Letâ€™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 â€œcooperatingâ€ 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 electorateâ€™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.
MPsâ€™ 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 â€“ 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 governmentâ€™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? Shouldnâ€™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 constituentsâ€™ 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.