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.