101 uses for a zombie Parliament

14 May 2014

There are complaints that we face a “thin” Queen’s speech and that the next Parliament will not have much legislating to do. Good. As the Good Law project has shown we have far too much bad legislation – and year five of the last government saw some really bad political gesture legislation.

But rather than simply give MPs time off, here are some things that Parliament does not usually get round to which it might usefully do in the next nine months until the starting gun fires.

1) Tidy up the statute book – the Law Commission makes regular reports on out-of-date or no longer fit for purpose laws. And there are bits of unnecessary law which drive inefficiency (why, for instance, do HMRC send out redundant tax codes in January). A blitz on all those bits of tidying up that Parliament doesn’t get round to could leave the UK with slightly less incomprehensible laws. And while Parliament was at it, it could look again at all laws which governments haven’t bothered to put into force.
2) Ask ministers what has worked – and what hasn’t – if there is less to do on the floor of the House, there is more time to get down to some serious committee work. All parties are committed to “evidence” – so what better time for select committees to grill ministers and permanent secretaries on the impact of their policies – useful for voters and useful for would be ministers.
3) And find out about departmental spending – academics at the IFG conference on Monday were sceptical about Parliament’s ability to ever hold departments properly to account for what they spend (as opposed to make hay with a failed project) – time for a systematic look at where the money went and what we got for it.
4) And about arm’s-length bodies – governments say that they are “inefficient and unaccountable” – and one of the reasons is that Parliament does a bad job at holding ALBs to account. So each select committee could review both the progress of reform but also the state of relations between departments and ALBs – and take a view on where these are working well and where not. That might even inform the next post-election “bonfire”.
5) And what has been going on in Europe – It’s not quite Nigel Farage’s figure (Full Fact says you can claim anything between 15 and 50% of UK law comes from Europe ) – but a lot of law does. It’s treated as the province of the euronerds on the European scrutiny committees. MPs could use the chance to find out what has been happening in Europe. While they are at it, they could hold systematic evidence debates on all the papers the Government has been putting out for the “Balance of Competences Review”.
6) Look forward to the big issues for the next Parliament – MPs could influence where the next cuts will come from. Everyone knows that austerity will be a big theme in the next Parliament. But they could also look forward in other areas – and help inform public debate and themselves for next time round. It would be worth doing jointly with the House of Lords to draw on the expertise and experience there. There are a lot of academics looking for impact who would be keen to come and brief Parliament. Lots of think tanks too. chance for Parliament to set the agenda, rather than simply react.
7) Take Parliament out to citizens – The Speaker is keen on digital democracy. We now have e-petitions. But there should be a chance for MPs to show that the concerns of citizens can penetrate into Westminster by having “people’s hearings”. Or take debates out and engage with local government as well. How about open hearings in different parts of the country. Rather than complaining about public disengagement, could this be a chance to do something about it.
8) Mark their own homework – and how about committees following up their own work. Did any of their reports make any difference? How prescient or stupid do they look in hindsight? And who has made a good fist of being a committee chair and might merit re-election – and who has missed the target?

So I only managed to get to eight – but each one could, in a small way, improve government, Parliament and the quality of democracy. But we are keen to have other ideas – either post on the blog or join the debate at #zombieparliament.

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