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!