A House beyond repair?

September 15, 1995

In the middle of July, in the dog days of the parliamentary session, Andrew Rowe, the Tory MP for Mid-Kent, stood up in the House of Commons and delivered a tirade that would not, in its rhetorical force and constitutional urgency, have gone amiss during the high times of the mid-17th century.

He cited the polls which showed increasing proportions of people who believed Parliament was doing a bad job; he castigated the ineffectiveness of the House of Commons in dealing with European legislation, he talked about the narrowness of the experience MPs now bring to the House - how few of them for example have ever managed anything. He chalked up a damning statistic: three years ago the House of Commons approved more than 2,200 pages of legislation and 2,945 pages of statutory instruments. That is 13 pages of law and 18 statutory instruments for each of its working days. How real, sustained, and informed was the examination of that law?

"We have required every institution in the land - universities, the professions, business, big and small, schools, hospitals, and local authorities - to subject themselves to rigorous testing and radical change. They have mechanisms for passing on from one generation to the next the wisdom learned through experience: we do not. Only here, where their revolutions have been demanded or approved, is no planned change discernible," he said.

"Only here do we make no provision even to consider whether we should change. No one in here cares. A swollen executive relies on its existing Members, the ambition of its aspirants or the exhaustion of its former Members to keep this sovereign House in its posture of supine subservience."

That is the true case for constitutional change. The sovereign Parliament is unmanaged, unreformed, ineffective in several vital aspects. Apply modern tests of efficiency and economy to its work, and what is the result? The House of Commons, the Lords, the monarchy, the relations between them and the judiciary and the civil service, let alone formal sources of political power in local government and informal sources in the media have simply not been inquired into. The much vaunted public service management revolution which, for better or worse, has changed the way universities and a range of other public bodies operate has left the centre of the government untouched.

And the movement urging change has been growing. The Liberal Democrat policy portfolio has long contained constitutional reform, and now the Labour party has signed up to significant changes too. The rumble behind the incorporation into UK law of the European Convention on Human Rights has recently become a loud noise. A debate in the House of Lords a few months ago initiated by Lord Lester of Herne Hill demonstrated, to most onlookers at least, that the intellectual case against incorporation has been effectively abandoned by the government, which justified non-action by the doctrine of unripe time or sad comparisons between the record of the UK and that of the well-known west European democracy, Turkey, in having to tolerate referrals of cases to the European Court of Human Rights.

The detail of necessary change is disputable. Lord Beloff, founder of the University of Buckinghamshire and former Gladstone professor of government at Oxford, recently balanced the pros and cons of the House of Lords, widely seen in 1945 as an obsolescent part of the constitution. In a paper at July's Institute for Contemporary British History conference he posed the question whether the upper house has managed to acquire new possibilities of initiative in our political life which might, by implication justify its retention if a radical, reforming government were to come to power.

Talk of constitutional reform is one thing, and we seem set in what remains of this decade to hear a lot more of it. What is also needed, according to Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit, is a dose of contingency planning to "tease out the principles" on which a practical programme of constitutional reform can be based. The unit, paid for by the Nuffield and other foundations, is intended to be a non-partisan source of expertise on re-writing the constitution, something that has of course never been done as such. It is proposing to mobilise available expertise in a way never attempted before, pulling together a team of former civil servants and academics including David Marquand, shortly to move from Sheffield University to head Mansfield College, Oxford and Dawn Oliver, a constitutional specialist, in the law department at University College London, where the unit is to be based.

Its basic purpose is to avoid the nightmare scenario in which an incoming Labour or Liberal Democrat government sacrifices precious time and effort on rushing headlong into setting up a Scottish assembly, or reforming the House of Lords.

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