Parliament sidelined again

On Monday, after too long an Easter break, MPs wanted to hear from the Home Secretary.

We wanted to know why Damian Green had been interviewed and his office and papers searched, why he had been told he faced lifetime imprisonment, when after a long delay no charges were brought. I would liked to have asked that if Labour ever found itself in Opposition, would it expect a Conservative government to allow or to instruct the police to investigate every embarassing leak of documents by Labour MPs not relating to national security as a criminal matter?

We wanted to hear the Home Secretary’s view of the G20 policing, and to find out what she thought of the scenes we have all witnessed on TV. We would like to know if kettling is the best way of handling things, and if so what rights people have to food and drink, to comfort stops and to going home if they are caught up in the kettle without being a demonstrator.

And some MPs did want to hear about the resignation of Mr Quick and details of the anti terror raids carried out shortly after the press read Mr Quick’s papers.

Under the rules of Parliament, the government decides what it will give Statements on. Oppositions can only huff and puff if we disagree about what is important enough to warrant a Statement. This Home Secretary had just enough political nous to realise she had to make a Statement on something. She opted for what she thought was the soft option, of just making a satement on the third of these items. That meant we could not ask her questions about the other two. It was to be Hamlet without the Prince, and without Ophelia.

She presented an upbeat view of the anti terror action. She argued that Mr Quick’s mistake had done no damage to the operation. The arrests went ahead just a little earlier than planned, but thyere had been no other difficulty. She implied that a most dangerous terror plot had been foiled. The House was naturally pleased to hear that.

I asked if she at the time of the decision to go ahead was persuaded that the people to be arrested were likely to face serious criminal charges, and asked if that was likely to happen. She was very guarded in her answer, implying some doubts. 24 hours later I learnt form the media that none of the people involved were going to be charged with serious terrorist offences.

The Home Secretary did not return to the Commons to explain what had happened. Clearly something important changed between her statement and the next day, otherwise I assume she would have told me that charges were unlikely. And no, to the disappointment of many of you, no MP wanted to ask her about her expenses. We did think the policing issues were far more important. Expenses were always going to be discussed and changed at a different time and in a different way.

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11 Comments

  1. Rob N
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    John I think you should watch the film Swordfish, not a good film but the plot is all about how miss direction. I’ll leave it to you to look at historical events of the last 10 years to see if you think it’s been used, personally I think the spin doctors have been using it to great effect for some time.

  2. Ian Jones
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Nothing like Labour locking people up then covering up when it is all a mistake. Seems to happen a lot.

    I guess this is why they keep the law to extradite to the US with no evidence so any cover up can be a success as the Americans will prosecute anyone who looks like a muslim.

    Shocking.

  3. David Eyles
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    It seems that the Executive has almost total control over Parliament and yet Parliament cannot hold the Executive to account. To my knowledge, they control the agenda and they control their own backbenchers in a vote with a three line whip. They control the number of days that Parliament sits. The Speaker can control who is allowed to ask a question in debate and can sanction many other things. I have no doubt that there are many other ways in which the system can be, and is being, abused.

    Are there any Conservative plans for the reform of Parliament in order to restore democracy?

  4. alan jutson
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    John
    The System and the way Parliament works needs to change, if our representitives are not going to operate in the spirit of a true Democracy.
    Aware that Government does not want to be frustrated by a whole series of Opposition Questions on a whole range of subjects, as that would also destroy the sensible workings of the House, but there must be a better way than at present.
    True debate seems almost futile, when there is any discussion it would seem that 90% of MP’s are not even present.
    Its almost like talking to yourself.
    Seems to me most discussion goes on behind closed doors, which is also where all of the decisions are taken.
    But then you can do this, and treat the opposition Parties with contempt when you have an overall majority.

  5. Donna W
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    “Under the rules of Parliament, the government decides what it will give Statements on.”

    It’s about time this and other arcane rules of Parliament were changed. Our so-called Democracy isn’t a democracy and it isn’t working. We need to drag it into the 21st century and have the humility to admit that America is far better governed than we are. The Government should be required to give a Statement on matters of national importance and the Opposition and other members of Parliament SHOULD be able to demand one.

    At the moment, under our Parliamentary system, we have an elected Dictatorship and because of the way Labour has gerry-mandered Parliament and dealt with the Opposition (Damian Green), there is virtually no accountability. If Politicians genuinely want the majority of the electorate (and not just obsessives like me) to take an interest in politics and the governance of our country, they should take a long, hard look at Parliament (both Houses) and our entire system of Government – and make it far more accountable.

  6. Brigham
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I know this is off subject, but I have just seen that Tony Blair thinks the 50p tax is wrong. Does anyone know where he pays his income tax?!!!

  7. Paul
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Brigham,

    Please, please don’t be silly St. Tone of Blair is an ex labour politician. They work so hard on our behalf with such onerous 3 day weeks that they aren’t expected to pay income tax or submit to any of the stupid HMRC rules on claiming expenses and benefits in kind.

  8. Colin D.
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    All you describe is the collapse of democracy, government accountability, and openness to scrutiny. Prior to Labour, I believe there were two Question Times each week. A good first move from a Conservative Government would be to revert to the original regime.
    Another Labour wheeze is to announce longer and longer Parliamentary recesses. This conveniently further reduces the opportunities for questioning the Government. The Conservatives also need to address this.

  9. mikestallard
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    It really seems as if the Prime Minister has appointed a cabal of cyphers to agree with his every whim. It also appears that the parliament’s job (cp the EU) is to nod through all his ideas.
    This is no way to govern even a banana republic because nobody, even Fidel Castro, can do it properly.
    Please may we have our parliament back?
    Have the Conservatives any plans on this front?

  10. SJB
    Posted April 25, 2009 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    JR: “Under the rules of Parliament, the government decides what it will give Statements on. Oppositions can only huff and puff if we disagree about what is important enough to warrant a Statement.”

    You will know Erskine-May better than me, but I seem to remember Labour in opposition forcing all-night sittings and other disruptions when the stakes (from their point of view) were high; e.g. trade union reform legislation.

    What has astounded me is the weak Parliamentary response to Damian Green’s arrest; e.g. the Serjeant-at-Arms (a former civil servant) who gave her consent to the raid is still in place. Surely other non-Tory MPs must have been appalled too? So it seems odd that collectively no attempt was made to demonstrate Parliamentary disapproval using the most potent methods at MP’s disposal.

  11. Denis Cooper
    Posted April 26, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Once again, it all comes down to the character of the MPs.

    Ideally the paramount loyalty of every MP would be to the country, and he would see himself as the representative of the citizens resident within part of the country, his constituents, and he would be totally committed to national democracy.

    There are still some MPs who come as close to that ideal as is humanly possible, but they are now a small minority, maybe not even 10 per cent of the total – far too few to insist on the traditional rights of the House.

    Oh, except when it’s convenient – for example when the governing party wants to lock up suspects without charge or trial and has to face down the Lords to get the Bill through, or when it has to explain to the public why it’s refusing to hold a referendum that it promised in its manifesto.

    Then, suddenly, the Commons finds many staunch defenders of its rights.

    It’s worth remembering how people become MPs: first of all, through an internal party process of pre-selection and final selection of official candidates from among the party members – in total less than 1 per cent of the electorate – and then only afterwards do the other 99 per cent of electors have any say, when they can choose between the candidates on offer in each constituency.

    As just three parties supplied 94 per cent of the MPs elected at the last general election, obviously that is where we should look to find out why the system has being going so badly wrong.

    That’s what we’d do if it we had a problem with the quality of, say, doctors; if 94 per cent of new doctors were produced by just three medical colleges, and most of them were poor doctors, then we’d say that those colleges were failing in their task.

  • 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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