Within hours of the general election Whitehall started making new MPs irrelevant. Even before the new parliament has heard the Queen’s Speech, Whitehall has begun to treat the legitimate and elected part of our political settlement with contempt by abolishing an effective part of parliamentary scrutiny, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee. New MPs will of course know of the battle between parties, but there is also an historic, never ending democratic battle – regardless of party – between the executive (government) and legislature (parliament). It is an uneven battle which – while not covered in new MPs’ induction packs – those who think beyond the tribal will soon become familiar with. It often transcends partisanship since all parties who aspire to run government also conspire to control parliament. This forces MPs into difficult choices as either parliamentarians who want to defend and extend our democracy or party representatives made to vote for leaderships that see only Whitehall power.
Government have taken in their first week their immediate opportunity to use their control over parliament to weaken its ability to hold them to account. In which other democracy are the institutions of those who hold government to account controlled by those who are to be held accountable? Key Whitehall officials who set Parliament’s agenda have been preparing for this moment from well before the election. They are the most powerful people in Parliament ,yet the most anonymous and beyond any democratic scrutiny. Led by Roy Stone, Private Secretary to the Chief Whip and Mike Winter, Head of the Leader of the House’s office, they operate in the dark, agents of the secret state of the most over-centralised political system in the Western world without so much as a Parliamentary Business Committee (promised but not delivered by the last government) to hold them to account. Even as our politics is in such disrepute, those who run the system are on auto pilot, not governed effectively by ministers, not challenged to think afresh to save our democracy from further erosion, just business as usual. The benefit of a five year parliament is that it can take the time now to get law right, to have proper engagement, to timetable helpful pre and post legislative scrutiny. However old habits die hard and ramming reflex drafts through parliament is what they have always done so why change now even though there is the opportunity to do so. It is just too easy, too tempting to carry on as before oblivious to, and dislocated from, the frustrations of the electorate.
One small early example of this bigger problem of Whitehall culture is ironically in the key area of democratic reform. Whitehall Officials are advising against the re-establishment of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee and selling it to gullible or busy ministers as part of the post Lib-Dem clean up. In the last Parliament the PCRSC was widely recognised as doing excellent work with first class examination and unanimous reports by Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and SDLP colleagues. It produced influential all party reports on English devolution, the need for a constitutional convention, parliamentary boundaries, the future for Scotland, improving the legislative process, a written constitution, voter disengagement, the ‘Gagging Bill’, electoral registration and many others.
The PCR Select Committee unlike long established Select Committees was not embedded in parliament’s standing orders but was created after the last election. Hence it has to be consciously – rather than automatically – recreated, something the government is now refusing to do. Dividing up its responsibilities between Select Committees with already full agendas can only lead to less focussed, less robust accountability to Parliament on these key democratic issues.
I would hold that the need for parliamentary accountability and public scrutiny on democratic change is more necessary after the election, not less. Our democracy is in turmoil. The Union faces a crisis internally and in its relations with Europe, devolution in England is now a pressing political issue, parliament needs to find a serious role, the Human Rights Act faces abolition, our massive over-centralisation creates sclerosis, disenchantment with politics and democracy, and the public questioning of the legitimacy of government is at an all-time high. Parliament needs to play its full part in addressing these problems and should not be denied effective means to do so by any government.
The government have nothing to fear from a proper partnership with parliament. Careful all party pre legislative scrutiny of its proposals will make for better law. Stuffing proposals with potentially enormous constitutional ramifications through a parliament unequipped with a dedicated all-party Select Committee could leave large areas undiscussed and undebated. A full five year government has plenty of time to get its legislation through properly, and a one party government should be especially sensitive to ensuring parliament is consulted adequately. If parliamentarians let this pass without comment it may well encourage Whitehall officials to propose other executive curbs to row back the gains made by the last parliament. The rights of all of us are at stake here.
Some may argue that democratic reform is not an important issue. I disagree, if the government had not abolished the PCR Select Committee and I had been elected by colleagues of all parties across the House, my proposed first year agenda – of five -would have included:
2.English votes for English laws.
3.The democratic implications of devolution in England.
4.The Human Rights Act.
5.Review of 2015 General Election re voter engagement and registration.
6.Constitutional implications of Smith Commission Scottish legislation.
7.A constitutional convention for the UK.
8. 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the future of a written/unwritten constitution.
It is doubtful any other hard working Select Committee could bolt this on to its agenda and give it the degree of scrutiny it deserves and needs.
Even in the first week after an election, the Whitehall agents of the 800lb gorilla of executive power are hard at work on the tiny but irritating squeak of the parliamentary mouse rather than fixing the broken democracy in partnership with parliament, “back to normal working” is not the slogan that will restore the reputation and capability of our democracy.