How Should Parliament be Reformed to Make It More Effective?
This is an article about the reforms Parliament should make so it functions more effective. Previous to the current Government elected in May 2010.
There are a number of thinkers and commentators regarding whether Parliament should be reformed and how it should be reformed. These reforms can be broken down into external, reforms outside Parliament which affect Parliament, and internal, which are reform within Parliament.
Firstly, the most obvious way to reform Parliament externally would be to reform the electoral system. Currently, Westminster elections use the system of First-past-the-post where the candidate with the most votes wins. However, this system is highly disproportionate in both terms of the word as it exaggerates winning votes for example when Labour received 35% of the vote and won 55% of the seats in the last general election whereas it penalises small parties such as the Liberal Democrats. Particularly as FPTP produces landslide majorities, it makes Parliament less effective as the party that wins the general election forms the government and therefore has a large majority in most cases. If MPs belonging to the party vote along party lines all the time, in theory Parliament is rather ineffective when it comes to making decisions as well as scrutinising the government in an attempt to hold it to account. However, if the electoral system changed to one which was more proportionally representative in terms of the votes to seats ratio such as the Supplementary Vote which was used in the London Mayoral elections when Boris Johnson was elected, Parliament would be more effective, as well as the citizens of the country that vote as all votes count and would therefore be able to scrutinise the government better as there would be less of such a large majority which would also reduce executive dominance, which thinker Andrew Adonis says is key in strengthening Parliament. Also, if there was electoral reform, it would increase the likelihood of government coalitions with small parties if the results of voting are close and therefore the result of the union would be a stronger Parliament and a weaker executive as well as the mandate of government not being questioned.
Another reform recommended by Adonis which would make Parliament more effective would be a reform to the House of Lords. Whilst some may argue that this is an internal reform, it would effectively become an external reform also as he argues that the House of Lords should become more legitimate via the removal of certain peers e.g. the 92 hereditary Peers removed as part of the Stage One reform proposed originally by the now deceased Robin Cook. Adonis also suggests that the House of Lords should have a complete overhaul and like the House of Commons, should be elected. This would make the peers in the House of Lords more powerful as well as they would have been elected, and not chosen like some peers such as a Life peer and therefore if the House of Lords are more powerful, they would be more effective within their role, particularly when it comes to scrutinising government policy.
A third external reform which would make Parliament more effective would be to have an entrenched Bill of Rights and or Human Rights Act. Currently in the UK, the Bill of Rights and HRA are not entrenched, meaning that it fairly easy for the executive to bypass Parliament. However, if the UK Bill of Rights and HRA became entrenched, it would mean that the actions of the government would be stipulated in such a way that it would be obvious if they had breached the rules and therefore would be accountable for their actions; meaning Parliament could be more effective when holding the government to account as well as effective scrutiny.
Another reform of the external kind is having a stronger separation of powers as part of codified constitution. Whilst Heywood says that a codified constitution would limit government, perhaps in a similar way to which an entrenched HRA would, Adonis says that having a real separation of powers would make Parliament more effective as they would keep a check on each other, being both separate and interdependent. This would mean having no one person in more than one pillar of the three within the institution and instead being entirely separate so someone such as the Lord Chancellor wouldn’t be a part of all three pillars. This would make Parliament more effective as they wouldn’t have an interest of conflict when keeping a check on either the executive or the legislature.
On the other hand, whilst Adonis argues for Parliamentary reform via constitutional reform, Philip Norton accepts the need for reforms but says that the reforms should be internal to Parliament as external reforms risk the destruction of important traditions which are part of the institution that is Parliament.
Firstly, Norton argues for more powerful select committees as part of the reforms. Whilst the Conservatives created more Select Committees in 1979 and New Labour giving more funding for Select Committees to conduct more extensive research into proposals such as the Terror Bill, Norton still says that Select Committees are still flawed. He suggests that when scrutinising, Select Committees should have more specialist advice, and more summoning power to force government minister and other people regarding the proposals when they need to be questioned because in the past, ministers such as Edwina Currie have refused to answer questions regarding proposals. Likewise, Norton suggests that Select Committees should have more power, which the Powers Report also suggested, to act against these people who do not turn up or refuse to answer questions. Also, after Select Committees produce a report, Norton says that the Committees should exert more pressure on Government to act on these reports. These reforms regarding Select Committees make Parliament more effective as they would be stronger at scrutinising government policy if they had more power.
Another reform suggested by Norton and Gwyneth Dunwoody is the whips, the MPs who have influence and pressure on other MPs by saying how to vote on proposals in some cases, is for them to have less influence when stating who should be appointed to be a part of a Select Committee. This would make Parliament more effective as there would be less sycophant MPs voting along party lines if there is less influence from the Whips who encourage bias thinking also.
Likewise, Norton suggests that other committees like Standing Committees should be given more time to scrutinise legislation clauses which would make Parliament more effective as if more time was given, it would be better to see the flaws within the legislation which could be changed therefore strengthening the legislation in the long term, particularly when being used. He also suggests members of a Standing Committees should become more permanent as it would mean they would be more experience and therefore more effective when scrutinising legislation proposals.
Furthermore, Norton also argues for better pay and facilities for MPs as better pay would attract the very best, particularly the most intelligent to the job as there are more jobs which have a better pay than MPs do which are more attractive to academic individuals. He also mentioned better facilities as many MPs find that they cannot get enough research they need on issues to make an effective decision. Likewise, as MPs help run the country as they vote on the decisions, bringing the best to this political world we call Parliament, would be more effective as they would help make stronger decisions which would effect everyone in the UK.
Finally, Philip Norton argues for Parliament to become more effective, the size of Parliament should be reduced. With the total number of MPs currently standing at 646, Norton says that this is too many people for Parliament to be effective enough. He suggests that the number of MPs should be reduced to something between 400-450 MPs and says that the money saved from the 200 MPs that should be put into better wages which firstly, would make it more efficient for MPs to conduct their research and more time efficient when making decisions as having MPs would spend less time on issues meaning that more issues would be debated in Parliament and the amount of legislation that isn’t debated in Parliament would be reduced.
To conclude, there are various reforms internally and externally which would make Parliament more effective.
Essentials of UK Politics – Andrew Heywood
AS Pack – Parliamentary Reform
Parliamentary Reform – Eric Magee
How could Parliament be reduced to improve performance?
Governing the UK – Gillian Peele
How effective is the commons in holding the executive to account? – Gemma Harrison
Whips and Rebels – Philip Cowley
Reforming the House of Commons – ZigZag
Reform of the House of Lords – Zigzag