Over the past few decades, Parliament has become a much more open institution and has sought to enhance its links with citizens. There is already a substantial flow of correspondence between constituents and MPs – and the volume has grown substantially in recent years – but there have been problems at the institutional level. How does each House facilitate and encourage input from members of the public? There have not been the mechanisms for achieving input on a regular basis.
Both Houses have sought to address the issue. The Information Committee in the House of Lords published its excellent report, Are the Lords Listening? Creating connections between people and the public, in July of last year. The House of Commons has also variously addressed the issue. Among its recent changes has been the creation of a Backbench Business Committee, appointed to decide backbench business to be taken on 35 days each session, with at least 27 of them taken on the floor of the House. It has already published a report indicating in broad terms how it intends to proceed. On Wednesday, it organised a seminar with some academics and officials from other legislative bodies to consider how to develop its role, not least that of communicating with people inside and outside the House. I was one of the participants.
One way of developing the link with members of the public is through making greater use of petitions presented to the House. Though many people may devote time to organising and submitting a petition, when it reaches the Commons it essentially enters a parliamentary black hole. Enabling the Committee to consider petitions (paper and potentially electronic) and to put some forward for debate – decided not just on a quantitative basis (number of signatories) but also on various qualitative criteria (for example, does it address an issue of public policy, is it amenable to legislative resolution, is it a topic not previously or recently considered by Parliament?) – would to my mind be a considerable step forward. It is not the only step and, as the Committee makes clear in its report, it welcomes suggestions. The Committee is also committed to transparency and will be publishing its recommendations and reasons for them.
Recognition of the importance of developing the links between the legislature and citizens is not confined to Westminster. On Thursday, I attended a workshop, organised by my colleague, Dr Cristina Leston-Bandeira, which brought together scholars from a number of countries to address this very issue. The result will be a double special issue of The Journal of Legislative Studies. Much of the literature on legislatures has focused on the relationship of the legislature to the executive. There is now an awareness that more needs to be done to address the relationship between the legislature and the people.