Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Give backbench MPs more power, reform report urges

Houses of Parliament
Some MPs do not see the point of attending debates, the report says

Backbench MPs must be given more power to hold the government to account to restore faith in politics, a committee set up after the expenses row says.

It proposes backbenchers get more power to call debates, to set the agenda and choose who sits on scrutiny committees.

Chairman Tony Wright said MPs "took a beating" over expenses but now had the chance to "show we can do business".

The committee says its findings should be implemented in two months - MPs will get the chance to debate the proposals.

The House of Commons Reform Committee was set up as the expenses scandal broke earlier this year.

'Flourishing'

Its proposals include setting up a secretly elected backbench committee, which would be responsible for "non ministerial" business - work with the government and opposition on a weekly agenda for the Commons.

One day a week, Commons business should be dictated by backbenchers, it says.

And the public should get more of a say over what MPs debate - using devices such as "e-petitions" on a special Commons website.

They would need an MP's backing but could be signed by anyone and presented to the Commons - and some could end up being debated.

What we are required to do essentially is to cheer for our own side, to jeer at the other side and to look after the problems of our constituents - I think people want Parliament to do a bit more than that
Labour MP Tony Wright

The MPs recommend that Commons select committees be streamlined and given more independence from the government, so they can scrutinise Whitehall more thoroughly.

Their chairmen and women ought to be elected by the whole House rather than effectively be agreed between the party whips as at present, the report says.

Mr Wright, a Labour MP, told the BBC: "We don't think Parliament is as effective as it might be. We know that it's taken a beating because of the expenses scandal ... but the fact is Parliament wasn't effective enough before the scandal happened and I think we have now got a chance to show we can do business ."

'Anti-politics'

He said he felt Parliament did not support MPs' strengths sufficiently, adding: "I think what we are required to do essentially is to cheer for our own side, to jeer at the other side and to look after the problems of our constituents. I think people want Parliament to do a bit more than that."

The report says making an "effective and vital House of Commons" is "the best antidote to the political disengagement and anti-politics that characterises our age".

This is just the start of a long-overdue process, but a process that is at last taking Parliament in the right direction
Sir George Young,
Shadow leader of the Commons

It also says: "At present, many members do not see the point in attending debates or making the House the primary focus of their activities.

"In order to address this, we must give members back a sense of ownership of their own institution, the ability to set its agenda and take meaningful decisions."

The government said it would make time for a Commons debate on the ideas. Commons leader Harriet Harman said the government would consider the report and respond in detail.

She added: "Today's report is a further step following action the House has taken to modernise its procedures.

"We will continue to reform Parliament to strengthen the role of backbenchers and to support the proper role of the House of Commons to scrutinise government and hold it to account."

Shadow leader of the Commons Sir George Young said the government must not "squander this opportunity for reform".

"Harriet Harman must ensure that these proposals are debated and voted on quickly so that the House can put in place some changes, particularly to select committees, before the general election," he said.

"This is just the start of a long-overdue process, but a process that is at last taking Parliament in the right direction."



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