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Making Parliament more effective is not just a matter of longer sittings

Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, had a point when she said Parliament should sit for longer sessions if it is to perform its scrutiny function properly. After all the current Parliamentary session is about to end having sat for less than 140 days in the last year.

But whilst Parliament certainly does need to have longer sessions, that is not a sufficient answer for the issue of accountability. Parliament could sit for double the length of present sessions, but if that time is not used effectively and decisively, it won’t make much difference.

The real trouble with present procedures is that the activities of the House are all too often largely ritualistic combat in which the merits of fundamental issues are rarely entertained with the seriousness they deserve. That is not for want of Oppositions trying, but rather because all the cards are stacked overwhelmingly in favour of Governments so that they have merely to go through the motions to get their way.

If the Committee stages of Bills were significantly extended, it would make little difference if the Government Whip with a majority behind him ensured that every amendment put forward by the Opposition, however sound and sensible, was simply voted down.

It would have little effect to double the key Report stage of Bills to two days instead of one if still, as now, some 80% of MPs had not taken the trouble to inform themselves exactly what they were voting on and simply tamely followed their Whips into the lobbies as directed. Private Members’ Bills might well be allotted more time to have a chance of being seriously considered, but it would be to little or no avail if the timing and voting thresholds were still decisively stacked against them.

This is not to say that reforms are not already being made which are beginning to change the balance of power, however modestly, against Executive dominance. For the first time MPs opted in 2010 to elect the members of the all-important Select Committees rather than have them selected by the Whips.

But they still do not have the power to subpoena witnesses and confidential documents. Again in 2010 Back-Bench MPs for the first time secured the right to set up debates of their own choosing on the floor of the House, rather than being dependent on Government’s willingness to stage such debates (which in most cases they refused to do), but this still needs to be supplemented by a House Business Committee so that all the business taken in the Chamber has to be negotiated between the Executive and the Legislature. Outside expertise needs to be drawn much more extensively into the scrutiny of Government Bills.

Select Committee reports, at least the most important of them, should get a full day’s debate in the chamber on their main recommendations, together with a vote at the end. And Commissions of Inquiry set up by the Prime Minister should have their membership and terms of reference made subject to debate and vote of the House before they could be ratified.

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