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Wednesday, 1 November, 2000, 12:50 GMT
Time to modernise the Commons?

UK MPs are calling for radical changes to the process for selecting the speaker of the House of Commons, after it took seven long hours for the Labour backbencher, Michael Martin, to be elected.

Mr Martin beat 11 other candidates in a contest which angered MPs, who were prevented by the arcane Commons procedures from taking the simple step of voting for all the candidates at once.

Veteran Labour MP, Tony Benn, was one of those who urged the father of the House, Sir Edward Heath, to change the rules and opt for a straight forward ballot.

Mr Benn said that the process only succeeded in further undermining the power and public standing of the House of Commons.

Do you think it's an archaic system desperately in need of modernisation or should we keep hold of our historic traditions?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Relative to other countries, the Commons has served the United Kingdom very well for many years. However, with the pace of information technology now rapidly accelerating, it seems appropriate to me that the way the Commons conducts its business, its buildings and facilities should now be the subject of a fundamental review. In particular women and minorities should be better represented.
John Ley, England

It is not the lack of PR that is disenfranchising the electorate, but the raft of EU obligations. It is pointless having a parliament (Scots, Welsh, NI, or UK) if most of what it has to do is rubber stamp decisions made in the EU. Bring back democracy and let the people decide!
Brian M, UK

Westminster is becoming increasingly irrelevant

Paul Harris, England
With the Commons increasingly sidelined by central government, and as more power is transferred to Brussels, Westminster is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The Government has already started the break-up of the Union, but it needs to complete the process by establishing an English Assembly which will decide on matters English. Westminster should then be the forum for debates on issues common to the four Assemblies, for example defence. As it stands, very few people I know have any faith in either the Government or in the power of backbenchers to effect change or influence policy.
Paul Harris, England

Sorry! I thought the Commons was just a new soap opera!!!
Marcus Taylor, UK

The Commons needs to get on with its job of holding the Government to account rather than worrying about ephemera such as working hours and the Speaker's attire. It is time that MPs started to give the Executive a harder time in the chamber and in select committees.
Chris Klein, UK

Why not scrap the Commons completely? That way Phony Tony could just do what he wanted without having to stand up to all the nasty people that expect him to actually be accountable to those that foolishly elected him.
John B, UK

The main change that needs to take place in the Commons is about how much time it takes to get a bill passed, and how they can't be carried over from one parliament to the next. There should also be more time allocated to private members' bills.
Daniel Summers, England

It's a Gilbert and Sullivan Comic Opera now we are in the 21st century

Steve Foley, England
It's a Gilbert and Sullivan Comic Opera now we are in the 21st century.
Changes needed? Half the number of MPs, pay them a bit more, provide paid civil servants as admin assistants, give them decent office facilities, crèches etc, and sensible working hours. Introduce electronic voting, not walking through lobbies to vote, keeping that anachronism for ceremonial occasions say once a year after the state opening of parliament. One big change to counter all these reforms, make it illegal for an MP to have any other job during their membership of the Commons.
Steve Foley, England

What? Give up our heritage? What a preposterous idea! We are a nation of shopkeepers, it was once said so why should we act like sheep and follow the rest of the world? Let us keep Britain British and retain our out-dated ideas and ways of life. We like it that way! If you want the American way of life then go and live in America!
John C, Warwick, England

I say keep the present system, it allows the average person to feel they are being represented and their views heard.
This allows the real process of government to be carried out by cabinet and the corporations away from the spotlight of Parliament. It ain't broke so don't fix it.
Tom, Australia

Our Parliament must remain democratic and unique, and not be turned into a sterile copy of some other legislative body

Fiona James, UK
I've had the privilege of working in the House of Commons for a year. While I agree that there should be some procedural modernisation (e.g. abolition of all-night sittings and spoiling tactics such as 'filibustering' and the introduction of crèche facilities), it should not be done at the expense of the very special atmosphere that the place exudes from its core. Our Parliament must remain democratic and unique, and not be turned into a sterile copy of some other legislative body.
Fiona James, UK

It is so laughable, so embarrassing, to think that we rely on a parliament whose voting procedure requires all members to walk out of the chamber and file into the 'yes' and 'no' lobbies. What a gross waste of time and an insult to the intelligence of the British public. The Commons needs dragging in the 20th Century, never mind the 21st Century!
Michael Kilpatrick, Cambridge, UK

Parliament needs to go through some serious changes. We need to have an English Parliament, a directly elected Upper House, and a sensible system of Government. Personally, I think the position of Speaker should be open to a public vote. We have seen the 'traditional' system, and can all see what a farce it was. Let's not be scared to try something different, we need a modern Government.
Alex White, UK

Put a little electronic voting box in every home and have an elected non-party executive whose job it is to come up with options

James Desborough, UK
Do away with the whole thing and have a meritocratic technocracy. Put a little electronic voting box in every home and have an elected non-party executive whose job it is to come up with options. You then vote on these based on whether you're qualified to have an opinion, i.e., Doctors and Nurses for complex medical issues, bankers and business owners for economic decisions and so on. We have the technology¿
James Desborough, UK

Just count up how many MEP's you have in your electoral district compared with the MP's and then you'll see where the real redundancy and parliamentary crassness lies.
David Baynes, Canada

The House of Commons has worked well for centuries, slowly (admittedly, sometimes too slowly) evolving into the modern democratic institution that it is ... and long may it continue to evolve; no sudden and dramatic shifts, please. Perhaps, on the other hand, it is our politicians that need modernising?
Mark M. Newdick, USA/UK

What is needed is not so much a reform of the Commons as a revival in its powers. When administration consists of Downing St spin doctors and leaks, there is a real danger that the Commons will become a total irrelevancy.
And no, you really do not want the US model, with its endless gridlock, corruption, and lengthy debates over flag-burning. Don't exchange one fossilised sytem for another.
Jon Livesey, USA

Perhaps the MP's should be more like MP3's: free of cost and accessible 24 hours a day all year long.
David Easley, USA

What is best about the hereditary system is that, however bad the Peers of first creation, the heirs tend to grow into the duties and privileges they might eventually enjoy

David de Vere Webb, UK
The patronage or other bias involved in choosing Peers can never be entirely overcome. What is best about the hereditary system is that, however bad the Peers of first creation, the heirs tend to grow into the duties and privileges they might eventually enjoy. The present Government destroys whatever their minds fail to comprehend, and appear to be under the thumbs. It would be for the best if they "modernised" nevermore.
David de Vere Webb, UK

Change is desperately needed to ensure MPs hold the Government to account rather than either pointlessly time wasting (some Tories) or sycophantically cheerleading (most Labour). However, there is a serious concern that every other time the Commons has been "modernised", powers of backbenchers have been removed, rather than powers of the Executive.
If Parliament is to be a representative system then this ethos has to be reversed, so that our MPs raise our concerns in Parliament and stand some chance of effecting the changes we want.
Martyn, UK

The Commons badly needs reforming for many reasons. Firstly, it has ceased to be a representative of public opinion and is too much a voice of the party machinery.
Secondly the Mid Lothian question of excessive Scottish representation must be addressed. Thirdly, important policy decisions must be properly debated and voted on in the Chamber instead of in committee or announced at press conferences etc.
Fourthly, working practices must be reviewed and, for example, electronic voting introduced. The question is, is there the political will to even start on the task? The Commons was quick to press reform on the Lords; it is about time that it saw the beam in its own eye, rather than the mote in its brother's eye.
Brian, UK

As an avid follower of British politics, especially the work of the Commons, I think some modernisation would be in order. Chief among these would be more "family-friendly" times for the sittings of the House. A ballot system for the Speaker election is also necessary. I am also impressed with Tony Benn MP's fight for the restoration of Parliament's role. Democracy in Britain would be better served if the Commons could fulfil its duty as a deliberative body. I hope that Speaker Martin vehemently defends this important aspect of the Commons, reversing the recent subversion of this grand institution.
Loren Duggan, USA

How about a virtual Parliament?

Alex Duggan, UK
We should modernise. How about a virtual Parliament, where MPs meet and debate real-time and face-to-face in cyberspace, whilst living full-time in their constituencies? This would keep them more in touch with the people they represent, perhaps make it harder for lobbying groups to influence the democratic process, and save us 231 million for new MP accommodation.
Alex Duggan, UK

Whilst there is a genuine need to reform the House of Commons, there is as much need not to sacrifice the spirit of the House as embodied by most of its many traditions. The reform of the House will require sensitivity and boldness in equal measure.
James, UK

The Commons is way past its sell-by date. We need proportional representation so that people aren't disenfranchised and an end to the confrontational debates in the chamber. Like many institutions of government, the Commons is still living in the nineteenth century.
Tharg Thargson, UK

Our parliamentary system has evolved slowly and carefully over many centuries

David K, Englan
The election of the new Speaker was obviously a farce and is a process that needs to reviewed for the future. This, however, does not mean that the whole of the Parliamentary system needs to be "modernised" - a euphemism for "jettisoned for Blair's convenience". Our parliamentary system has evolved slowly and carefully over many centuries thereby embracing the wisdom and lessons of many generations' experience. It is not for some upstart, know-nothing like Blair to destroy this heritage simply to massage his own ego. HE does not own Parliament, WE do.
David K, England

Laws are for people - not the other way round. Personally I am fed up with people who interpret procedures and rules to the literal meaning, when common sense says something else. Let common sense return to the Commons! Of course its procedures should suit the requirements of the day.
Christopher Briggs, Norway

This country should have the same structure as America. The American system is more democratic and its constitution altogether more citizen-friendly. In the US no one body can take control, ensuring total democracy and safeguarding the constitution. Britain is outdated and needs deep reform. What Britain really should do instead of joining Europe is join America!
James Clarke, Britain

Of course it should be modernised

Ian Bailey, Englan
Of course it should be modernised. Those who say that we should keep hold of the historic traditions would still be living in caves if society hadn't evolved, although maybe they'd be better off living there anyway.
Ian Bailey, England

The Government have said that parliamentary time is too short to implement some of their manifesto, e.g. ban on hunting with dogs. It seems that these medieval traditions must be streamlined, if only to actually get more done.
Steve Hodgson, UK

It's been clear that the old method does need reform and by the look of the Commons yesterday, this is going to change next time, no problem. As for Mr Martin being the leader, I hope he keeps his personal feelings and thoughts to himself, and is impartial to all MPs.
Colin, Netherlands

Change is much like adding salt to a meal: a little improves the flavour, too much ruins the entire thing. The real scandal, as far as the House of Commons is concerned, is the way in which the debate-challenged Tony Blair ignores it, governing by soundbite and news conference instead.
Leighton Arnold, USA

When you see fox hunting continuing in this country simply because the debate in the commons ran beyond the allotted time, it's hard to have faith in the current system.
Jonathan Kelk, England

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See also:

23 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Commons at its best and worst
24 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Speaker's election sparks reform calls
23 Oct 00 | UK Politics
MPs' anger over Speaker vote
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