Stephen Williams MP writes: Backbench committees and the louder Lib Dem voice

There has been much talk in recent weeks about how Liberal Democrats show our distinctiveness and make the party’s voice heard more loudly in government.

A key part of this is the role of the Lib Dem parliamentary committees, one of which I co-chair.

These committees are not simply talking shops. They perform two important functions: making our influence felt within government and preparing the ground for party policy in the future.

Increasingly, the fruits of these committees are being seen.

The Coalition Agreement is the contract that underwrites this government. It sets out the policy agenda agreed between ourselves and our Coalition partners.

However, the exact shape of the legislation and how it is introduced is, rightly, subject to scrutiny and improvement, and that is one of the roles our committees take on.

Take elected police commissioners for example. The Government is committed to introducing them, but it is right that we discuss and raise concerns about their remit and the manner in which they are introduced.

The Lib Dem home affairs committee has been doing just that and is applying pressure to make sure they are subject to robust checks and balances.

Take the issue of the state pension age for women. Jenny Willott, as co-chair of our work and pensions committee, is pressing for changes to ensure the increase in the state pension age does not unfairly disadvantage thousands of women who will not have been given adequate time to prepare for their retirement.

But we don’t just scrutinise and influence existing government policy, we bring forward new ideas.

Earlier this year, as a result of the work of the Treasury/BIS committee that I co-chair and the think tank CentreForum, I published proposals to distribute shares in the bailed-out banks to the British public.

Momentum is already building behind this idea. Another think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies has since come out in support of the proposals. Actually, what they did was make strikingly similar proposals that they published in their own name, but a good idea is a good idea and I’m glad more people are getting behind it.

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, following a question by my colleague Alan Beith, David Cameron said he was open to the idea.

Radical thinking does not become government policy overnight, but I am hoping to meet with the Prime Minister in the near future to see how we can take the proposals forward.

The advantage we have being in Government is that we can make our ideas a reality. Not every one, but then we didn’t win the election. Nonetheless, this is an opportunity to influence the direction of our country that liberals haven’t had for decades.

Through our parliamentary committees, Liberal Democrats are influencing and improving Coalition policy, pushing innovative ideas and laying the groundwork for party policy as we prepare for the next General Election in 2015.

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5 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 23rd May '11 - 3:44pm

    Thanks for this information Stephen. It shows how you and your colleagues are campaigning within Westminster to push forward distinctive Liberal Democrat policy amendments. But what are you and those colleagues of yours who lead for us on or chair these Committees doing to liaise with the Campaigns Department and ALDC to communicate with local parties and to involve them in campaigns on the same issues at the same time in the streets, neighbourhoods and communities of our nations?

    Only by integrating your work with the work of PPCs, councillors and campaigners beyond Westminster will the real impact of what you are doing get across to people. Only by working alongside our grassroots campaigners can the public be involved in and heard on the issues of the day.

    Finally, I think you will admit that a great deal of policy issues from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister before consultation with these committees. Because of this, do you feel inhibited in any way from fully scrutinizing such policies. Would you welcome consultation before a policy bears the signatures of the PM and DPM or those of Ministers and Secretaries of State?

  • I totally agree with Bill le Breton – I will go further.

    I am pleased that such Parliamentary Committees exist but I do feel that, if we are to be taken seriously as a Party, your voices need to be heard more often – stronger voices. What Bill says about liaising with the other organisations within the Party is so true –
    “Only by integrating your work with the work of PPCs, councillors and campaigners beyond Westminster will the real impact of what you are doing get across to people. Only by working alongside our grassroots campaigners can the public be involved in and heard on the issues of the day.”…..

    We need to know what you are doing but we also need to feel that, if we have any ideas, you will also listen to us. Too often our voices are not heard and we may as well be whistling in the wind for all anyone takes any notice of the grass roots activists.

    I think that Bill also makes a very valid point about the Committees never seeing some of the policies before they get signed by the PM or the DPM. This is, surely, an area which needs to be improved. In my opinion, I would wish to see the Committees having an input into these policies before they get to the PM or the DPM – surely that is what Consultative Committees are for – to advise on Policies and to scrutinise what is being put out as Policy.

    Parliamentary Committees need to have much stronger voices and a more decisive input into what the Party is doing on behalf of out Members. I also believe that one of the roles of the Backbenchers and Parliamentary Consultative Committees is to scrutinise very carefully what and how much of OUR Manifesto is being CHANGED in the Coalition agreement and to block any unacceptable proposals. We have made too many concessions already – there needs to be a halt on any more jettisoning of our ideals in order to remain in power.

    I hope the members of these Committees will act in our interests and not solely in the interests of the PM or, indeed, the DPM.

  • Sandy Walkington 24th May '11 - 12:34pm

    We need updated lists of every backbench parliamentarian who chairs these committees and how best to contact them – this may exist but useful to be reminded of it

  • Bill le Breton 25th May '11 - 9:46am

    @Rebekah, thank you for endorsing and strengthening my remarks which of course were written in the form of questions to the author.
    I know from being an occasional contributor of articles on this site that the editors ask you to keep an eye on comments and to respond to them. When no such response was forthcoming, I asked the editors to nudge the author. But still silence bordering on contempt..
    This shows just how disconnected Parliamentary campaigning is from the rest of the Party.
    @Sandy is one of our best and most experienced community campaigners and was a key campaigner during the last general election. It speaks volumes that he and therefore, we may assume, his fellow target seat PPCs are not linked in. What hope then for the rest of our parliamentary campaigners and for our councillors through the ALDC?
    This all reveals a strategic point that the leadership and its preferred campaigning arm believe that elections are won via the air war and cannot see the value of the ground war, which smacks too much of those awkward ‘activists’.
    The ray of hope is that a change in this strategy and the creation of an infrastructure that makes possible integrated campaigning that links minister, MP, PPC, Councillor, campaigner and citizen could begin to transform the way we are presently perceived by the electorate.
    However, because the emphasis has been on central, mass-media based campaigning the knowledge of how to mount integrated campaigns has been almost entirely lost.
    When I spoke to an office holder in a very important position recently about the ‘Dual Approach’ he admitted that he had never heard of it before.

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