Time to reform Parliament – or blow it up?

5 November 2009

If Guy Fawkes came back today and blew up Parliament, would we notice any difference? An influential Westminster think-tank is not so sure.

The EU writes our most important laws, says the Adam Smith Institute in a paper published today, and ministers are more accountable to the media than to MPs. New regulations, like those giving councils the power to search our homes and freeze our bank accounts, are never even debated. MPs vote as the party whips tell them, not as their constituents want.

No wonder, say the Institute's authors, Professor Tim Ambler and consultant Keith Boyfield, that 80% of us think that Parliament has – er – lost the plot.

According to their paper, Knaves and Fawkes, MPs keep themselves busy – and not just on fiddling their expenses. But much of their time is wasted on trivia, leaving them overwhelmed by the deluge of new law coming from Brussels and Downing Street. Parliament's founding purposes – to make laws, restrain public spending, hold ministers to account, and represent the public – now exist only in name.

Tempting as it is to blow up Parliament and sell the land to reduce the National Debt, Ambler and Boyfield say we should put aside the gunpowder, because these are vital democratic protections that need to be re-asserted.

However, nobody will trust MPs until they clean up their expenses act, and streamline their operation. Britain has 646 MPs while the United States, with five times the population, has 435 Members in the House of Representatives. David Cameron's proposed 10% cut in MP numbers does not go far enough, believe the authors, who suggest a far more radical reduction.

And instead of spending hours discussing road closures and drains, the time devoted to both UK and EU legislation should be proportionate to its importance, says the paper. EU regulations should be more effectively scrutinised, and MPs should be told which of the annual 3,500 'statutory instruments' that currently go through on the nod embody serious legislative changes rather than trivial amendments, so that they can be discussed and voted on.

Ambler and Boyfield would strengthen accountability by making regulators like Ofwat, which sets gas and electricity prices, answerable to MPs, and MPs should be able to question civil-servants directly, rather than having to go through ministers. And Opposition MPs should chair the main parliamentary committees to ensure close scrutiny of ministers and officials.

"Parliament today has lost its power and significance. It should reform itself and not wait to be told what to do by Whitehall, Downing Street, or Brussels – none of whom would be sorry to see it go," says the Institute's Director, Dr Eamonn Butler. "Otherwise, they might find the electorate putting a large keg of gunpowder under them all."

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