BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 16.12.01

Film: Terry Dignan reports on concerns amongst MPs about the Leader of the House of Commons' proposals to reform Parliament.

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 even further. 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 inspire confidence. 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 place. 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 only occasionally. 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 parliament. 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.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.