More Parliament less spin.

We need to mend our broken Parliament to stop these lies and dirty tricks.

One of the more cynical lines that came from the Prime Minister when he took over was his claim that he would banish the culture of spin, and put a strong Parliament back at the centre of our political life.

He was right about the problem. All can now see he was not serious about the answer.

Ministers in the Major government were not saints, but just look at the freedoms we have lost in the last decade compared to the way things ran in the 1990s:

1. Prime Minister’s Questions were held twice a week, giving the Opposition two days a week when they could choose the main topic to lead the news. Now we only have one day a week.
2. Parliament met for longer hours and for more weeks of the year, giving the Opposition more chance to challenge the government and make their points.
3. Most bills were debated for as long as the Opposition wished, both in Committee and on Report on the floor of the House. Today every Bill is rushed through on a short timetable decided by the government, with large amounts of each bill heavily amended by the government usually going through with no debate.
4. Ministers accepted they should tell the Commons before telling the media about any big problem or new policy. Today Parliament usually gets to hear about after the media has had a good run at the story when it is no longer very newsworthy and after it has been presented in the way the government wishes without Opposition criticisms.
5. If Ministers or their officials did misbehave and leak something in advance they were put under pressure for doing so. Often a leak enquiry followed. These gave the Opposition some chance to complain about the discourtesy to Parliament of the premature disclosure. Budgets and market sensitive information never leaked. Today budgets and matters relating to big banks and other large companies regularly leak.
6. Whilst Ministers could be political and were not averse to criticising Opposition mistakes or policies, most Ministers did think they had to answer questions about what they and their departments were doing when asked. Modern Ministers rarely try to answer a question put before going on to bash the Tories.
7. You could table written questions about anything the government was doing or was responsible for. I am often stopped from asking questions on the grounds that Ministers have said they won’t answer them – as at present where I cannot ask about the conduct of the nationalised banks.
8. If a Minister misled the House or made a mistake he or she was under pressure to offer an apology and to put it right. Today Ministers regularly get their “answers” wrong and hardly ever apologise or put the record straight.
9. Press Officers in departments were permanent civil servants who were very careful never to get drawn into politics. Today’s press offices are much bigger, dearer, and much closer to Ministers in what they do.

If Mr Brown wants to put things right, here is the minimum he has to do:

1. Recall Parliament for this week and set out in a Statement how Parliament will be taken more seriously and given more time to do its job.
2. Reinstate twice weekly PM’s Questions.
3. Offer a September session with Question times, Statements and general Adjournement debates on matters of interest to MPs who do want to do their jobs properly. Also offer similar non voting business weeks when no legislation is pushed through in the Commons during school half terms, so those of us without children to mind can hold the government to account.
4. Promise that Bills will only be subject to a timetable Motion from the government if the Opposition starts to delay a measure unreasonably.
5. Promise that in future announcements will be made to Parliament first.
6. Agree cuts to the spin doctor and Special Adviser army as a sign of some disarmament from the nasty spin war this government has launched.
7. Tell Ministers they do have to answer questions as well as bashing the Tories.

Don’t hold your breath. The Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that Mr McBride’s type of conduct has no place in modern government could just be more spin!

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26 Comments

  1. Kevin Lohse
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Dear John. I agree with everything you have proposed, but a tiny voice in my head keeps asking if the shadow cabinet would be as enthusiastic as I am. Giving back authority to an institution which has lost it would be a very altruistic thing to do. As we are going to have a massive majority in May, there will be a strong incentive to maintain the status quo.
    I really think that your ideas on Parliamentary organistion are ultimately beneficial to the restoration of democracy in the UK. Can you press for them to be included in our Manifesto?

    Reply: Yes, of course I am pressing for the Conservatives to want a strong Parliament. I think a strong Parliament produces better government. They will do soem of this – the issue is how much?

    • Kevin Lohse
      Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      I wish you every success, Please keep us informed as to the progress of your efforts.

    • Freddy
      Posted April 14, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      “As we are going to have a massive majority in May…”

      Careful – that’s not what the polls say. Never underestimate the power of the tribal vote.

      • Kevin Lohse
        Posted April 14, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Freddy. I was door-knocking in 1997. The votes were there, but many Tory voters were too ashamed of the PCP to vote for them, or voted UKIP in protest. I think the same thing will happen to Labour. Many labour voters will not vote or vote BNP in protest.
        That is why the Left-wing blogs are getting so worked up over the BNP.

        • Freddy
          Posted April 14, 2009 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

          Kevin, thanks. For the avoidance of doubt, I really hope you’re right.

  2. Tony E
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    As you rightly suggest, there is almost no chance of the Labour government taking up these eminently sensible ideas. They are beyond redemption, the whole party part of the same desperate cling to power. Watching Stephen Pound MP on Sky this morning I was struck by the absurdity of his defence of Government and No10, and by the absurdity of his belief that nobody would see straight through it.
    ‘It’s all Guido and those nasty Tories fault, they are smearing us. Those E-mails were put in the public domain by Guido!’ He of course tried to tell us that the fact that the allegations had been sent to newspapers couldn’t have had anything to do with McBride. He must think we are fools!

    The question should now be, will an incoming Conservative government feel confident enough to restore the balance or will it feel that it needs to maintain the inbuilt government bias in parliamentary procedure?

    Nothing can change until Government changes, a fish rots from the head.

  3. Colin D.
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    An excellent list of freedoms we have lost. A good list of suggestions. Unfortunately, reality intervenes and Brown is neither bothered nor intending to put any of these things right.
    But CAMERON could! Cameron could strike a great blow for democracy and freedom by committing to do these things when he comes into office. By doing so, he could also give your despondent readership some hope right now. We could with something – anything – to defuse our anger about what is happening.

  4. Duyfken
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I wonder to what extent the speaker is responsible for the ills that beset the conduct of parliament as you have itemised. As just one instance, should not the Speaker ensure that any proper question be properly addressed by the PM or relevant Minister?

    • alan jutson
      Posted April 14, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      Exactly the point I have made a number of times.
      But it would appear that he has the support of the majority in Parliament according to JR.
      I can only assume it is all of the Labour MP’s.

  5. Acorn
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    John, is this where I mention separating the executive from the legislature again, (see my previous posts on the matter)?

    History tells us that all executives loose the plot after about eight to ten years. So after eight years it is only fair that we get rid of the separately elected prime minister and his appointed (non MP) cabinet ministers and give the nation a fresh start. And, they don’t get quango jobs when they go.

    Perhaps Parliament would then assume its rightful position with elected MPs that can think for themselves with no party whips to tell them which lobby to walk through. They may even have to do deals with each-other to get legislation through the Commons!

  6. A. Sedgwick
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Devolution and Brussells have removed the actual and perceived authority from the Commons. If we stay in the full EU this trend will continue until the Commons becomes similar to the Lords – an advisory adjunct. What is blindingly obvious to me and 55% of respondents in a recent poll is that we want our European involvement to be a free trade area and not much else. The Conservative Party leadership needs to realise that an EU in/out referendum is a barn storming election winner and such a commitment will also remove a divisive issue for at least a generation or two. Let the country decide.

  7. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Many people believe that our parliamentary democracy is now defunct and that the final nail in its coffin will be during, or at the end of, the next Parliament following the general election. Just what they expect to take its place is not clear but we don’t want anarchy do we? The Conservatives have a heavy responsibility to ensure that this does not happen but they need to start now. Take the initiative along the lines you suggest and show that there is hope for a better way of governing than the disgraceful ways of Blair and Brown. Honesty and integrity are essential values for a properly functioning parliamentary democracy. Please show that you are determined to bring them back and allow Parliament to function properly on behalf of the people of this country.

    • Michael Taylor
      Posted April 14, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Very right Mr Tomkinson. As feudalism degenerated into bastard-feudalism, so our democracy has degenerated into bastard-democracy. As various people have written before, Mr Cameron does not have the option of being an ‘ok’ Prime Minister, he needs to be a great Prime Minister if he is to avoid complete disaster.

      Trouble is, I’m not sure the evidence is there that he really sees how sick the political system has become. What happens after his first government, if he aims for just ‘ok’ is horrible to contemplate.

      • alan jutson
        Posted April 14, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        Michael
        Agreed !!!!!!1

  8. Posted April 14, 2009 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    It is not simply the House of Commons. There is a systemic failure in the machinery of government in the UK as a whole. It has happened before in history, and usually in association with prolonged economic difficulties. There have been times when damaging internal wars have been avoided, although often at the cost of engaging in foreign ones, but the risk of some form of collapse of authority has occurred before. New Labour because of its blundering ideologies, dictatorial methods, and incompetence is taking us close to the brink.

  9. Posted April 14, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Hear, hear. Let’s hope this ends up in a Conservative manifesto and lets hope that they stick to it, unlike Labour and their tuition fees/EU Constitution ‘promises’.

    Also a version of Hannan/Carswell’s Great Repeal Bill should be in order to allow people to protest outside parliament again, amongst other things. Outlining such a Bill would allow people to see the extent to which their actions have been restricted since Labour came to power in 1997, all in the name of security.

    An Englishman’s home was always his castle – make it so again.

  10. Freddy
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Much as I would like to see these freedoms returned, it troubles me that they only ever existed by “convention”. Even if Cameron does reintroduce them, then as soon as you have a sufficiently immoral government, they could all be swept away again.
    What this is leading towards, of course, is the need for some sort of set of parliamentary rules which cannot be overturned by a simple majority of the government of the day – some sort of super-majority would be needed, so the opposition can effectively block such changes.
    Which leads on to all manner of problems about written constitutions and one parliament binding its successor, and things with which our system is not well equipped to deal.

  11. Brigham
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    John, you have got one thing completely wrong. It doesn’t matter how many PM questions are held, this unscruplous excuse for a Prime Minister will never answer one question he is asked, except by the opposing sycophants.

  12. Posted April 14, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    By all means bring back two question times a week but make the second ‘ministerial’. What the last ten years have shown is that incompetent over-promoted ministers, whose only qualification for the job has been their loyalty to the party machine have consistently hidden their failings behind first Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown.

    Senior ministers taking turns to be put on the spot by the opposition could encourage a trend towards ability instead of sycophancy when it comes to their appointment.

    Reply: We do still have daily Question Times for other Ministers on a rota which works out at about once a month.

  13. Denis Cooper
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    These would all be worthwhile improvements in the way that the House of Commons operates, no doubt, but they won’t do anything about the calibre of its members.

    Nor would Cameron’s proposal to cut the number, ie the QUANTITY, of MPs do anything about their poor QUALITY.

    I’m afraid that it’s just a cynical attempt to chase the votes of people who are enraged by the appalling behaviour of many MPs, who now see them not as their elected representatives but as another species of parasite, and who don’t stop to think that a cut in their number will do nothing whatsover to improve their behaviour, and in fact could make it worse.

    We hear a lot about the Commons being “unrepresentative” in the statistical sense – not enough women, not enough black or brown people, and so on.

    But if anybody still wants to proceed on that statistical meaning, rather than the political meaning, of the word “representative”, how about this – there’s a group which makes up about 99% of the population, and yet only 0.3% of MPs belong to that group.

    In the statistical sense of the word, a “representative ” sample will accurately reflect the properties of the entire populaton; so how “unrepresentative” is the sample of the population which gets into the Commons, when only 0.3% them possess a characteristic that is shared by 99% of the population?

    I mean, of course, that 99% of the population are NOT members of any political party.

  14. Downsized Pete
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    “Reinstate twice weekly PM’s Questions.”

    Good point, but it would be an improvement to see Mr Brown turn up regularly for the weekly PMQs. I suspect that he will take any opportunity to avoid this as his performances always seem wooden and a bit shifty. A simple suggestion would be for Mr Cameron to attend all PMQs whether the Prime Minister is there or not. This would highlight the Tory commitment to putting Parliament back at the centre of political life whilst exposing this evasive and dupilicitous PM (or his hapless deputy) for what they really are.

  15. alan jutson
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    John
    Good to hear your views.
    Please keep up the good work and try to push your ideas forward to those who can change the system for the better.
    If the system does not reflect the peoples will for more Democracy and open Government, then UK PLC will be the looser in the end.

  16. SJB
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    In the course of repairing Parliament perhaps consider changing the electoral system. First-Past-the-Post worked when about 95% of voters chose either one of the two main parties – but now a substantial number of voters have no voice in Parliament. For example: UKIP (although I think an MP elected as a Tory defected), Green Party, BNP.

    Even if the Conservatives win a majority of seats at the next general election it seems likely that once again the government will not have the majority of the share of the vote.

    Also, remove the need to swear an oath of allegiance to the Monarch. If someone has won an election it hardly reflects well on Parliament to deny them their seat.

    Finally, I am at a loss as to why MPs did not make more of a fuss over the Damian Green incident because of the constitutional implications. Also, a few weeks ago, I read in the Mail on Sunday about a MP pressured to reveal information about a constituent to a … WPC! If MPs will not uphold their own privileges then you can hardly be surprised if some people think that Parliament is not worth the candle.

    Reply: PR encourages people to set up extreme parties which cannot win, and leads to even lower turnout as local and EU elections have shown.

    • SJB
      Posted April 15, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      In Germany a party must receive a minimum 5% share of the vote to win representation in the legislature. Therefore, small extremist parties are excluded. Applied in the UK, it might let UKIP voters achieve a voice in Parliament but deny the BNP.

      PR is used in German national elections. Turnout in recent years has been 75%+; pre-unification the figure was around 90%. Contrast that with UK national elections under FPTP: 2001=59.4%; 2005=61.3%.

  17. B Griffiths
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    It’s difficult now to avoid the growing sense that the British Labour Party is on the cusp of one of its periodic three-term peregrinations to the political wilderness. If an all-consuming economic cataclysm, which, if Brown didn’t exactly create, he certainly didn’t anticipate, and a still lingering anger over Iraq wasn’t enough, then the latest glimpse into the dark heart of New-Labour’s smear machine, will almost certainly consign them to as long a spell in dismal Opposition as the Tories have just endured.

  18. Denis Cooper
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Quite apart from withdrawal from the EU and denunciation of the ECHR, both of which are indispensable, I could easily list eight internal reform measures which I believe would dramatically improve representative democracy, while retaining first-past-the-post elections for the House of Commons. However they would all need the agreement of a House of Commons elected under first-past-the-post, and neither a Labour nor a Conservative majority would vote them through.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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