Monday, 30 March 2015

The 2010 parliament

As from today, we will be without MPs until a new lot is sworn in after the general election. That does not mean that there will be no government. David Cameron will continue to be the Queen's Minister until a new PM kisses hands. (I seem to recall one contentious action by Labour in their 2010 period of hiatus when they could not be held to account by the Commons, namely the granting of bonuses to the state-owned banks.)

Scrutiny has been the hall-mark of the 2010-2015 parliament. Boosted by the change in procedure that allowed their chairs to be elected by members rather than imposed by the powers-that-be, select committees have carried out some notable investigations and issued significant reports*. Ministers have been summoned by the Speaker to make statements to the House, on which they can be questioned, on significant situations or government actions. There has been an increasing tendency, which Speaker Bercow has been unable to stop, for government to rush to the mass media before considering that parliament might have a say.

I have mixed feelings about Speaker Bercow. On the one hand, he made a heavy-handed and crude attempt to reorganise Commons management, losing an outstanding Clerk in the process. He has also shown some partiality in his treatment of certain members - a fault he shared with a few of his predecessors. On the other hand, he has not only been supportive of back-benchers against the executive, but has also been concerned about how the Commons appears to the outside world, taking in its proceedings through television and the Web. I wish he had gone further in naming and even ejecting members who persist in holding loud personal conversations during questions sessions. If they are not interested in the subject under discussion, why are they in the Chamber?

He has also made a point of cutting short both rambling questions and extensive answers, even bringing the prime minister to order on one occasion. There is nothing he can do about stereotyped questions, though. These blight particularly Prime Minister's Questions, though other high-profile ministries come in for a share. The repetition of slogans dictated by PR advisors to the political parties and complementary "answers" must be a turn-off for the public as well as crowding out more productive inquiries.

These PR-dictated passages increasingly mar too many speeches, too. One might just as well have a robot deliver some of the stuff which has come from the Labour benches. The Conservatives have displayed a little more individuality, though some of their contributions to the budget debate have clearly been read from a brief. MPs are at their best when they are allowed to be themselves, as the valedictory debate showed. Freed from the diktats of their party managers, they revealed their true motivations and the personalities which appealed to their electorates in the first place.

There were also short valedictories from my MP, Hywel Francis, and from Elfyn Llwyd on yesterday's "Sunday Supplement". Dr Francis was one of the less biddable of Labour members - he reminded us that he voted against the invasion of Iraq - and also courteous and thoughtful in dealing with constituency correspondence, even when that was critical, as I can attest. Elfyn Llwyd demonstrated what individual members, even in small parties, can do.

Greg Mulholland - not retiring, and surely one of the more certain Liberal Democrat returners in May - also showed that back-bench MPs have the ability to change government policy, in his case reform of public house tenancies. It was more difficult for him, because he had to fight not only against some of his coalition partners with commercial interests but also against a minister from his own party who unwisely allowed himself to be briefed by the very pubcos which needed to be reformed.  Andrew George was thwarted in his move to correct the iniquities of the cuts to housing benefit only by an arcane manoeuvre by the government. The same mechanism was used to block what would have otherwise been a success by a Conservative back-bencher, the EU Referendum Bill. Sarah Teather also had her triumphs, including the ending of revenge evictions. These are the achievements by back-benchers which immediately come to mind, but a little research would produce more .

Another means by which back-benchers were potentiated in the last parliament was the back-bench business committee.  This was one of the late fruits of the select committee chaired by Tony Wright but, as David Heath reminded us in his last speech, more of the public administration committee's recommendations, and those he and Sir George Young raised when in the office of the Leader Of The House, need to be acted upon.

All in all, one of the best parliaments that I can remember. Certainly it was less supine than those dominated by huge Conservative or Labour majorities. All the signs are that May 2015 will also produce a balanced parliament, which bodes well for continuing empowerment of MPs. Naturally, I would want to see an increase in the number of Liberal Democrat members but at least I trust that the new House will continue the process of reform.

* There is a sense of hypocrisy in the flow of reports critical of the government emanating from two key select committees, chaired by vocal Labour members. So much of what they criticise could have been corrected under thirteen years of Labour rule. However, that does not diminish the validity of their judgments.

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