous
opportunity to do something that most of us in the Labour Party have dreamt
about and that is having a properly elected House of Lords or second chamber.
DIGNAN: And if that does make it
more of an equal to the Commons, it may be no bad thing. Even Labour MPs
are often pleased when the Lords sends legislation back here to the Lower
House, heavily amended against government wishes. Indeed, some Labour MPs
who voted for the Terrorism Bill were rather hoping the Lords would make
changes to the legislation.
WRIGHT: I remember going through
the Lobby on one of these votes and one of my colleagues shaking his head
and saying, never mind, the Lords will sort it out for us. And everybody
agreed with that and it got you off the hook, because you knew what you
were doing was daft, but they would sort it out down the corridor. But
of course when it comes back from down the corridor, then of course the
system says, who are these people down the corridor to decide what we do,
not elected are they? So at the moment it's a real nonsense.
DIGNAN: Parliament stands proudly
at the apex of our political system. Yet despite its splendour, its image
is now tarnished. The job of Standards Commissioner is being downgraded
because Elizabeth Filkin, who investigates allegations about MPs' finances,
has trodden on too many toes.
Even some MPs who have criticisms of Elizabeth Filkin are appalled at
the way she's been treated. They fear it will deepen voters' cynicism about
politicians and could cast a long shadow over any serious attempt at modernising
ALLEN: I think we've managed to
snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on this one. I think politics in
the UK is probably the cleanest in the world and yet the perception we've
managed to generate is that we want to be the judges in our own court.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
WRIGHT: Even at the level of perception
which is so important here, people should've seen that you know to have
set about trying to remove her, or to downgrade her is ruinous, in terms
of people's perception of this institution. And it destroys all the good
work you've done in these recent years to pull back trust that had been
lost through those bad days.
DIGNAN: In a few days' time Parliament
rises for Christmas. Labour MPs will look back on a year which brought
them a second landslide victory. Yet more people stayed at home than voted
Labour. Robin Cook believes they're losing faith in our political system.
His problem will be persuading his cabinet colleagues that the answer is
a stronger parliament.