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The politics of power, by Graham Allen

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15 July 2005

Too many Bills emanating from government are simply nodded through. Letting MPs elect members of select committees would give backbenchers the role they deserve and democracy a necessary boost

As William Gladstone once said, the role of the House of Commons is not to govern the country but to hold to account those who do. More than 100 years later, this is still a good rule of thumb by which to measure Parliament.

Clearly, it is currently failing in that task. The government pours legislation through its open sluice, barely considered or amended. Standing committees nominally set up to go through potential legislation line by line are formulaic, rarely amending Bills and with most members taking the opportunity to deal with their correspondence.

While the Home Office is the worst at treating the House of Commons as a legislative sausage machine, many other departments are not far behind. Billions of pounds are nodded through without question or debate under the heading of 'additional estimates'. Parliament no longer even pretends to do the vital job of authorising government spending — over which it once led a civil war.

Number 10 fails to realise that a strong effective Parliament will help the Executive deliver its policies and get better value for money. However, British politics will continue to operate with one parliamentary hand tied behind its back until such time as Downing Street treats the legislature as a partner rather than as a potential threat to be contained. Without an effective separation of powers, our democracy is hobbled.

Nowhere is this Executive fear of Parliament more obvious than in the recent choice of MPs for departmental select committees. This brilliant innovation, established in 1979, has failed to evolve to meet the challenges of modern politics. Select committees are slow, cumbersome and reactive in their deliberations. Without any meaningful interface with which to negotiate with government, they are massively underachieving.

One of the main reasons for this is that they are the creation not of Parliament but of the Executive. Their members are vetted and nominated by the very government they are meant to hold to account. The government divides up the chair and member positions and distributes them on the basis of patronage to reward the compliant and preoccupy the awkward.

I know this since, as a former government whip, I was instrumental in this process. The plum jobs of committee chairs, which now carry an extra salary, are awarded by government even before the members are selected.

This happened once again on July 13, when Parliament rubber-stamped the list of committee members and chairs handed down by the whips. Until members of Parliament of all parties develop the self respect to stand up to Executives of all political colours, this demeaning process will continue.

The answer is straightforward. Last week, 65 MPs requested that MPs should be allowed to elect their representatives on select committees by secret ballot so that they would become parliamentary institutions rather than ornaments of government.

However, since it is the government that places every item on the daily parliamentary agenda, this request was not even selected for debate, let alone voted on.

A strong and independent Parliament with effective committees reporting to it would give a new lease of life to those so recently elected by the public but currently held prisoner in Her Majesty's Open Prison Westminster.

It would also test and develop government policy. If Parliament used both pre- and post-legislative scrutiny — with both processes being covered on-line so that professionals and the public could be involved — it would start to make a serious contribution to creating effective governance, broader consensus and wider public involvement.

Until that point, all policy will continue to come unhealthily from a diminishing policy gene pool, will lack legitimacy and be imposed from on high on an ever more jaundiced public.

Come what may, rather than being satisfied by crumbs granted by government, Parliament should start drawing up the menu.

Graham Allen is the Labour MP for Nottingham North

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