Let the Commons Rise Up against the Control Freaks ; the Suggestion That Only the Whips Are Fit to Appoint Select Committee Members Is Laughable

Article excerpt

`The function of Parliament is to hold the executive to account. That is the task for which history has cast the Commons." So said Betty Boothroyd in her velvet-and-steel valedictory speech as Speaker last week. But the Commons is failing in that task. The "chief forum of our nation", as she called it, has been bypassed, undermined and sidelined. Some of it - the effect of Europe and devolution - is possibly inevitable. But most is the result of an overmighty executive being unwilling to be held accountable by the peoples' representatives.

Ministers frequently bypass Parliament completely, making vital announcements in television and radio studios, or via the controllable challenge of the departmental press conference. The House of Commons is too difficult an environment for the masters of spin, too likely to ask awkward questions, or too prone to challenge the storyline that the party in power wants to sell.

When they do have to face Parliament, every trick is used to try to rig the game in favour of the executive. Parliamentary questions are answered slowly, reluctantly, and in a manner that conveys the least possible information.

In the last three years more legislation has been passed under "guillotine" or timetable rules which allow scant time for proper debate than was treated this way in the previous ten. Ludicrous timetables mean that many amendments are dropped without any consideration. During the final stages of the Football Disorder Bill, for instance, limited time meant it would have been impossible to even complete the voting on one set of amendments, let alone debate them. When dealing with laws that seriously infringe on the civil rights of perfectly innocent citizens, as this Bill does, this is nothing short of a disgrace.

These affronts to Parliament are not unique to this government - although the hubris engendered by its massive majority has made it worse than most in its willingness to sweep aside conventions in its own interest. Nevertheless the trend to diminish and demean Parliament has gone on for decades. The bigger the majority, the more dominant the prime minister, the greater the depredations.

One arm of Parliament's scrutiny of the executive, the system of select committees, has been a significant success. But their thorough research, careful and persistent questioning of ministers and other witnesses, and critical but non-partisan reports, have made the committees feared by the spin-doctors and media manipulators of the Government's image machine. The result? An attempt to thwart their effectiveness. This government, while not unique in its actions, is probably the worst ever in its obsession for control. On at least two occasions in this Parliament, the early leaking of their draft reports has compromised select committees, allowing departments to "get their retaliation in first". That kind of rapid rebuttal can cripple a committee's effectiveness.

The two occasions on which the Government has been caught out were the leaking of the report on Sierra Leone from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and the leaking of a report from the Social Services Select Committee. The Commons punished the culprits with a suspension. But the Government demonstrated its disdain for Parliament, and undermined the punishment, by promoting one of the culprits to the whips' office only three weeks after his suspension.

On a much more subtle level, the battle to influence select committees goes on every day. Government power in this battle depends to a large extent on its whips' office's ability to control the membership of the select committees.

This was why, in its report Shifting the Balance, the Commons Liaison Committee called for the select committee membership to be decided by an impartial and very senior committee of the Commons, not by whips. …