De-privileging parliament

Charon QC has some interesting thoughts on David Cameron’s plan to force the House of Commons to debate any matter which attracts 100,000 signatures in a petition, and to vote on any matter for which 1,000,000 petition signatories can be found. “Another good idea from the Laurel & Hardy Policy Institute?”

Charon QC also links Matthew Taylor’s excellent (and completely convincing) analysis of why there is no need to change the law to prevent MPs accused of criminal offences over expenses claims from claiming parliamentary privilege. “There’s really no uncertainty here”, he concludes. Despite this, David Cameron has pledged to introduce a “Parliamentary Privileges Bill” to “clarify” the position.

Add in Cameron’s intention to reduce the number of MPs by 10% and a worrying pattern emerges of a systematic move to reduce the powers and privileges of parliament. If Cameron’s plans come to fruition then the House of Commons that is elected in 2014 or 2015 will have far fewer potentially-troublesome backbench MPs, whose privileges will have been “clarified” by statute, and whose days will be occupied debating petitions drummed up by special interest groups rather than on scrutinising the executive.

Cameron no doubt now regrets calling himself “the heir to Blair”, but he seems to have one thing in common with Tony Blair: a certain disdain for parliament. The difference is that, thanks largely to the expenses scandal, Cameron is able to dress up this power-grab by the executive as a populist response to widespread disgust with the political class.

Against this is the likelihood that none of these measures will in fact be implemented as promised. Will MPs really vote their own jobs out of existence? Will a Conservative government really want to spend time on a “Parliamentary Privileges Bill” once the current furore over expenses prosecutions has died down? I’m sure that ways will be found to “filter” petitions or to reduce the impact of any petition-driven debates (ten-minute rule, Westminster Hall, that sort of thing). But all this – while limiting the effects of Cameron’s constitutional vandalism – will only reduce public trust and confidence in politics even further.

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6 thoughts on “De-privileging parliament”

  1. Everything I’ve read says Cameron wants to cut the number of MPs by 10%. And he’s talking about cutting the number of ministers as well, by more like 20%. Although that would result in fewer backbench MPs overall, it would also diminish the payroll proportion of Parliament, giving backbench MPs more influence, both individually and collectively. I think you ought to be fair and either believe or disbelieve both statements.

    There’s *another* Matthew Taylor? Gosh, that’s going to get confusing…

    Wouldn’t legislation ‘entrench’, to the extent that anything can be entrenched in British law, the Committee’s view? That is, currently all that needs to happen for privilege to be viewed differently is for a Select Committee of the House to set a different precedent. Legislation would, or could, ensure that any alteration had to go before the whole House, wouldn’t it? That’s patently a more subtle argument than Cameron’s, but the public has never had much time for subtle arguments.

  2. Oops, you’re right. Corrected.

    True also about the pledge to reduce ministerial numbers, though I’ll believe it when I see it (incoming PMs are great at making sweeping promises to “reduce the power of the whips” and so on – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both made those sort of noises upon entering No 10). Even then, though, my back-of-a-fag-packet calculation suggests this still means a drop in the absolute number of non-payroll MPs. Not a huge drop, but we’re not exactly overburdened with free-spirited MPs as it is.

    As for “entrenching” the committee’s view: if the position seemed unclear or uncertain then that might be worthwhile, but it doesn’t seem to be the case here. (As a thought experiment, imagine an MP committing a murder within the precincts of parliament, and then trying to claim “privilege”.)

    As a general rule, better to let the common law take its course unless and until the need for statutory intervention is demonstrated…

  3. Yes, it’s definitely a drop in the absolute number (of the order of 40, since 20 ministers would be returned to the backbenches), but the increase in *proportion* means that each individual MP has slightly greater influence in the House: each vote matters more to getting the needful majority, and more of the House’s voting power would be held by backbenchers if payroll diminished more rapidly. It does, on the other side of that coin, make the parliamentary party easier to Whip: neutralise a single backbencher and you’ve saved yourself a greater amount of pain.

    In other words, there’s a great degree of balance and counter-balance there, and arguments around numbers cannot be converted monotonically into either “more = better” or “fewer = better”. Nor, indeed, can the existence of that uncertainty be converted into “same = best”. It is rare that we have something spot-on, even if it is unclear what would make for an improvement.

    As a general rule, better to let the common law take its course unless and until the need for statutory intervention is demonstrated…

    Are you going to tell the government that, or shall I? 😉

  4. I agree that reducing the numbers of MPs isn’t inherently and necessarily wrong, even if I still disagree with the idea. (ISTM it’d be better to look at how they are elected, to reduce the number of “100% safe” seats – even better to have done so ten years ago rather than this week!)

    Two things make me suspicious about Cameron’s motives. First, his presentation of this as a way of saving money in the wake of the expenses scandal gives the proposal the air of cheap populism rather than a principled constitutional adjustment. Second, these proposals have to be seen in the context of Cameron’s general approach to leadership – a Blairite* approach in which a central cabal makes all the decisions, and the cabinet and parliament exist only to rubber-stamp the decisions thus made.

    (* Not that Brown is much different in practice – except that the cabal is smaller!)

  5. One other point: I really wasn’t trying to be “party political” here (I know I keep saying that about posts which slag off the Tories, but bear with me!). I think the decline in both the status of parliament and the standards of governance in this country are something to which both parties have contributed.

    My post looks at Cameron because chances are he is going to be the next PM, this will lead to changes, and on the evidence so far those changes look to be heading in the wrong direction. And where they are heading in the right direction – reducing the payroll vote, for example – I’m intensely sceptical of the likely outcome, simply because the imperatives of government and the dynamics of power between the executive and parliament won’t have changed.

  6. Yes, the long-term drift is a real problem, brought on by a perpetual political condition known as Something-Must-Be-Done-itis. I don’t, in that sense, think the malaise is so much about the whipping of MPs by the government as the whipping of the public by the media. (As much as we like to think it’s a peculiarly British disease, the whole Western world has come out in it.) Would that the Tories showed a bit more backbone in the face of it, but so far the evidence isn’t great.

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