Parliamentary reform

Lord Norton

I spoke this evening to the all-party parliamentary group on the constitution.  My subject was parliamentary reform.  My thesis was that we rarely discuss parliamentary reform, even though we think we do.  We discuss changes to one or other House, sometimes at length, but rarely look at Parliament holistically and do not define what we mean by reform.  

Reform has meant different things at different times.  In 1911, for example, reform was a term used by Conservatives to denote changing the composition of the House and was offered as an alternative to the Liberal Government’s plans to restrict the powers of the House.  More recently, it has been used to denote changes within the House (used by opponents of an elected House) and to cover election of the House (the Government’s usage).   In terms of the purpose of reform within each House, it may be undertaken to expedite the passage of government business (e.g. timetable motions), for the convenience of members (e.g. changing sitting hours), to get rid of archaic practices (such as abolishing the requirement to wear a hat in the Commons to raise a point of order during a division), or to strengthen the House in calling government to account (through, e.g, the use of investigative select committees). 

We can distinguish reform to Parliament from reform within Parliament, though when then the subject is discussed it rarely is at the level of Parliament qua Parliament.  The term is usually used in respect of the Commons and focuses on structural and procedural change.  Changes to the Lords are usually embodied under the specific rubric of Lords reform and focus primarily on composition.   There is little discussion of Parliament as a whole and what is expected of it.  I quoted David Howarth, former Lib Dem MP and now a law academic at Cambridge who told the Constitution Committee in the Lords:

“We have no structural thinking going on about the interaction between the composition of the Houses [of Parliament], the electoral systems, the courts and so.  We have no thinking about how all of this fits together into a system of government.”

Indeed, the extent to which there is an absence of looking at Parliament’s place in the political system was apparent last year.  There was a referendum on whether AV should be used for elections to the House of Commons.  There was a Government draft Bill proposing a largely elected second chamber by a different electoral system.  The two debates essentially occurred independent of one another. 

The nature of the debate, focusing on one or other chamber, has another consequence, which is to neglect inter-cameral relations.  How do the two chambers co-operate with one another?  How do they resolve disputes?   There is some (increasing) co-operation through the establishment of – usually temporary – joint committees.   Disputes over legislation are resolved through the rather bunt mechanism of ‘ping pong’, involving no serious dialogue between the two chambers. 

My argument is that we need to think more seriously about Parliament as a Parliament, and not simply as two distinct chambers, operating largely independently of one another in the same building, and to address inter-cameral relations, thinking how we might enhance co-operation and whether there is a case for generating a new means of resolving disputes between the two chambers.  In short, the time has come actually to discuss parliamentary reform.

13 comments for “Parliamentary reform

  1. Rhodri Mawr
    18/12/2012 at 9:21 am

    There was a referendum on whether AV should be used for elections to the House of Commons. There was a Government draft Bill proposing a largely elected second chamber by a different electoral system. The two debates essentially occurred independent of one another

    and few people commented on it; a good many would have wondered, as I did.

  2. barry winetrobe
    18/12/2012 at 11:50 am

    Couldn’t agree more! ‘Parliamentary reform'(esp of Commons) over last 20 years has often (mainly?) been ‘parliamentary modernisation’, ie government-driven changes to smooth its own business under guise of greater parliamentary influence.

    Because there is an insufficient sense of ‘corporate identity’ within Parliament, there is no focus within/across the two Houses strong enough to stand up to government initiated pressures for change or to initiate its own reforms (ideally, nowadays, with full public engagement).

    The 2009 expenses scandal and its aftermath is a perfect example. The response to the scandal was largely driven – reactively, incoherently, illogically and ineffectively -by the Govt, and the opportunity for internal parliament/people-driven parliamentary reform was missed by way of the Govt-promoted Wright Committee in the Commons, which proposed a path of yet more incremental change (ie change which can be absorbed without fundamentally altering the parliamentary-executive power balance). There was little questioning of internal management responsibilty/accountability for the expenses scandal and the culture which allowed it to happen, despite the veneer of ‘modern management’ structures and methods under a ‘chief executive’.

    Public trust in parliament has not recovered, and vital autonomy has been surrendered, thereby weakening Parliament further.

    Ministerial wheezes are still unilaterally imposed on Parliament, such as the Govt e-petitions scheme, which the HC meekly accepts, despite disrupting the mini-reform of ‘backbench business committee’.

    The media/public, but, sadly, parliamentarians themselves, still generally look to Govt – esp and the office of Leader of the House – to reform Parliament. Esp in the Commons, genuine, meaningful control of its business, calendar and insitutional operation needs to grasped.

    Perhaps the new HC Committee review of the ‘Wright reforms’ will look seriously at these vital democratic issues you discuss, and not just be a complacent back-slapping exercise of what has been achieved with a request to Govt, Oliver Twist-like, for a further mini-slice of ‘reform’ please.

    • Lord Blagger
      18/12/2012 at 1:16 pm

      The 2009 expenses scandal and its aftermath is a perfect example. The response to the scandal was largely driven – reactively, incoherently, illogically and ineffectively -by the Govt


      It was driven to keep their mates in the money (Laws etc), whilst throwing the token MP/peer to the wolves.

      In the case of the Lords, there was a nasty racist dimension where the blacks and asians were thrown off the sledge, but whitey protected.

      • maude elwes
        29/12/2012 at 1:41 pm

        @Lord Blagger:


        Now that is funny. What sledge would that be?

        • Lord Blagger
          03/01/2013 at 11:18 am

          The one loaded with all the cash – your cash.

          Don’t forget, the consequences of all this government generosity has come at the expense of your pension, and other’s pensions.

          They’ve invested your money (if you’ve been contributing), into welfare claimants, subsidies to cronies, and their own pockets.

          Now they can’t pay, so they are starting on the cuts in services, to others.

          e.g. If you’re rich, work 40 years, pay 50% tax, plus NI etc, you’re going to get nothing. B***er off, you’re scum. Heard that one? Then when they b***er off, they are scum for b***ering off with the remainder of their money.

          Still not going to be enough to pay 5.01 bn escalating above inflation, on the 0.5 bn tax (just the pensions debts).

          So its going to work its way down the pay scale.

          e.g. 1% tax on properties. Can’t hurt can it. Unless interest rates are 0.5%, in which case it triples your housing cost. Notice how they spin it.

          Next stop, fat taxes, welfare cards, … Still won’t solve the debts. They won’t solve it, so it will solve itself. You won’t get anything.

          Look at Greece. The latest is retrospective pension and wage cuts. 15% off. Except because its retrospective you won’t be paid at all for a few months.

    • maude elwes
      29/12/2012 at 2:03 pm

      @Barry Winetrobe:

      Public trust in government will not recover unless and until they witness redemption. Not silly sounding apologies which say and mean nothing more than a kid in kindergarten sorry for trashing his mates crayons. This unfeeling action by a PM cannot be a serious attempt at an adult to offer ‘change’ to a people for the destruction of its cohesion and national culture. Especially when we hear idiots on the radio political shows daily impressing on us their pride in the devastation they created and how they plan more of it for us to enjoy next time round.

      The Public are waking up to the reality of the ‘fraud’ they have been subjected to and find nowhere to turn. Poverty and mayhem is the legacy denied by those who led them into it.

      In the past this kind of circumstance has led to revolution on a grand scale. But, as we are now quite a different breed, who knows what the outcome will be? Utter collapse or dire straits?

      Whatever, something has to give.

  3. Rhodri Mawr
    18/12/2012 at 3:19 pm

    I am not quite sure what Barry is trying to say.

    My ‘take’on expenses was that secrecy was no longer possible ,once the judiciary had moved out of parliament for good. So the Labour reform of the HofL actually caused their own expenses demise in 2010.

  4. Rhodri Mawr
    19/12/2012 at 10:57 am

    Quite apart from the non cosmetic personality of the one Gordon Brown!

    After describing me as the village idiot outside my home here one day before he lost his job, I have no hesitation in describing him as non-cosmetic!!! Ha!! Ha!!

    May he and all the cosmetic, and non-cosmetic members, of LotB enjoy their Saturnalian festivities!

  5. MilesJSD
    20/12/2012 at 9:03 am

    As far as “resolving disputes” is concerned, all levels of British governance, and sociality, need to establish the “win-win-win” Cooperative methodology as made plain by the Method III (see “Leader/Teacher/Parent Effectiveness Training” (Dr Thomas Gordon; also visible in “People Skills” (Bolton) and print-able as a 5-step guidelines from or (both voluntary-British-citizen non-profit sites).
    Not simply Governmental-Expenses are “no longer ‘secret’ matters

    every matter of
    Common-Environment/Resourcers/Stock and Common-Purse Income-versus-Expense,
    is no longer a ‘private’ matter.

    In short, if you (both personally in the Lifeplace, and dutifully in the Workplace) and your Human Race, both need and want to survive,
    and ‘thrive’ long-term within essential-comfort limits,
    then you need to start budgeting AND lifestyle-designing, I suggest on the basis of

    one-human-being is worth one-human-living.
    Neither is it any good trying to conceal the fact –
    – that past and present budgeting and lifestyling are fast over-consuming, degrading, and blindly-destroying not just the ‘plentiful’ resources (such as iron, water, fresh-air, rainforests, and seafoods) but the rare, precious and irreplaceable strategic resources such as titanium. copper, rubber and a long-list of other previously-thought-renewables in overkill-addition to the wasting of non-renewables –
    behind the possibility that Nature or an Act-of-God may destroy the whole planet first, before “our little mistakes” run us out of Lifesupports or out of means to find and emigrate to another and possibly wealthier planet elsewhere in the plentifully-stocked Galaxy !
    These are all Publicly Accountable, and Culpable, Matters.

    PS To see a list of ten known ‘Earthlife-Destroyers’ see the current TV documentary of that name:
    whilst the first four are of ‘Acts of God’ such as the planet being struck by a huge asteroid;
    the last five or six
    [that above I hinted are being ‘hidden’ (and ‘cowardly’ so) behind one or more of those ‘Natural Disasters’]
    are totally the doing of the present, and yet-future-planned-and-trained/educated government-heads-and-enforcement-arms, of our Human Race.
    That ‘Parliament’ should not yet be able, and willing, to establish Method III, both as a preparatory and first-resort, as well as as an ongoing Method for helping to prevent, slow, halt, and even reverse, whole ranges and dimensions of slidings down slippery-slopes
    is an unmentionably-stupid-and-selfish Disgrace.
    To be being awarded fat and additionally-bonused multiple-human-livings, for hastening both our human-race and the lifesupports of many other Lifeforms and ‘creatures-of-God’, is probably itself hiding behind the further insidious public-and-parliamentary ‘reasoning’ that
    “well, we shan’t be here to see the end-of-the-world, IF it comes”.

  6. Nazma FOURRE
    21/12/2012 at 12:29 pm

    Congratulations dear Lord Norton,
    This very good initiative permits the governement to account more on their actions and I do strongly advise the House of Lords to stand up in order to argue during the debates on any points which the house of lords finds suspicious. The House of commons has to account to.

    I do think at that stage, following the famous saying giving ceasar what belongs to ceasor which means that the power of the House of Lords which seems stagnant should be a revolving one. SO all lords, stand up together with dear Lord Norton and fight for democracy in the participation of all debates fundamental in Parliament. I do wish participants of this blog could be invited to attend such interesting debates. My email address is available by the sponsored society and should be happy to attend one such seminar and of course, to see my beloved lords and dear Queen.By the way, I am still optimistic to be hopefully be invited for a cup of tea together with the beloved Lords at her Majesty’s place and i am sure that other participants of this blog will be glad too. Sometimes it is high to catch the moon but dreams are not for fools only. Yesterday’s dream could be tomorrow”s reality. I am just optimist.
    God bless the United Kingdom and the Beloved lords. God save the Queen.
    Nazma FOURRE

  7. Frank W. Summers III
    22/12/2012 at 11:19 pm

    Lord Norton,

    it seems to me that in order to achieve that holisitic view one must keep alive a holisitic dialogue about the role of legislature in government and the role of government in society. Some conservatives fear this will lead to perpetual revolution but in fact that is not the case. An interest in comparative and historical political theory can often be used to enrich and improve and thus preserve existing institutions.

    this is surely one of the great traditions and well worth encouraging people to participate in as much as is practicable.
    The basic pursuit laid out in these three links is not intended to ignore your own significant contribution but simply to establish what context I am discussing.

  8. maude elwes
    02/01/2013 at 4:24 pm

    The kind of reform needed in our Parliament and by those who sit in it, is the reform of justice.

    What you should be doing in earnest is fighting against fraudsters, cheats and traitors.

    Allowing Ministers or has beens to use ‘Official Secrets’ as a defence in cases of torture and conspiracy to bring about the demise of our country, is an issue paramount to the day. Was he making money out of those who would gain from this act of terrorism? Who gave him the order to do this? Did he do it all by himself? Now that is a biggy for questioning isn’t it?

    Those who find their way into high office should be put on trial for their duplicity and pay a high price for their unlawful actions. Just as this man and his conspirators should face up to their crimes against humanity.

  9. Lord Blagger
    03/01/2013 at 11:37 am

    They are all fraudsters.

    They are taking money for state pensions.

    The accumulated debts are so large they can’t be paid.

    They have hidden the debts off the books.

    Fraud by misrepresentation – section 2, 2006 fraud act.

    So how are you going to get them to do anything about it when they are all in on the fraud?

Comments are closed.