Opinion: Change needed

As Lynne Featherstone’s article on this site suggested, the Wednesday half hour of Prime Minister’s Questions is simply a mock medieval jousting tournament, appropriate for a mock medieval palace. As an MP, I only had to stand in for the Leader once, but I was a horrified observer for too many years.

For serious scrutiny, and real accountability, the half yearly interrogation of the PM by the Liaison Committee is potentially more valuable, and can still make good television. There the PM has to take questions – without the assistance of Ministerial colleagues or civil servants – for two whole hours, and he doesn’t get the last word. If squirming is your sport, the Liaison Committee is a good place to be a spectator.

It is instructive to compare the Commons theatre with what happens at Questions in the Lords. Here, we get serious answers to serious questions, followed by mini-debates with real substance.

It is tempting to explain this in terms of the present composition of the Lords. The dinosaurs claim this as a principal reason to fight to the death – perhaps literally – any plans to introduce a majority or totally elected membership. In fact it is a direct result of the absence of a Government majority: in our House Ministers cannot get away with purely partisan replies, designed only to stir enthusiasm or outrage amongst the rabble of supporters behind them. Answers in the Lords have to impart information if they are to cut any ice. Ministers have to persuade and convince a House which is constituted to be sceptical of ANY administration.

The various plans for wholesale reform of the Lords all envisage a proportional system of election which would virtually guarantee that the Second Chamber (or Senate?) would never have a Government majority, creating a pale echo of the Commons. My own 2005 Bill, drafted with cross-party support, included this safeguard. With only a third elected by STV every four or five years, there would be no danger of sudden swings replicating a General Election result for the Commons.

Of course, substantial reform of the electoral system for the Commons would mean that MPs would never permit the continuation of the more absurd adversarial games to which others have referred. International evidence suggests that where people have to work together, they behave better and come up with better solutions. I’ve no doubt our colleagues in the European Parliament would confirm that.

Liberal Democrats have rightly reiterated our commitment to ending the electoral fraud, which is the First Past the Post system. We know it distorts the choice of the voter, and disillusions those who feel disenfranchised as a result. Our recent Brighton Conference reaffirmed this position. Although it is not the primary justification, the impact of this essential reform on the way in which MPs approach their responsibilities is a very considerable added bonus.

Meanwhile, the tinkering with which both Gordon Brown and David Cameron seem to be obsessed, will do little or nothing to improve the way in which Parliament does its job. And if they dismiss the opportunity to tackle the underlying electoral confidence trick – to which a lame Government internal review will refer this month – our much vaunted British democracy will decline into further disrepute at home, and further disbelief abroad.

Paul Tyler was Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, working with Robin Cook on parliamentary reform, and now speaks on constitutional reform issues in the Lords.

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2 Comments

  • Rob Blackie 10th Jan '08 - 7:50am

    Off topic but the Guardian have done a nice summary of Nick’s first 23 days here at the end of a trail of a speech Nick is making on schools reform:
    http://politics.guardian.co.uk/libdems/story/0,,2238122,00.html

    The list consists of:
    · Said he doesn’t believe in God

    · Recruited Brian Eno as an adviser on reaching out to non-voters

    · Accused David Cameron of failing to understand modern families

    · Said 2008 should be the year to end ID cards

    · Launched a party commission on social mobility

    · Condemned Gordon Brown’s “monumental failure of leadership” on Kenya

    · Appointed leadership rival Chris Huhne to replace him as home affairs spokesman, and promoted younger MPs Ed Davey, Danny Alexander and Sarah Teather

  • dreamingspire 10th Jan '08 - 8:12am

    With all due respect to Paul Tyler for this tangential comment thread, the Guardian article is mainly about what Nick is kicking off. The short section at the end of the article, quoted by Rob, is sub-titled Nick’s out-tray and doesn’t include the major items listed in the main body of the article. The Grauniad fails again (and Rob fails us, too).

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