Some suggested improvements

By Sam Blainey March 20, 2015 12:08 pm

It may officially have a week or so left, but the end of the 2010-15 Parliament was surely marked by the Chancellor’s final Budget speech. With this in mind, I’ve taken the opportunity to suggest some changes in the next Parliament that could make the institution work better.

These suggestions are made in the full knowledge that not many of my ideas will get taken up. There are always better things for governments to do than constitutional reform, even if you’re improving how our democracy works. And the Houses of Parliament are, historically, a fundamentally conservative institution. Some folk genuinely think, for example, that Prime Minister’s Questions is ticking along wonderfully well. But while the likelihood is five years of institutional stasis, this is how Westminster could consider modernising and potentially better engaging the electorate.

PMQs. Prime Minister’s Questions stopped being either an advert for democracy or an effective means of holding the PM to account years ago. Rather than a half-hour of learned and skilled debate, it’s all too often filled with boisterous heckling and planted questions that have been shown not to attract or hold public attention. Margaret Hodge has been quoted as saying that she never attends as PMQs drives her mad. And if the Chair of arguably the most high profile Select Committee is disinterested in PMQs, what chance is there for a member of the public? Its audience is instead politicos and journalists who ‘score’ each performance as if the results will be tallied at the end of the parliament and the highest scorer given the Prime Minister’s job for the next five years.

Reform shouldn’t be that hard: letting TV cameras in the Commons range more widely across the chamber will improve behaviour within weeks (and is a good idea in itself). The Speaker should be able to disallow questions that are too obviously planted by party whips. The format could also be broadened, with the PM able to defer to a Secretary of State on a specific issue – this would ensure the session is used to hold the Government to account, which is surely the whole point of the exercise.

But I am not holding my breath: politicians seem oddly attached to the ritual or at least disinclined to speak out about it.

The Queen’s Speech. The pomp and circumstance notwithstanding, it seems excessive that once a year the Queen reads out a speech she didn’t write, at a time when her commitments are apparently being reduced rather than added to.

It makes you wonder – could the Monarch not just make a ceremonial appearance and declare the session open, with the Prime Minister actually setting out what his or her government is to do.

There is precedent – between Albert’s death in 1861 and her death in 1901, Queen Victoria only actually attended the State Opening on a handful of occasions. The Lord Chamberlain read the speech instead. There was a bit of grumbling but ultimately few Victorians seemed to care too much.

Or, if there must be some sort of speech, could Prince Charles not take over? Everyone seems happy that way: the event would retain its gravitas and would add to the Prince’s preparation to succeed the Queen. Given that Buckingham Palace has indicated that Charles will be doing more in the future, I am reasonably hopeful this one might just actually happen.

The House of Lords. Reform of the House of Lords is a topic that comes up again and again. This is borne out of the Lords having the most members of any parliamentary chamber in Europe, with only a handful of its members – the hereditary peers – being elected by an electorate of less than 100. It makes the Lords a far harder body for the public to love.

Defenders of the Lords often cite the fact that it attracts “experts” from a range of fields, but for every Lord Robert Winston there are ten party loyalists, given ermine and a title after many years of service. This does nothing for the quality of debate in the chambers, which is supposed to be far above that of the Commons thanks to the greater level of expertise amongst its members.

In one sense it does not even matter – elected, semi-elected, a chamber of the regions: all are an improvement. Even abolishing the Lords altogether is not beyond contemplation. Either way, an elected or part-elected Lords could be combined with reform of the Commons, including an update of constituency boundaries (long overdue but something the Conservatives were unable to get through the 2010-15 Parliament) and a cut in the number of MPs.

I really do hope that the next government picks one solution and pushes it through but I’m wearily resigned to it not being a priority for them, or the government not having the votes. The likelihood is that 2020 will roll around with a bigger unelected chamber, with politicians remaining mystified as to why the public remains disengaged with politics.

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