Value for money from Parliament?

Let’s face it. Parliament has become to some another of those monopoly nationalised industries that Labour always think work in the public interest, but which the public love to hate. People pay through the nose for the subsidised nationalised industries whether they use the service or not. The service is often not up to the standard they want. Now there are similar criticisms of the cost and performance of Parliament.

Tackling it is not easy. As perhaps the keenest advocate of competition as a force for better quality and lower cost, even I do not want competing legislatures. Indeed, I would dearly love it if we could stop the EU legislating, as the last few years of “cooperating” legislatures on both sides of the Channel has left us chronically over-governed and over regulated.

Fortunately at Westminster we still have first past the post elections at least once every five years. This means the consumers have the chance to sack the producers. Single member constituencies are the best means of keeping MPs honest and of restraining the wish of some MPs to laud their power over the rest. If we were to adopt the European system of PR, with MPs not answerable to a particular group of electors and beholden to their parties for their place on the list to get elected, we would find the electorate’s last grip over MPs had vanished.

Any sensible MP must see that the public no longer thinks they are getting good value for the money they have to spend on keeping Parliament going. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the problem of public sector waste. There are thousands in senior positions across the rambling public sector spending generous expense allowances with little public scrutiny. There will be thousands in management of the public sector watching the clock and demanding more help to carry out their work.

MPs’ performance, however, matters even though it is a small part of a general problem, because it is so public, and because MPs, especially ones who are Ministers, need to set a standard and a tone for the rest of the public sector to follow.

Parliament, like the rest of the public sector, in the last ten years has set about reducing its productivity and increasing its costs. This is the very opposite of what has happened in the increasingly competitive world of the private sector.

I would like to see Parliament set about proving it has taken on the board the message, and wishes to lead a crusade to raise the game of public service. I have a series of proposals which I think would help:

1. The time taken on doing the main job of holding the government to account and scrutinising new laws.
We need to increase the number of days when Parliament is allowed to meet – this government chopped it back too much with the half term breaks on top of the other summer and Bank holiday leave. Why not have a session in September? Why not restore a couple of days during the half terms, maybe without votes, so those of us who do not have to look after schoolchildren can still do the job?

2. Sitting hours.
It was argued we needed to cut the hours we sit in order to be family friendly. Packing up at 7.15 pm on a Wednesday does not allow someone with young children to see them awake or put them to bed, so why not run on to 10 pm as on Mondays and Tuesdays?

3. Topical debates.
The government’s idea that every Thursday should see a topical debate is a good one, but it is useless if they persist in choosing subjects the government thinks are harmless or are part of their propaganda for the week. Why not ballot to choose the motions, or allow the Opposition to choose alternate ones?

4. The number of MPs.
I used to represent almost 20,000 more electors than I do today, without complaints that I had skimped the job. Why does the Boundary Commission make MPs in seats with rising populations become less productive by taking voters away? Shouldn’t they be asked at subsequent reviews to come up with seats that are on average larger, so we can steadily reduce the numbers of MPs over time, to raise productivity?

5. The support for doing the job.
I understand many colleagues wish to have three or more staffers to help them. Some support is desirable to handle the wide range of issues and constituents’ queries. However, the last few years have seen a big increase in the permitted total cost. Why not have three years with no increases in the totals, to start to bring costs under control?

6. Let MPs take over work from other bodies where savings can be made.
Many electors think MPs are a kind of super Councillor, with powers to override Councils on issues like planning or schools places. Instead, we have no such power. One area where MPs could make a difference and substantial savings could be made is in the area of regional government. Why not remove the regional quangos, and where there is a need for a voice for a wider area to Ministers, ask MPs to provide that voice instead of the quango state? This does not require regional committees in the House as Labour has proposed, as these would seek to reinforce the artificial European regions so many of us dislike.

7. Stop turning Parliament into a fortress, and making it an expensive building site every recess.
I do not think visitors known to an MP and invited in and accompanied by the MP should have to wear sticky labels which often fall off their lapels and litter the place. We do not need more concrete bollards and ever more physical barriers to entry. Parliament is meant to offer access to all voters who want to visit or to meet their MP. The best way to protect it is to protect the country at large by controlling borders and monitoring terrorist groups closely.

These modest proposals would all help restore some confidence, and show that MPs want to lead a move to a better and more productive public sector. People could criticise them for not demanding enough of an improvement, but they would be a good start. Everyone of them requires the government to wish to use its majority to move us in that direction, as the majority rightly rules in Parliament. Over the last 10 years the majority has wanted shorter hours, fewer sitting days, less government accountability, and more schemes to cut Parliament off from the public.

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11 Comments

  1. Chuck Unsworth
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Well said, and at least some constructive proposals. Naturally the vested interests will ensure that none of this comes to fruition.

    What many MPs (and I'd include Mr Speaker in this) have failed to understand is the level of rage and loathing felt by so many of the electorate at how they have repeatedly been deceived. It appears to many that Parliamentarians are, by nature, mendacious, viciously self-seeking, and unprincipled.

    I cannot recall a time of such unreserved disgust with politicians and our political systems. That is the direct result of MPs own actions. Some in Parliament may say that this is media hype and is 'causing' deep cynicism. I would say that MPs have only themselves to blame for soiling and entirely discrediting our democratic processes.

  2. Neil Craig
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    A pure party list system can be argued as having that effect, though our present system means that in safe seats (the vast majority) the only people the MP has to satisfy is his party selection committee, which is not automaticaly more representative & may well be a mixture of nomenklatura & nutters.

    PR certainly allows people to win on their own terms without getting over the credibility hurdle of party support.

    An example of this is Margo MacDonald who was removed from the Scottish Nationalist's list by the aforementioned n&n, stood in a multimember PR seat & won. She is very much her own woman & owes nothing to party leaders.

  3. George C
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    The problem is that MPs will always been seen as having their noses in the trough while most of their spending is seen as expenses. In fact, most of what MPs spend public money on, all white collar workers take for granted – IT, secretarial support, postage etc. Is there not a way that much of the money doled out by the Office Costs Allowance could be centralised so that MPs 'expenses' could be reduced significantly. I should add, by the way, that the lauding of MPs with exceptionally low expenses is no right. Can an MP without any form of assistance be serving their constituents and acting as a good legislator?

  4. David Hannah
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the number of MPs, I completely agree. A reduction is desirable, and the increased competition for candidacy would increase the standard of talent. Perhaps a reduction to allow all MPs to take their places on the benches would be appropriate. It is often cited that California would be the world

  5. mikestallard
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Look, John, we all know that 80% of parliament's work is rubber stamping the diktats of the commission. This – once the Lisbon Treaty has been warmly welcomed by a huge majority – will rise to close on 100% very soon.
    Bang go our democratic votes, our juries, our innocence before the law, our ability to control our own lawgivers, our army, our foreign policy, our taxation system. We all know, too, that the accounts don't bear scrutiny and that billions are regularly squandered by the commission.
    We look on the Parliament site on the TV and see about four people in the House, except for scripted occasions: lots more empty green benches than people usually.
    We hear ministers on radio and TV who have no idea what they are talking about. They lie and prevaricate, if they even bother to turn up. Anyone can see that they are mere puppets who are working to instructions which none of them actually believes.
    And then we hear that our own MPs – whom we trusted before Blair came along – are just as corrupt as the EU ones.
    It makes us livid.
    The Left have always distrusted parliament (Spitting Image etc). Now – to parliament's cost – it is the right who are really angry.
    And I personally do not see where it is going to end.
    Do you?

  6. Adam
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    We can save time and money by reducing the amount of new legislation and statutory instruments that are rubber-stamped through Parliament.

    If there's no legislation to pass, there's no reason to sit.

  7. Michael
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Good proposals, but the first… why does Parliament still run to University, and now school, times? Why not 9-5, three or four days a week to allow for constituency work?

    And what will be the effect of the Lisbon Treaty? What justification will there be for the existence of Parliament, as power passes to the Eu and the regional quangos?

  8. Nick Dickinson
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Dear John,

    (first time for writing a dear John letter, but still).

    Seriously, I must agree with Mike Stallard, the Right are spitting tacks over Paliament right now. We just cannot see the point of having the EU costing us Billions with Parliament just rubber-stamping whatever comes across the channel, yet using us as a milch cow to pay for it. The areas that are starved of cash such as the Armed Forces are cut to the quick whilst the government (small 'g' as they can't manage it) splash the cash at (sorry to be so populist but) (words left out-ed) illegals.

    If we can't revert back to the pre '73 arrangement with the EU, or leave altogether, then at least we could (should) halve the number of MPs with no noticeable difference in output. ( rephrased by ed – it would also halve the chances of wrong expense claims)

    I work in the public sector and yet am embarrased on a daily basis about all of the nonsensical directives that come my way, from people who know nothing. Appointed far above their level of competence, whilst not listening to words of advice from below, yet drafting in armies of consultants who pretend to understand and force change because 'being a consultant means you're a professional and therefore must be right'. Idiots, the lot of them!

    To summarise. Leave the EU or 1/2 MP numbers, and slash the number of bureaucrats. Not peice-meal either, as they have a habit of sneaking back.

    Sorry for the rant.

    Nick.

  9. Laurence
    Posted February 6, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Since we are effectively no longer an independent sovereign nation and are ruled by 'directives' from the grossly anti-democratic, authoritatian EU which you and our other 'elected representatives' have so kindly handed us over to, what is the point of Parliament at all? The symbolism and self-importance of the institution is simply a constant provocative reminder of the consitutional liberties we achieved over centuries which have been betrayed in a generation.
    Personally the one thing I want to see before I die is a revolt by the British people resulting in us leaving the EU. In the meantime why not vastly reduce the size and expense of Parliament, effectively mothballing it until it is (hopefully) actually needed again?
    I don't know how MP's like yourself can go through the charade of parliamentary activity in our neutered state without a deep sense of shame.

    Reply: Don't blame me – I voted No in 1975. How did you vote?
    We still need a Parliament, and need to use it to have more control over Ministers negotiating new laws in Brussels as well as making new laws here.

  10. Laurence
    Posted February 7, 2008 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Redwood – I also voted 'No' in 1975. We have seen where people voting 'No' gets us with the EU. Absolutely nowhere. Its rulers are completely uninterested in democracy or accountability. I do not see how our Parliament can have any 'control' over anything emanating from Brussels, as we are legally bound to obey their 'directives' whether we like them or not. It is true that we will need to have retained our Parliament if we ever decide to leave this monstrous institution – but it doesn't need to be as bloated as it is at the moment.
    What I want to know is what YOU personally are doing to get us out of this nightmare and to save our constitution? And how can you continue membership of a party which totally accepts the EU in all its horror? Some Tories have already defected to UKIP. Why don't you if you are sincerely opposed to the EU. That would really be doing something to help!

    Reply: That would weaken the Eurosceptic opposition in the Commons still further and give our federalist enemies a field day!

  11. Bazman
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I always thought that Alan Beresford B'Stard was a little to close to the truth.
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/cb/New

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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