This broken Parliament is part time

Labour tells us we need full time MPs. What a good idea. It is the Labour government and the Labour majority in the Commons that makes all MPs very part time.

My main job is to hold the government to account. It is to cross examine them over their policies, to request they put things right that government has got wrong, to seek improvements to public services, to expose waste and maladministration, to criticise, amend and improve their laws, to approve or vote against their budgets.

I am not allowed to hold the government to account in Parliament on Saturday or Sunday, as we do not meet, or on Fridays when only meet to consider private members business. Parliament is closed completely for 17 weeks of the year. In July we will be told we have to stay away until the second week of October!

That means, in total, we can only do our prime jobs for 140 days of the year. It is a part time Parliament. It is all part of this governement’s wasteful and ineffective public sector. No surviving private sector enterprise would be as overmanned as Parliament, and no successful company would work its key personnel as little.

Labour say an MP has work to do when their Parliament locks us out. Yes, it’s true there are still cases of take up and emails to answer. There are people and organisations to visit. In the long summer recess, however, all the schools are closed. Now the Health Service has been organised around large regional hospitals each MP has either just one or none to visit. Without Parliament in session it is not a full time job.

Some people think an MP should be a kind of ersatz or para Councillor. Councillors elected to the job do not take kindly to an MP trying to second guess their every move. If Labour wants us to be effective para locals, then we need powers to call in decisions, overturn planning or school allocation choices, or have some control over local executives and their budgets. No-one is proposing that, for the good reason that we elect Councillors and pay their bills to carry out just those tasks. Of course good MPs promise to take matters up with the Council when constituents are frustrated, but we have to explain we have no power to put things right or to change things for the better. In local matters we are just another lobbyist.

Providing value for the taxpayer has to be the theme of the next few years, as we battle the bulge in public spending and borrowing. We need fewer MPs, and Parliament needs to meet more often. It does not need to legislate more – indeed, legislating less would be welcome. It needs instead to spend more time going through budgets and programmes line by line, helping public sector executives root out waste and improve quality and efficiency.

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31 Comments

  1. Simon D
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    There seem to be two views of MPs.

    View 1

    Backbench MPs have an easy number. Parliament only sits for part of the year and its hours are not exactly onerous. TV shots of the Chamber disclose a sea of empty green benches with some luckless minister droning on to a handful of MPs. You don’t need to be fit and energetic to be an MP. The place is full of bed-blockers and the number of OAPs comes as a surprise. One member is 78! MPs fill some of the time with “constituency work” – doing jobs which should be done by local councillors. Brussels grinds relentlessly on, altering and regulating our lives without much democratic intervention. Devolution has given power to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. What do our MPs do with their time?

    View 2

    MPs fail to hold the Government to account. There is not enough debate on important issues. The Prime Minister’s inner circle creates policy initiatives and announces them to the media. MPs are told later. We are given the impression that Cabinet Government is a farce – it rubber stamps what Lord Mandelson and Mr. Balls have agreed with the Prime Minister the previous day. At present MPs look like a bunch of actors going through empty rituals. The Government takes no notice.

    The only game in town is that the Prime Minister has eleven months to win the next election. Expect election sound bites instead of serious reforms to the system. I am greatly looking forward to what the Conservatives have to say about Parliamentary and constitutional reform in their manifesto. It has been confirmed, so far, that they will shrink Parliament to 600 constituencies of equal numbers of voters, but not much else.

    • Mike Stallard
      Posted June 27, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      And reform is now urgent.
      We read today, in the Telegraph, that social security payments are bigger than the government’s income from income tax and, perhaps, National Insurance……..
      This is very serious because it is how Argentina crashed.

  2. Mick Anderson
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I agree completely, although you have undermined the argument for second homes in this article.

    Why do MPs need a second home for 140 nights a year? The “family friendly” times introduced a few years ago seem to mean that many MPs turn up halfway through Monday and return home after lunch on Thursday, meaning a mere 105 nights a year. Judging from the empty benches in Parliament, fewer than this for many members!

    Harking back to your previous article, this “short time” is one of the reasons why back-bench MPs should be encouraged to have second jobs. They obviously have time to kill, and should use it usefully, gaining experience of the world that the rest of us outside the Westminster Village live in. If they earn money from doing useful work, they should be able to keep what they have earned, as long as it is declared both to the Taxman and in the Book of Members Interests. So, the existing salary for an MP is rather good for a part time post. Equally, Parliamentary expenses should only be accrued when MPs are being MPs for the day, not when doing other work.

    Obviously, for the Government to benefit from this fully, the Executive needs to learn to listen to the people around it – those who have earned the experience. Better yet, replace the current aurally-challenged administration with a new, curious one that listens. Old dogs, new tricks….

    I suspect that if the next full Parliamentary term were to be devoted largely to clearing out the wasteful and cumbersome extra levels of bureaucracy, many of the countries economic woes would be sorted out as an inevitable by-product. Efficiency is the best cure for many technical problems. If nothing else, it’s much easier to analyse a problem when the padding has been stripped away.

    It doesn’t matter to me whether MPs are full or part time, or how many there are, as long as when they are at work they are doing something useful.

  3. Mike Stallard
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    This is so true! Comparing the Parliament with, say, a big business makes us see how very, very slack it has got.
    Meanwhile, here in the Styx, it hurts us too. Our local Comprehensive has a total monopoly of Secondary Education. The new Head (fourth in as many years) is good and is working miracles, but there is only so much she can do.
    £58,000,000 was announced for our Comprehensive and the one next door at March to share. What a waste of money!
    I wrote to our (excellent) MP Malcolm Moss to ask exactly what the Conservative policy was on education since it seems to change a lot and he wrote back almost immediately to say that he had forwarded my letter to Michael Gove. So far, no reply.
    I tell you this to show you just how dependent we are out here on what government decides. Without any government help, we will continue with our current incredibly inefficient system where the Comprehensive gets about the same results (24% 5 GCSE passes) as the Lincolnshire Secondary Moderns.
    With government reaching into the deepest recesses of the country so rigidly, it is crucial that we get some proper thinking and some real freedom fairly soon before another set of uneducated people flood out into the streets.

  4. guy herbert
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I’m agreed that parliament needs to legislate less, but that does not mean it should do less legislative work. It ought to do much more, so that the substance and detail of all legislation is properkly debated. (If it were, there would not be time to pass much.)

    I fear that currently many MPs have little idea what they are voting on during the passage of a Bill, and what idea they have often comes from party briefings. Some PLP briefings I’ve seen have actually been misleading. Dilligent professionals on the government benches will memorise, not criticise, the canting justifications produced by departments.

  5. The Half-Blood Welshman
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Out of curiosity, do Select Committees still meet over the summer? And if not, would there be mileage in them continuing to meet while Parliament is not so they could spend more time investigating the matters they are concerned with?

    • alan jutson
      Posted June 27, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      A good point given that most of the revelations on major topics seem to have been uncovered by Select Committees, not by debate in Parliament.

      This full time job, no second job thing is just a crude bit of publicity by Labour to try and embarass the members of other Political Paty’s especially the Conservatives, and an attempt to gain a few more votes at the election.

      The fact is that Labour have bought in and passed more laws (i think somewhere in the order of about 3,500) since they have been in power than any other Parliament. Most appear to be too complicated to operate efficiently, or in some cases at all, others have confused the existing Laws which were reasonably understood by most. Whilst many new laws have simply been poorly written and are unfit for proecution.

      The EU laws which relate to us seem never to be properly investigated (in Parliament) and unlike other Countries who simply forget about those Laws with which they do not agree, we try and impose and enforce all of them.

      The Tax system has become a nightmare to understand, and now involves a rainforest of paperwork to complete, with another rainforest of instructions to clarify.

      If Labour think we should have a full time Parliament, then the ball is in their Court they have a huge majority to change it.

      The Country is in crisis financially, businesses are failing left right and centre, immigration is uncontrolled, the prisons are full, we are at war abroad, the public sector debt is growing, education standards are in free fall, so lets all go on an 80 day holiday.

      Double talk yet again.

  6. andrew hammerschmiedt
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Considering Mondays do not start until mid-afternoon and Thursdays are dedicated to Business when most MPs are on their way home, are we not talking three days a week for the average MP? If so, it reduces the actual count to 105 days a year. £667 a day based on a £70k p/a salary.

    The underlying reason for the lack of work is of course that only twenty percent of legislation is made in Westminster now.

  7. FatBigot
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    The change you propose can only occur if government changes its whole attitude to Parliament. That change will require them to give-up powers they currently enjoy. The reason they enjoy the power to dictate rather than consult and debate is because they chose to follow that path. Nothing in established convention requires them to act like this, they do so of their own free will, which suggests they want to limit the extent to which their exercise of power is scrutinised. In these circumstances it is hard to envisage that they will decide to make their lives more difficult by submitting themselves to more Parliamentary examination of their judgments.

    I believe their choice to dictate rather than debate is rooted in the mid to late 1990s when their main line of attack against the Conservative government was that it was “split” on various issues, particularly the EU. Their seductive argument was that split = weakness, unity = strength; and once in government they wanted to portray themselves as strong. Having defined a template for strength, they followed it. And now they find they have power without the inconvenience of being required to account every day for how it is exercised. Why would they want to change this and open themselves up to the criticisms of weakness and dithering they used so effectively against Mr Major’s government?

  8. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    With all that spare time can we expect your party to have used it to produce detailed policies and plans to put to the electorate?

  9. Brin E.
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    If we need full time MPs, why is it that they don’t need to attend parliament for about six months of the year? If this is all that is needed, it would be far better for them to attend every day, for half a day and have a part time job elsewhere; at least parliament would be sitting to deal with a crisis should it arise.

  10. Alan Wheatley
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    In the periods when the Westminster Parliament could be meeting but isn’t, how about a virtual parliament, with debates via video conference, and the public able to watch via the Web. A means of scheduling, topic selection and calling speakers would be required, but this seems pretty straight forward.

    I guess those most interested in participating would be in the opposition, but that need not matter. If the case is well argued but one-sided, then that side will tend to carry public opinion. Government have the opinion of participation or not. Back bench MPs belonging to the party in power can make up their own minds.

    I would even put up with some advertising to provide the funding.

    Enterprise opportunity someone?

  11. Denis Cooper
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Oh dear, back to “we need fewer MPs”.

    Well, maybe we do need fewer MPs, or maybe we need more MPs; but above all we need better MPs, and until the fundamental problem with quality has been solved it seems an unhelpful distraction to talk about the comparatively minor issue of quantity.

    Everything that is wrong with our Parliament comes back to the kind of people we elect to the House of Commons; even when there are problems with the House of Lords, ultimately they can be traced back to decisions taken by the MPs.

    So I come back to my point that all bar two of the present MPs were elected after being pre-selected and then finally selected by political parties, offered and highly recommended to the electorate as official party candidates; and indeed just three political parties supplied 94% of all the present MPs.

    If we had a problem with medical colleges producing poor quality doctors we wouldn’t say “we need fewer doctors”; we’d look at how to reform those colleges, and if it became clear that they were beyond reform then we’d shut them down and replace them with new colleges.

  12. jean baker
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    John,

    You reported the extent to which legislation is passed ‘under the noses’ of the current numbers of opposition MP’s, by, if I understand correctly, deflecting full, democratic debate in the House.

    I fail to understand how fewer MP’s, in effect, weakening opposition, can be good for constituents or democracy.

    Do you anticipate an increase in the degree of ‘legislation by stealth’, current Labour practice, or do you envisage a decrease, by reducing MP representation ?

    Reply: We need more time to debate. There are plenty of MPs to use the time if made available.

  13. Demetrius
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Forty to fifty years ago, it was possible to know what Parliament was for, and how it did it.. Now, along with other parts of the Constitution, it is a disrupted, uncertain, mess. Worse, even those in Parliament do not know what they are doing, or why. The only ways the problems can be addressed are for Parliament itself to admit the problems and accept the pain of putting things right, whether as a two chamber or one chamber assembly. Another way is by some sort of revolution, peaceful or otherwise. Then there is Parliament simply being taken over by an external authority, either 1066 style or by surrending its authority. Lastly, there is the tried and traditional method of a simple collapse of any authority with the Atlantic Isles becoming a territory inhabited by warring tribes, as on occasions in the past.

    • jean baker
      Posted June 27, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      The ultimate aim of the EU – Brussels controlled Federal State is fully understood.

      Whilst Bliar prepares to achieve his aim of EU Presidency, Mandleson’s secondment from Brussels (and Campbell’s return) coincides with media, spin and sleaze designed to undermine Parliament and it’s constitution as well as MPs.

      Labour serves Brussels and Brussels alone …. it’s contempt for the electorate, their paymasters, is breathtaking. ‘Socialist totalitarianism’ wrapped up and sold to the public as ‘democracy’.

  14. WitteringsFromWitney
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    John,

    If only MPs would hold the Government to account. Reverting to your post on Regional Committees – only circa 200 MPs out of 646 present? Allowing for ‘pairing’, the odd Select Committee, where were the rest?

    If only local councillors could have the power to do their job. Like most, here in West Oxfordshire the district council is run by a Cabinet meaning the other 40 odd councillors are, in effect, disenfranchised.

    If political parties wish to devolve power then parties must do it and not just talk about it, whilst still retaining central control.

    Just saying is all…….

  15. Mark M
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    In the company I work for we have a turnover of over £2bn and profit were up 10% on last year.

    However, the latest work we are engaging in is an efficiency drive to identify areas where we are throwing money at a problem but not getting returns that match the extra level of spend. This is exactly the kind of exercise the government needs. It’s all well and good saying that spending has increased and, for instance, waiting lists have come down because we would expect the money to have some effect. The important thing is whether that money is as effective as it can be.

    In nearly £700bn I don’t believe that every penny is spent as efficiently as it can be. Any cost cutting exercise should be able to identify massive savings early on.

    • jean baker
      Posted June 27, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Reply to Demetrius (IT glitch/interference)

      The ultimate aim of the EU – Brussels controlled Federal State is fully understood.

      Whilst Bliar prepares to achieve his aim of EU Presidency, Mandleson’s secondment from Brussels (and Campbell’s return) coincides with media, spin and sleaze designed to undermine Parliament and it’s constitution as well as MPs.

      Labour serves Brussels and Brussels alone …. it’s contempt for the electorate, their paymasters, is breathtaking. ‘Socialist totalitarianism’ wrapped up and sold to the public as ‘democracy’.

  16. oldrightie
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    It does not need to legislate more –

    A refreshing Parliament would be one that tidied up legislation and reduced our laws by 50% or more! Imagine a daily announcement such as “Pubs and restaurants will be permitted, due to the dismissal of legislation, to decide if they wish to permit smoking or not.” Ergo, customers will have a choice!

    • jean baker
      Posted June 27, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      The government’s betrayal of those it’s paid to serve, specifically it’s betrayal over the Lisbon Treaty is treachery – ditto ‘choice’ with the smoking ban ….. etc. etc. etc.

      “Whoever would overthrow a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech ….. ” Benjamin Franklin.

  17. A. Sedgwick
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    An excellent piece and a vote winner. MPs need to have more authority in Parliament, fewer in number(particularly in Scotland), be paid more and be free from the Whips.

    • Denis Cooper
      Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      The Westminster Parliament deals with “reserved matters” which relate to the whole of the UK, and there’s no reason why a citizen resident in Scotland should have less of a say on such matters than a citizen resident in England.

      And in fact as a result of the Scotland Act 1998 that principle of equal representation is now observed as nearly as may be practicable, as the Boundary Commission for Scotland must use the same electoral quota for Scotland as that used in England:

      http://www.bcomm-scotland.gov.uk/5th_westminster/report/chapter2.pdf

      “1.3 … for the first review following the Scotland Act 1998, the electoral quota for England must be used to determine the appropriate number of Scottish seats at Westminster.”

      “3. The electorate in Scotland at the enumeration date for our review was 3,995,489. A strict division of the electorate by the electoral quota for England would provide for 57 constituencies, rather than the 72 which are presently allocated.”

      Because of the need to take into account geographical factors, which are especially difficult in Scotland, at the time of the 2005 general election there were 59 constituencies rather than 57.

      I know that there are people who will continue to try to stir up the English against the Scots by pretending otherwise, and I expect that some newspaper leader writers will continue to be unable to accept that their habitual complaint about there being too many Scottish MPs is now out of date, but the reality is that

      SCOTLAND IS NO LONGER OVER-REPRESENTED AT WESTMINSTER.

      As far as “devolved matters” are concerned, of course the Labour MPs elected in Scotland should cease to vote on England-only laws.

      If the Labour MPs in England had the slightest respect for their English constituents then they would have put a stop to it long ago, simply by saying that if a Labour MP elected in Scotland voted then a Labour MP elected in England would neutralise his vote by abstaining.

  18. John Moss
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    That is why MPs do not deserve an increase in their pay. they shoud be expected to have a secondary source of income if they are simply back-benchers, not least to keep them in touch with the “real world”.

    Only if they are senior members of Select Committees, or in Government, should they be excused this. Then, they shoud be paid additional amounts and be expected to work full-time.

    I remain of the view that an MP’s entire package should be wrapped up in a single “fee” paid to them on the basis they are self-employed and that their costs for staff, offices, living expenses away from their main home, etc should be treated as business costs and their validity assessed in the same way as any other small business, with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs deciding what is allowable and not.

    Regaining the trust of the people starts with living to the same rules as the people.

    • jean baker
      Posted June 27, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Whilst I appreciate the current party line is ‘MP bashing’, the fees office is 100% responsible for the (alleged) financial improprieties regarding disallowable expenses.

      Odd that no-one from the fees office has been brought before parliament to explain it’s overt open handedness with taxpayers’ money !

      Good MP’s nurture good relationships with their constituents and outweigh those labelled as ‘rogues’. The fees office clearly disregarded the rules.

  19. Cliff.
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I feel the government have effectively prevented our elected representatives from doing their job; The government uses guillotine motions to stifle debate and, because of the party system, Labour’s yes sheep tend to back such motions. Any body that prevents debate, suggests to me that their agenda is fundamentally flawed and that it will not stand up to further examination.

    In my opinion, the cabinet has become our equivalent to the EU’s commissioners and this view has been further strengthened recently by the increase in non-elected personnel in that cabinet.

    Unless there is a significant change in the way our parliament works and I don’t mean modernisation nor reform, I merely mean a return to its traditional way of working, then our democracy is dead.
    The party leaders have become too dictatorial and appear to believe the party is their own personal property to use as they see fit. All party leaders need to remember that the party belongs to its members and that the leaders are merely temporary caretakers of it.
    Both of the main party’s leaders have moved their party far away from their core values and thus away from their core supporters as they both chase the centre ground.

    I agree with you John that we need less legislation rather than more. We need to use existing legislation rather than constantly tinker with the law.

  20. Lola
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Since 85% of our legislation comes from Brussels I would have though that 140 days was plenty. 15% is approx 1/6 so you could do all the work in 5/6th of Monday and then go home for the rest of the week.

    Or am I missing something?

    • Denis Cooper
      Posted June 28, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      To be completely fair, many of the laws which are now made in Brussels would previously have been made here by government ministers, using powers granted to them by Parliament; and although Parliament retained the right to debate, and negate, any of them, the great majority would have been nodded through.

      In that respect the European Communities Act 1972 is an enabling act; but unlike a traditional enabling act to empower British ministers or officials in some British organisation to make regulations, always with the proviso that Parliament might object and negate them, it enables people in the EU institutions to make laws which Parliament can only negate if it’s prepared to put the UK government in breach of its international obligations under the EU treaties.

      It will come to that in the end, I feel sure, because with qualified majority voting we’re bound to end up with EU laws which would not be just irritating and debilitating and expensive, but which would have such a destructive effect on our country that Parliament would have to disapply them.

      So my guess is that although about 80 percent of our new laws now come from the EU, if that ceased to be the case then the legislative workload for MPs would not quintuple, but might perhaps double or treble.

  21. JohnOfEnfield
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I cannot understand why any legislation of any kind can be passed into law without debate by parliament. Labour seemed to have increased legislation by a vast amount and almost entirely removed the opportunity to discuss any of it.

    It would therefore be interesting to see an analysis of the amount of legislation passed into law versus the amount of legislation discussed compared over the lifetime of the current Labour Government against that the lifetime of its Conservative predecessor.

    I am not one for “chaining MPs to the bench” or for 48 weeks of 40 hour weeks spent in session each year.

    But ensuring proper debate and having sensible sessions would put a natural brake on how much legislation could be passed.

    I am tempted to include discussion of EU legislation and directives within the meaning of “any legislation of any kind”.

    • Denis Cooper
      Posted June 29, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Parliament has to delegate powers, or it would be debating every minor regulation, and indeed every local by-law. The crucial thing is that if necessary Parliament can negate a law made through delegated powers, and if those powers are being misused then it can take them back.

      The problem is that since 1972 Parliament has been delegating its powers to the EU; and while it can still negate laws made through those powers, and it can still recover those powers, there’s now the risk that any such re-assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty could lead to a falling out with our neighbours.

  22. mad tony
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Can you all make up your mind? I thought that it was supposed to be a full-time max 45 hours a week job. So it became more female-friendly so those with families will see them more and others could do what they want with their leisure time (like earn more money). Now Britain has an exclusion under the EU rules wrongly so for the working directive. However there was some MP appearing on Skynews saying that the job was over 60 hours a week! Make your mind up! Also what does the MPs’ staff do if they do not assist the MP and/or his surgeries?
    Me, I would means test all of them MPs and Lords so we know their income and wealth (and that applies to all government ministers as well as their Blind trusts).

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    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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