Before Parliament broke up for the summer, MPs seemed intent on demonstrating just how far the House of Commons remains from being a modern institution in tune with the country it is supposed to represent. MPs who are concerned about low levels of trust in politics and about increasing the diversity of people who choose to stand for Parliament need to recognise how bad this has made their institution look.
It began in June when three hours of possible debate on aspects of the EU Withdrawal Bill relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken up by votes following an earlier debate, leaving only 15 minutes for discussion of devolved issues. The absence of a procedural mechanism to allow ‘injury time’ for debates eaten into by previous votes aggravated tension between the devolved administrations and the Government over Brexit.
Understandably frustrated, particularly in light of the Scottish Parliament’s decision not to give its consent to the Withdrawal Bill, the SNP rummaged around at the back of the cupboard marked ‘procedural wheezes’. They came up with a ‘motion to sit in private’ which they deployed to try to disrupt the progress of the next day’s Prime Minister's Questions. Procedurally permissible but incomprehensible to the watching public. Surely parliamentary procedure should be as simple and easily understood as possible, not something to be used as a weapon of surprise?
Next, we had Sir Christopher Chope’s decision to thwart the progress of backbench legislation to ban ‘upskirting’ without a full second reading debate on the principle of the bill. Once again this was procedurally above board but unintelligible to the public. The public – to the extent it pays any attention at all to Westminster – hears backbenchers talking about the fact they have introduced legislation but does not realise that only a handful of the 236 backbench bills introduced since the 2017 election stand any chance of becoming law.
Then in July we had the media storm around Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis breaking an agreement not to participate in two crucial Brexit votes because he had been ‘paired’ with Jo Swinson MP, who was at home with her newborn baby. The fact he did this having remembered the agreement for seven votes earlier in the day undermined the traditional description of MPs as ‘honourable members’. It also highlighted the time-consuming inconvenience of voting-in-person for MPs with caring responsibilities – divisions took up the equivalent of six days last year – and the failure of the Government to allow a debate on proposals for a proxy system.
To top things off, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, undermined a commendable attempt to bring the Commons into the 21st century on allegations of bullying and harassment. She did so by taking the retrograde step of reducing the transparency of complaints against MPs, by removing details of investigations underway from the parliamentary website. The new report on bullying of House Staff from former High Court Judge Laura Cox, due out in the next few weeks, seems likely to stack up further evidence against allowing members to sit as judge and jury on their fellow MPs, as they continue to do in the most so serious cases under Leadsom’s new system.
These incidents reinforce negative stereotypes of politicians and highlight how antiquated a workplace the Commons remains. As Charles Walker MP, Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, said at a recent Institute event, the Government should be honest about its views on backbench proposals and not use procedure as a cloak for its objections. It should also provide time for the Commons to modernise itself by debating and making decisions about updating its processes.
The atmosphere in Parliament as it returns this week - with Brexit catalysing internal party feuds - is likely to be just as febrile as when it broke up in the summer. In this world of social media and 24-hour coverage, MPs are no longer justified in reassuring themselves that attention to the way Parliament is run remains confined to the ‘Westminster bubble’. The Brexit vote heightened public engagement in politics. The electorate is watching and would be forgiven for not being impressed with what it sees.