15 MARCH 1963, Page 10

Revitalising Parliament

By DESMOND DONNELLY, MP rr HERE is a bold and colourful atmosphere 1 of `Gadzooks to the Lord Great Chamber- lain!' about the general debate on reforming Parliament. Yet the quieter truth is that Britain faces an overall crisis of machinery of govern- ment. Unless it is resolved, all future Govern- ments will be ineffective.

The problem of the House of Commons forms only a part of the much larger problem. At one end, there is the future organisation of the Civil Service. At local level, town hall democracy is diseased at the roots because of apathy, bureau- cracy and even an occasional whiff of corruption. When it conies to Parliament itself, the issue of the second chamber has to be faced. Thus, any answers to the declining vitality of the House of Commons must be fitted into the framework of the overall policy decisions and in this context, what should be the central functions of the House of Commons? My view is that the traditional doctrine whereby Parliament exercises its power over the Executive by controlling expenditure is outdated. And this this particular constitu- tional sacred cow should be put out to graze and brought back again only at the second stage.

The first function of Parliament, as it should be exercised by the House of Commons, is to act as the custodian of the national interest in its fullest sense. In the ultimate resort, it must make or unmake governments by express- ing confidence. Before the frozen constitution- alists arise in their wrath, I point to the most important ekample of modern times: the House of Commons wrested power from Neville Chamberlain and transferred it to Churchill without giving a moment's thought to the cost of the war. In brief, the constitutional theory upon which Parliament is based has advanced substantially from the original issue of Supply. Nevertheless, Supply must play its very im- important part in the control of the Executive. The House of Commons now votes literally hundreds of millions of pounds without even turning a hair. Often the majority of Members do not even know what they are doing. There is the annual incomprehensible Budget and the farce of the Finance Bill, in which the same speeches are made again and again in support of various poujadist interests. The Public Accounts Committee does valuable work. As for the rest—almost nothing.

Thirdly, the House of Commons should be responsible for acting as an overall scrutineer of the nation's administration. It can do this in a variety of ways—by expressing confidence or denying moneys as already stated. But it can act also as the forum in which malpractices are brought to light. Question Time is the best example of this, but the whole business of the House can be utilised for this purpose by any Member who has his wits about him and a fair bump of irreverence—the most important quality in politics next to integrity and courage, which are always at a premium.

The basic problem can now be seen to be one of means rather than ends. Parliament is in decline at the moment for a variety of reasons. First, the Government has rigged the rules of procedure against the House of Commons as a corporate body ever since the Home Rule controversy of the last century. Secondly, the individual Members of the House are always at a disadvantage against the Executive because of the lack of support of any proper research organisation. Invariably the sequence is that the Minister knows half the story about a par- ticular subject and the private Member—except for a fluke of personal experience—does not know enough to challenge the Minister upon his bland half-truths.

Successive Governments have also devised methods for taking up MPs' time, so that they are placed at a disadvantage if they wish to challenge the Executive. The theory that lies behind this policy is that the House gets up to mischief if it is not given plenty of legislation to keep it occupied. In addition to Governments, as such, who wish to prevent MPs making mis- chief, there are the party machines and whips. Therefore, in addition to the official Standing Committees and Select Committees, there are multitudinous specialist party committees on almost every subject, just in order to ensure that two or three can never be gathered to- gether—except in some Harold's name. The certain result of these specialist party com- mittees is to devitalise Parliament.

Finally, there is the personal problem of the MP. He has to live. And, if he is not to dedicate himself to the monastic life of Parliament, he may even have to bring up a family.

What then should be done?

1. If the House of Commons is to concentrate upon the major issues and discharge its central responsibility to the country, it must divest itself of many of its less important functions and duties. There is no alternative to this. It means devolution of part of its administrative scrutiny to new, elected regional authorities—or local parliaments—who would act within the broad policy laid down at Westminster.

Sir Edward Fellowes, the last Clerk of the House of Commons, in his evidence to the 1959 Select Committee on Procedure, said that he did not believe that opinion in Parliament was yet ready for major devolution. This is still the case. The task now is to awaken the country to the necessity for major surgery which will involve the complete reorganisation of our present system of local government and the estab- lishment of a new system.

2. There is now an almost unanswerable case for referring all Bills, including the Finance Bill (but excluding Bills of major constitutional importance), to Standing Committees for both Committee and Report Stages. The numbers on these Standing Committees could be reduced with advantage; but to safeguard the rights of MPs, all Members should be entitled to attend and argue their cases, but without voting.

There is the additional proposal to adopt specialist committees on the American model. I am strongly against this because it destroys the sovereignty of Parliament as a whole, upon which the true vitality of the House of Com- mons must rest. The idea that the House should meet in the morning for part of the week is the basis of another suggestion for airing back-bench grievances. This proposal has a major disadvan- tage. The morning sittings will tend to become 'a second-class show.' Or they will change the character of Parliament and force the exclusion of men with outside interests that are vital to refresh the judgment of MPs collectively.

The real way, therefore, to make available more time for debate of affairs and scrutiny of expenditure is to clear the Parliamentary Chamber's timetable of Committee work and to place such Committee work in the hands of Standing Committees.

The facilities, remuneration and status of MPs must be radically improved. The first and essential requirement is the creation of a major research organisation, as in the American Congress. It must be independent of Whitehall and at the disposal of all MPs.

An office and secretary for each MP are vital. The fact that it should be necessary to mention the requirement at al] is an indication of the level to which the status of Parliament has sunk in 1963 and the antediluvian nature of its method of working. It is also essential to provide each MP with an expense budget (£1,500 is a fair figure at present prices) out of which the MP's secretary, postage and telephone bills can be paid. It is wrong that these costs should ever be borne by individual MPs.

Lastly, there is MPs' pay. The specific problein is that many MPs must maintain two homes' I Indeed, I know that both I and my constituency gain from the fact that my real home is in it and that I come to London merely to work, and this practice should be encouraged. 1 believe that to meet the problem and to attract the able young family man it now becomes necessary to pay at least £2,250 per annum (how many Clerks of Rural District Councils get more?) together with a £750 per annum 'second home' allowance, mak- ing £3,000 a year in all (excluding the expenses budget). This salary should also be adjusted auto- matically with other public service pay awards, taking note of living costs, in order to avoid the quinquennial orgy of rich MPs wringing their hands before a trembling Prime Minister. There is another possible thought for reform: I, personally, would support the reduction 01 the membership of the House of Commons to some 400 MPs, perhaps with the introduction of the American primary system of selection of candidates, as opposed to nomination by an unrepresentative caucus. Given the proper facilities and modern means of travel, I see no reason why any efficient individual MP cannot look after the interests of 130,000 people and ; still maintain his outside interests if he wants to, although he must have adequate means to . devote as much time as he thinks fit to the nation's affairs, without confronting his farrn1` with hardship. of The reform or abolition of the House Lords into a Council of State, the establishment: of regional authorities and single-tier local: government and the reorganisation of the CivP, Service are subjects for the future. The televisa ing and broadcasting of proceedings is separate issue. Perhaps, if the House of C°11/,,i mons succeeds in reforming itself, these -follow consequentially.