Time to salute the post-2010 election Parliament

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent


The dust is settling, the parliamentarians are gone and the workmen have moved in to begin Westminster's usual summer programme of renovation and repair work.

Like the Forth Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, with its cast iron Victorian roofs, its Neolithic heating systems and endless need for maintenance and repair will be crawling with builders and craftsmen rather than politicians - the institution it houses, though, is in unexpectedly good order.

The horrible, doom-laden slog to the last election is a receding memory; the new MPs elected in 2010 (and the considerable number of new peers appointed since then) sit in a more open, more independent and powerful parliament than has been seen for decades.

The House of Commons has won some limited power to set its own agenda and has used it to some effect.

The select committees are more powerful and independent-minded than ever before. And the willingness of MPs and Peers to defy their whips is clearly high - rebellion in this Parliament is already routine; the Tory right, the Lib Dem left, Blairite diehards, eurosceptics, europhiles, libertarians, animal-lovers, NHS reform-sceptics and ultras, all have at least flexed their muscles.

After just one year, new MPs from the 2010 intake - a third of the total, remember - are more likely to have defied their party line than those of the 1997 intake were after four years in the Commons.

In short, the Commons in particular, and Parliament in general, is a healthier institution, rather closer to what the public expects of their lawmakers.

Observers offer varying opinions of the performance of the Home Affairs and Culture committees in grilling those enmeshed in the hacking scandal, but the simple fact that the mighty Murdochs were forced to appear before MPs has reminded parliament of its own latent power.

And the trouble with treating select committee hearings as drama rather than inquisition is that reviewers look for "gotcha" moments and the visible collapse of witnesses, when the real importance may lie in the micro-details of answers given. Remember, these inquiries are not over.

More generally, the select committees have amassed more power and respect in the year or so since they resumed operations after the election.

The Treasury Committee has acquired a vet over the hiring and firing of the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the watchdog tasked with validating the Chancellor's economic projections and the Public Administration Committee persuaded a nominee to head the UK Statistics Authority to withdraw, with its chair, Bernard Jenkin remarking pointedly that "there was a perception it was the regulated choosing the regulator".

This kind of thing is clearly going to happen more frequently. As is searing criticism of Government policy in committee reports - take a look at the output of the Public Accounts Committee or of the Defence Committee. Look at the role played by the Health Committee with the Health and Social Care Bill, or the critique of Big Society localism offered by the Communities Committee.

In the Chamber, term ended with the Prime Minister facing a long and gruelling interrogation over the hacking scandal - one which he survived pretty well, but which none the less signalled that it is still essential for senior ministers (and the Leader of the Opposition) to convince in the Chamber.

More generally, a combination of the new Backbench Business Committee facilitating debates on subjects MPs want to talk about, and the Speaker allowing many more urgent questions - and, memorably, the emergency debate on phone hacking - have created a much more vibrant Commons.

To be sure MPs are still members of political parties and mostly vote according to the party line. But there is far more sign of individual judgement being exercised along the way and the Government has to take account of that in advance.

On the other side of the building, the Lords is a pretty vibrant place, too. Peers have already fought one massive, if ultimately, fairly fruitless, battle over the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act.

They can be expected to take to the trenches again over elected police commissioners, over the Government's proposed health and welfare reforms and over the future of their own chamber. You may be in favour of these measures, or against them, but they are all big important subjects and deserve robust debate and scrutiny; and they're going to get them.

Mostly missing from the scene is the expenses issue which so dominated the last parliament. MPs now groan about IPSA, and press for it to exercise a lighter touch. But it will be pretty hard for any future freeloaders to help themselves to the kind of extraordinary perks enjoyed by earlier generations.

So I'm afraid, as I head off for my holidays, I'm going to indulge in a little optimism. A stronger Parliament is doing a better job. And that is a good thing for the country. Blogging will resume when Parliament resumes - and barring an emergency recall, that will be on 5 September.