'Wright reforms' bite the dust
- 28 February 2014
- From the section UK Politics
So. Farewell. Then. Wright Reforms.
The unimplemented bit of the groundbreaking package of internal Commons reforms produced under the chairmanship of Labour MP Tony Wright, just before the last election, won't be introduced if Labour get back into government, at the next election.
Much of what he recommended, as the Commons strove to rescue its reputation, after the expenses scandal, has been put into force.
The chairs and members of Select Committees are now elected, not nominated via a whips carve-up.
A Backbench Business Committee now controls a block of debating time - which, for example is how it was possible to get a debate and a vote on an EU referendum.
But one part of the package has been abandoned, - the idea of a House Business Committee which would take over the management of the Commons' debating timetable from the behind the scenes negotiations referred to in Westminster as the "usual channels."
If all this seems a bit arcane, remember that the rules always shape the game.
Imagine football without the offside rule (and the resulting offside traps).
Then think back a couple of weeks to the Commons report stage debate on the Immigration Bill, where an amendment on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration was never reached, because the way the debate was structured meant that time ran out and it fell without being debated.
Recall that the Speaker had to perform a couple of procedural somersaults to get Dominic Raab's important amendment on the interaction of human rights law with deportation rules discussed in the chamber.
The idea of a House Business Committee would be to better shape the Commons schedule, so that MPs had more chance to scrutinise proposed new laws properly.
This week, the shadow leader of the House, Angela Eagle, who, presumably, would be managing the Commons business of an incoming Labour government, made it clear that she didn't think this idea would work.
Either, she argues, the Business Committee would have a built-in government majority, in which case it would just be a rubber stamp for the wishes of ministers, or it wouldn't, in which case it would inevitably end up being used by opposition parties to derail the legislative programme.
In Commons jargon, the government "would not be able to get its business."
She thinks "the time has come to move on from the Wright reform." although, interestingly, when I interviewed her for this Friday's Today in Parliament, she added that no formal decision not to complete their implementation had been made.
And in a speech to Unlock Democracy, this week, she suggested there were better ways of beefing up the powers of the Commons.
The ideas she puts forward are interesting, but before we get to them, is she right about Wright?
I've always thought there's a bit too much focus on the idea of a new committee to manage the Commons agenda, and not enough on the really central point, that the House should have the ability to approve or amend its own agenda.
A House Business Committee is a way, and not the only way, of getting a draft agenda in front of MPs…
Getting MPs some measure of control over the agenda, and having future leaders of the House put it together with one eye on the possibility that MPs might object if they feel it's being manipulated to prevent legitimate debate, would change the way the Commons operates rather a lot.
But anyway, on to the Eagle Reforms: she suggests two new stages of consideration.
After the debate on the principle of a bill at second reading, would come a new public evidence stage, in which experts and members of the public could have their voices heard, and that would be followed by whole House scrutiny stage of debate.
This could be quite an ordeal for a minister - who would go into what she describes as the Commons answer to 20-20 Cricket, an hour long "free-flowing" question and answer session.
In this environment, she believes, it would be impossible to conceal un-taken policy decisions, bad drafting, or a failure to think legislation through.
And she also wants to apply this scrutiny model - which is based on the European committee scrutiny system - to government spending so that the chancellor or chief secretary has to answer detailed questions from MPs on the spending priorities of their government, and individual cabinet ministers would face similar interrogation about the spending priorities within their departments.
At the moment you might get a bit of this kind of questioning in a budget or Autumn Statement debate, but, for an institution which once fought a civil war to assert its control of the state's purse-strings, the Commons does startlingly little direct financial scrutiny.
These are all promising ideas.
But all Oppositions want to beef up Parliament, and all governments come to dislike having a spotlight directed into their eyes.
A good rule of thumb is that any reform not enacted within the first year of a new administration will be quietly forgotten and ditched.
And there's another caveat, too. MPs have to be prepared to dive in and use any new powers they acquire.
To revamp the old Vietnam-era saying, suppose they gave a scrutiny stage, and nobody came?