State of Opening of Parliament: Summoning the MPs
Image courtesy of UK Parliament via flickr
In all the debate around the AV bill we often forget that democratic reform is much wider than just electoral reform. A modern, democratic parliament needs to be not just representative but accountable and transparent as well. Today, as Caroline Lucas’ report “The Case for Parliamentary Reform” gets debated at Westminster we may move one step closer to that ideal.

So what is she actually suggesting? Well, a whole range of changes to make parliament more efficient, less archaic and generally function more sensibly. Let’s start with how MPs themselves vote.

The US Congress, the European Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament all already use electronic voting an it’s time Westminster caught up. They may like their tradition but, frankly, it’s a waste of time. And quite a lot of time it turns out. An MP with an 85% voting record would spend 250 hours a year queuing up to vote. Switching to electronic voting could save £30,000 worth of time per week. The cost of the new system, estimated at around £400,000, would be paid back in just a few months.

And while we’re switching to a new way of voting, let’s let MPs choose to abstain. At present MPs can only vote in favour or against. So those who turn up to a debate but on’t feel they can vote either way are recorded no differently from those who sit it out in the bar. The only option to show they were present is to vote both for and against, opening them up to the accusation that they just couldn’t work out how to vote. Again, here in Scotland we already allow MSPs to abstain, as many did during the latest budget debate, for example.

Remarkably, when MPs do vote, it’s often not clear what the votes are for. Take this amendment to the Postal Services Bill recently submitted by Caroline:

    Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1).

No explanation. No context. Unless you read through the bill in question and work it out for yourself there’s no way to know what this amendment would do. Wouldn’t it be better if each amendment came with a short explanation as to it’s effect and intention? Say:

    “The effect of this amendment is to remove the provisions of the Bill that allow for the privatisation of Royal Mail.”

Giving this sort of information for amendments, as already happens for the main text of a bill, would empower backbenchers an leave them less reliant on the whips to tell them what each vote means, as well as making the process clearer for the public reading through the records.

These are just a few of the very sensible suggestions from Caroline’s report. I hear that many of the old guard in parliament think she doesn’t ‘get’ Westminster. I think she understands how a modern parliament should function efficiently pretty well. Let’s hope her colleagues agree.

That list of recommendations in full:

  • Introduction of electronic voting in the Chamber (and in the voting lobbies) using hand held electronic devices.
  • The ‘holding over’ of votes so that there is a specified time for voting at the end of each Parliamentary day.
  • An option to record an abstention on a vote and replication of the European Parliament’s ‘Explanations of votes’ website.
  • An obligatory short explanatory paragraph of the effect of any amendment to legislation to be printed underneath each amendment for stages of a Bill taken in the Commons Chamber.
  • For debates in the Commons Chamber, the list of those selected to speak should be made available to MPs in advance and the Commons should consider new rules on who is selected to speak and speaking time limits.
  • A systematic modernisation of the language of Parliament.
  • Measures to prevent the ‘talking out’ of Private Members’ legislation.
  • Power for the Speaker to call Ministers to give an oral statement to the Commons on matters of urgent or national importance.
  • An end to late night sittings to make MPs hours and those of parliamentary staff fit better with family life.