House of Commons
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Does the House of Commons strike the right balance between effective government and effective scrutiny of legislation?
The Common’s rules of procedure must allow a Government with a majority to get its business done. However a number of apparently quite minor changes in procedure over the last twenty years have made it possible for Governments to push through major pieces of legislation rapidly and irrespective of comments raised in debate.
On the one hand this raises the concern that insufficient time is taken for reflection and public comment before legislation is brought to the House. This concern is exacerbated by the increasing number of laws which are brought into being as ‘delegated legislation’, by-passing the Commons altogether.
How, it is argued, can MPs scrutinise legislation effectively in this environment?On the other hand it is argued that strong government requires the Government of the day to be able to give effect to the policies which it has been elected to bring forward to the House.
What should the job of an MP entail?
MPs have no job descriptions. More than a third of all MPs are either Government Ministers, opposition front bench spokesmen or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. All MPs (especially those from non-metropolitan constituencies) are expected to spend a good deal of time dealing with individual constituency grievances, with limited office resources. The volume of legislation and delegated legislation has grown significantly in recent years.
At least one political party currently asserts that we have too many MPs and that numbers should be significantly reduced. This would necessarily mean that the size of constituencies and the number of constituents would be increased, potentially adding to the workload at a constituency level.
Should the scope of constituency work be limited and defined and should the staffing and operation of local constituency offices be managed according to uniform standards, applicable to all MPs?
Given the volume of new legislation is it actually possible for MPs to scrutinise it effectively?
The public think MPs are highly paid. The Taxpayers Alliance report indicates that, compared to contemporaries in business or the professions, or to legislators in other advanced democracies, they are poorly paid. Who actually wants these jobs?
The Kelly report has made a raft of recommendations regarding the amendment or curtailing of allowances which MPs can claim, but would it be a better solution simply to increase MPs’ salaries and to do away with allowances and expenses altogether? If MPs are to be paid an increased rate, should there also be introduced a requirement for minimum standards of work and attendance?
Should we be concerned about the rise of the ‘professional’ politician?
Many MPs have only limited or no work experience outside politics and Westminster. Some people feel that the result is that our MPs are out of touch with ‘real’ life. On the other hand, others argue that it is in the very nature of politics that those involved need to understand how politics works and that it is therefore essential to good and effective government that those involved have many years experience of politics and political processes.
Should MPs be allowed to have second jobs? This proposal may find favour among electors angry at the perceived cost to the taxpayer of MPs’ salaries and allowances, with opinions enflamed by the recent debacle over MPs’ expenses. Some think that MPs already spend too little time in Westminster. Others think that knowledge of the ‘real’ world is an asset.
Is the House of Commons democratic?
The comments of Douglas Carswell MP during the recent debate on the Consitutional Reform and Governance Bill on 20th October 2009, gave a sceptical view of the efficacy of the House.
“This debate, I believe, illustrates what is so wrong with our constitution and demonstrates how dire things are, not because of anything that is being said, but by the manner of the exchange. Look how barely attended the Chamber is! We debate our constitution, yet the people’s tribunes are not here. Whips scurry around outside desperate to gather enough speakers to try to keep things ticking along and running until 10 pm. The agents of the Executive try to create the illusion of debate—a debate with all the spontaneity of a Latin Mass. So moribund is our constitution, so monumentally useless our legislature, it is reduced to a talking shop, and it cannot even do that until 10 pm without prodding from the Executive. So much for our proud tradition of Parliament, so much for this legislature.”
Is he right?
The House of Commons is usually thought of as the democratic house within Parliament because MPs are elected at general elections. However, there are question marks over the fairness and democratic nature of our electoral system. In addition, the dominance of the party political system within the House means that although the public perception is that MPs are elected by the people in order to represent the views of their constituents, MPs’ opportunities to do this can be restricted.
The extensive use of the party whip and the relative rarity of free votes means that the central policies of the main political parties dominate the debate within the House and that the policy of the Government tends to be enacted.&nbs p;
The practice of lobbying and the consequent influence of those individuals or entities with sufficient funds to enable them to get their views heard by MPs only serve to give weight to the view that the House is more akin to a ‘private club’ rather than a transparent democratic institution.
The extent to which the House is democratic, therefore, may be said to hinge on the size of the majority of the Government and the willingness of MPs as individuals to act according to their conscience or their constituents’ interests.
Should the House of Commons become more transparent?
The introduction in the 1970s of television cameras into the chamber of the House was regarded at the time as a major step towards more open and accountable government. The BBC’s digital channel and the online Democracy Live website now enable the public to view live debates, recordings of some old debates and the business of some select committees. The extent to which this makes the house more transparent is debatable, because so much of the business of the house is conducted not in the formal chambers, but in the lobbies and private offices of Westminster. The fact that the public can see what goes on inside the House may give an impression of transparency, but this may be more apparent than real.
Should we move away from adversarial debate and towards consensus politics?
The so-called ‘Thatcher experiment’ broke away from the consensus politics of the post war period. Margaret Thatcher made no secret of her contempt for consensus politics (dubbing her more cautious ministers as ‘wet’) preferring instead to proclaim the virtues of conviction and principles in politics. Tony Blair often claimed himself to be the natural successor to Margaret Thatcher and similarly pursued a path of policy implementation justified by statements of his convictions and principles. But commentators have extremely mixed views as to whether the policies of either can be said to have been successful or in the best interests of the country. The Liberal Democrats have traditionally espoused reforms which would lead to what they term ‘fairer’ representation of the views of the electorate in government, by extension to a greater consensus. Critics might suggest that this would lead only to compromise and ineffectual leadership for the country. Where should the balance lie?Section last updated September 2010
What you need to know
Parliament, which is also known as the Legislature, consists of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown in Parliament. Parliament is the main source of political authority in the United Kingdom, but it is the House of Commons which has the dominant political power, because, unlike the House of Lords, members of the House of Commons (known as Members of Parliament or MPs) are elected, and it is the political party which has a majority of MPs which forms the Government.
The House of Commons comprises 650 Members of Parliament, currently representing 12 different political parties, with only 5 MPs who are independent of any party. More than 600 Members of Parliament currently in office represent the 3 largest political parties.
MPs are elected by the public, usually every 5 years, in ‘general elections’. The country is divided into ‘constituencies’ and voters in each constituency vote for their own MP. MPs are elected both to represent their political party, but also to represent the views of their constituents. Accordingly, the work of MPs requires them to work both in Westminster, to take part in debates and committee work, and in their home constituency, to deal with individual problems and issues affecting the constituency generally. MPs who serve as Ministers in the Cabinet retain their obligation to serve as constituency MPs as well.
There are no minimum qualification requirements for anyone standing for election as an MP, either in terms of educational achievements or professional or working history. MPs determine their own salaries and allowances by a majority vote.
Why does it matter?
The revelations about MPs’ expenses has damaged the public’s trust in Parliament and provoked a debate about the need for reform. But even before the question of expenses arose, there had for many years been proposals under discussion which would reform the way in which the House of Commons works.
Any reform of the House of Commons has the potential to impact the way we are governed because the House of Commons is the central body in Parliament.
What are the key dates?
Key dates in the evolution of the House of Commons are as follows:
- (Also 1867 and 1872) Representation of the People Acts in these years extended the right to vote to most men. However, there was still a property qualification, and women were excluded entirely.
Parliament Act substituted the Lords’ power to veto legislation to a power of delay.1918
Representation of the People Act removed the requirement of owning property and allowed women over 30 to vote.1928
Representation of the People Act lowered the voting age of women to 21.1948
Parliament Act reduced the Lords’ power to delay legislation to 1 year.1969
Representation of the People Act lowered voting age to 18.1978
establishment of the modern select committee system.1998
the transfer of legislative powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.2001
(Up to 2003) various reforms to Commons procedure made under the leadership of Robin Cook.2006
reform of the standing committees, now called public bill committees.2007
further devolution of powers to Wales.2009
the expenses scandal.
What are the key facts?
The principal roles of the House of Commons
- to give consent to legislation initiated by the Government;
- to approve financial arrangements by approving Government bills to levy taxes; and
- to scrutinise Government action and to hold the Government to account.
Composition of the House of Commons
MPs are elected by the public, usually every 5 years, in ‘general elections’. The country is divided into ‘constituencies’ and voters in each constituency vote for their own MP. The individual gaining the most votes becomes the MP for that constituency.
It is not a requirement for a candidate for election to be a member of a political party, but in practice most MPs are. The House of Commons currently constists of 650 MPs representing 12 different political parties, with only 5 MPs who are independent of any party. More than 600 Members of Parliament currently in office represent the 3 largest political parties, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party.
Currently, the ‘average’ MP is a middle-aged white male.
The political party which gains the largest number of elected Members of Parliament in a general election is invited by the Queen to form the Government.
The leader of the political party forming the Government becomes the Prime Minister. The political parties other than the party which forms the Government are together termed the ‘Opposition’ or the opposition parties.
Key Actors and terms
Prime Minister The Prime Minister, in constitutional theory, is the Queen’s chief adviser. He heads the Government and in this capacity he selects who will be Ministers and which Ministers will form the Cabinet. He presides over the Cabinet and provides leadership, direction and coherence to the Government. The prime minister is elected to his or her role by the members of his party, and is not directly elected by the public.
MinistersThe Prime Minister selects senior MPs from his party, but also on occasion, peers from the House of Lords, to be in charge of the departments of state, ‘Ministers’. The Prime Minister also chooses which Ministers will sit in the Cabinet, the ‘inner circle’ of politicians who advise the Prime Minister and assist in the development and implementation of Government policy. The opposition parties also nominate their own leaders and ‘shadow’ ministers of similar or proportionate numbers to the Government.
Frontbencher is the term used to describe any MP who holds office as a Minister in the Government, Government whips, the leaders of the opposition parties and the shadow ministers of the opposition parties. They are so called because they sit on the front benches in the chamber of the House of Commons.
Backbenchersall MPs who are not frontbenchers.
Whips All the larger political parties appoint teams of MPs, known as ‘Whips’, to maintain party discipline (usually meaning requiring MPs to vote along party lines and not to ‘rebel’). The Whips also help organise House business, such as determining select committee membership and the timetable for consideration of business in the House, or keeping Ministers aware of backbencher concerns. The Whips send their MPs weekly notifications of scheduled business (called ‘whips’) and will draw attention to important matters where MPs are required to attend and vote with their party by underlining the relevant parts with three lines – a three line whip. MPs who defy the party Whips are usually expelled from their party (also referred to as having the whip withdrawn).
The Government Chief Whip, known as the Parliamentary secretary to the Treasury, is appointed by the Prime Minister and is answerable to him. The Government Chief Whip sits in the Cabinet. It is customary for all the chief Whips not to take part in debates in the House.
Independents MPs who are not members of a political party and not, therefore, subject to direction or discipline by the Whips.
The Speaker of the House a serving MP who, chosen by an election amongst all MPs, acts as chairman of debates and maintains order in the House. The Speaker must be impartial, and once elected, resigns from his political party and takes no further part in party politics. The Speaker is also ultimately responsible for the management of the Commons and the provision of services to Members. He or she requires MPs to comply with the accepted formalities of the house.
Leader of the House a member of the Cabinet who is responsible for arranging government business in the House of Commons.
F ather of the House the MP who has the longest unbroken service in the House of Commons. He presides over the House at the election of a new Speaker.
The Roles and procedures of the House of Commons
The House of Commons has a number of functions:
- It provides the country with a Government
- It debates and votes on proposed government legislation (law making)
- It scrutinises government, debates the important issues of the day and holds the Government to account
- It controls finance
- It represents the British nation, and its individual constituencies
New laws are implemented either by enactment in an Act of Parliament (‘statutes’) or by being contained in a ‘statutory instrument’.
Whereas statutes are required to be scrutinised and debated by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, statutory instruments (‘delegated legislation’) do not necessarily require Parliamentary approval.
About 30-50 statutes and 3000-4000 statutory instruments are passed each year by Parliament and it is estimated that half of Parliament’s time is spent reviewing the Government’s proposed legislation. Although the number of statutes passed has been declining over the past 20-30 years, the number of statutory instruments has been increasing. The number of pages of legislation for both statutes and statutory instruments is now far higher than in the past.
In general, it is the Government which determines and initiates legislation and the timetable for its consideration. Before the House of Commons gives consent to legislation, it usually tests the Government on its proposals, and it may do this either through the tabling of formal questions in the House of Commons, by debates conducted in the chamber of the House of Commons, or by the creation of specialist committees of MPs nominated to consider particular issues. Debates in the House of Commons do not necessarily seek consensus, but are more usually adversarial.
Because of the time taken for debate and consideration of each draft proposal, timetabling is a major issue. MPs and Lords who are not Government ministers may introduce draft legislation (‘Private Members Bills’), but little time is allocated for their consideration and therefore they are less likely to succeed in becoming law.
All bills are debated by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and each house ultimately votes as to whether they should become law. In practice, because the Government has a majority in the House of Commons it is generally able to ensure that the legislation it proposes is passed.
There are several stages to passing a law, and at any stage proposed legislation may be held up by debate. In general, this rarely happens, because the majority of seats in the Commons is controlled by the Government. A bill must pass through all the required stages in the House of Commons before it is referred to the House of Lords for debate. The stages for draft Public Bills (all bills which affect the general public) are:
• The first reading
• The second reading
• The Committee stage
• The Report stage
• The third reading.
Voting is mostly conducted by ‘divisions’ of the House, when MPs are required to leave the house and congregate in the lobbies outside to indicate which way they are voting.
Once proposed legislation has been accepted by the Commons, it is sent to the House of Lords. By convention, the Lords do not reject any legislation set out in the government’s election manifesto.
However, the Lords frequently make amendments, which the Commons may not agree to, leading to ‘ping pong’: the to-and-fro of proposals between the two chambers. Ultimately, though, under the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, the House of Lords can only delay legislation for a period of one year.
The volume of legislation going through the House means that timetabling is a major issue, a problem made worse by the fact that if a bill does not manage to complete all of its legislative stages in one sitting of the House, then in the next sitting it must start again from scratch. At the beginning of each parliamentary session the Chief Whip and the opposition whips meet to try to agree on a timetable for legislation. But if they cannot reach agreement, the Government can rely on its majority in the House to pass a guillotine motion or a programming motion to ensure that the timetable follows the Government’s required schedule.
Another method of ensuring more effective use of the time available in the House for debate is pre-legislative scrutiny, where a draft bill is circulated to a committee for comment and consultation before it is tabled for its first reading in the House. Pre-legislative scrutiny is used relatively sparingly in the House of Commons at present.
The law-making powers of Parliament have in practice been limited by Europe and the devolutionary settlements. European law has become increasingly important, and impacts Westminster’s ability to make law for its citizens.
Scrutiny and Accountability
Much of the work of the House of Commons is done by committees of MPs of varying sizes and constitution.
The modern system of select committees was established in 1979 at the beginning of the Thatcher government. They have become the most important means by which the Commons holds the government accountable.
Generally, select committees examine the spending, policies and administration of a particular Government department and its associated public bodies. They hold inquiries, seek evidence, publish reports and recommend changes to which departments are expected to reply.
Select committees consist of 11-14 backbenchers, with membership (and chairperson positions) of the committees reflecting the overall political makeup of the Commons. Thus, the Government always has a majority. Moreover, in practice, it is the party whips who decide committee membership. This means the extent to which select committees can be effective is limited.
Joint committees consist of members of both Houses. An example is the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which scrutinises government bills and alerts the Government to those which have human rights implications.
There are several kinds of General committees although the most common are Public Bill committees which look at the bulk of legislation going through the House once it reaches the Committee stage. Public Bill committees consist of 16-50 members and they are charged with scrutinising and if necessary amending proposed legislation after the second reading.
There are also other general committees, including Grand committees, European committees and Delegated legislation committees.
Grand committees: there are 3 in the House of Commons, which consider matters relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and consist of MPs from those regions.
European committees: when the European Scrutiny select committee recommends further scrutiny of European documents, these are referred to one of the three European committees, each committee dealing with a different area.
Delegated Legislation Committees: these general committees meet to consider statutory instruments (and allied documents) referred to them by the House.
Officers of Parliament: these are bodies appointed by and reporting to Parliament. Parliamentary officers act as constitutional watchdogs on behalf of Parliament, examining government processes to ensure fairness and legality. They are often given statutory independence because of their importance. The best-known ones are the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Ombudsman.
Parliamentary questions, or ‘PQs’—questions raised in the Commons—are a key means by which the Commons holds the Government to account. They shine a spotlight on specific areas and keep the Government on its toes. The Prime Minister is currently required to answer questions from the Commons once a week (Prime Minister’s Questions or ‘PMQs’). Ministers are required to answer questions from the Commons at least once a month. Question time takes place from Monday to Thursday for an hour each day.
Parliamentary questions were a late development, emerging in the 19th century, with written questions not emerging till the 20th century, and only becoming important after the 1960s. The number of written PQs has been increasing steadily. In 2000-2001, there were 33000 written PQs; by 2006-2007 this had risen to 63450 PQs. Moreover, the kind of questions being asked were not ‘inquisitorial’—asking the government to explain its actions—but rather related to research or general knowledge. PQs are gradually becoming a free research tool rather than a means of holding the government to account. This has happened for a number of reasons, amongst them being that the increase in allowances has allowed MPs to employ more staff, who in turn draft more PQs; and the pressure on MPs to seem active.
There are different kinds of debates held in the Commons, but all show that it is a key forum in which important issues are discussed. Moreover, these are times for testing and challenging Government policies, forcing the Government to justify its policies and actions. For this reason, it is sometimes said that it is the duty of the opposition to oppose the government, in order that policy should be fully tested by means of open debate before it is brought into effect.
Parliamentary Privelege is the protection granted to MPs when carrying out their duties within the House of Commons. It gives them immunity from any civil proceedings against them within the grounds of the Palace of Westminster, and essentially allows Parliament itself to solve these disputes (although criminal offences will be dealt with by the full force of the law). The most important Parliamentary Privelege in place today is the right to speak freely within the chamber with no possibility of defamation claims, or in other words, “immunity from litigation for words spoken in the House of Commons”.
Early Day Motions (EDMs)
Early Day Motions (EDMs) are notices of motions for which no time for debate has been fixed. They are given by MPs in the House of Commons, and essentially act as a tool to bring the attention of the House, and often the public, to an issue that they feel is important. They also act as petitions that other MPs can sign to show their support. They are therefore an important way of gauging the attitude of the rest of the House to a particular cause. There is no guarantee that an EDM will be debated, and in fact the majority won’t be, but their main purpose is simply to put the issue in front of the House.
Right of audience in the House
Only elected MPs are allowed to speak in the House of Commons.
Constitutionally, the Government must seek the permission of the House of Commons to levy taxes or spend public money. As elected representatives of the people, it seems appropriate that the Commons should have sole responsibility to determine taxes, not the Lords. However, it is the Government who puts forward proposals for expenditure, not the Commons. The key way this is done is through the debate held each year to approve the Government’s proposed budget. The Government’s actual expenditure is also scrutinised through the Public Accounts Committee, a Commons select committee, aided by the National Audit Office.
Sessions and hours of sittings
The Parliamentary year starts in November with the State opening of Parliament and ends with the ‘prorogation’ about a year later. When the House of Commons is open for business it is said to be sitting, and when it is not, it is said to be in recess. The exact dates of recess each year are determined by the Leader of the House at the beginning of each year, but are broadly as follows:
State Opening of Parliament November
Christmas recess Late December/early January, usually 2 to 3 weeks
Half term recess February, usually up to a week
Easter recess Usually Good Friday and around one more week
Whit recess Usually the week of the Late Spring Bank Holiday
Summer recess Mid-July to early September
Sitting times in the Main Chamber are as follows:
Sitting times can be extended in certain circumstances.
The role of MPs
An MP has 3 roles:
- To represent a constituency and the constituents’ interests
- To represent a political party
- To represent the interests of the British nation
Because of party politics, these responsibilities can conflict with each other, for example, when an issue affecting a particular MP’s constituency would suggest that in the interests of his constituents he should vote in one way, but the party line (embodied in instructions issued by the party whips) dictates that he should vote in another. Faced with this dilemma most MPs will vote according to the instructions of the whips, although it is not unknown for MPs to rebel, although to do so may risk them being expelled from their party.
The constituency role of MPs has become more important in recent years. In general MPs can only assist individual constituents in relation to issues which concern national government or central Government departments (eg NHS, HM Revenue and Customs), and should not become involved in relation to issues within the jurisdiction of local government (schools, social services, council tax). Public expectations of what MPs can and should be able to achieve for their constituents are high, to the extent that MPs are now said to face ‘a tidal wave of constituency work’. MPs are uniquely placed to be able to lobby the appropriate Minister or department on behalf of a constituent. In more serious cases they may table a question in the House to draw attention to a particular issue.
The amount of MPs’ time which is spent on constituency issues raises questions about the extent to which MPs can properly perform one of the key functions of Parliament, the scrutiny of Government action and policies.
In view of the volume of constituency work, most MPs find it necessary to maintain a constituency office as well as an office in Westminster. A significant proportion of the allowance available to MPs is designed to cover the expenses of maintaining such an office.
Generally speaking, when parliament is in session MPs will spend from Monday to Thursday at Westminster (and on occasions, Friday), and the remaining time in their constituency. However, the long sitting hours, the volume of business to be considered, and the requirement for MPs to perform several different roles (for example, as Ministers or committee members or to attend to constituency business) mean that it is not possible for all MPs to be present all the time in the chamber during all sittings. Indeed during many debates there are very few MPs present in the chamber at all. This, combined with the long periods of recess – or holiday - and the fact that there are no minimum standards or requirements for the hours that MPs are required to work leads to the perception that MPs are not hard-working.
One survey which followed the work of new MPs over a year, found that MPs reported working 71 hours per week on average. It also set out how, on average, their time was spent:
- Constituency work: 49%.
- In the Chamber: 14%.
- Committee work: 14%.
- Other work: 22%.
In short, one half of an MP’s time was spent on constituency work—not, as is commonly assumed, at Westminster.
An MP who is a Minister spends his or her time differently—usually, in Cabinet, Cabinet committees, dealing with departmental issues, and debates and questions in Parliament on their ministerial portfolio.
MPs are only certain of employment as an MP for the life of the Parliament for which they have been elected; a maximum of 5 years. So long as they keep the party whip, MPs in safe seats can be more assured of a long career in politics. Most senior Ministers and shadow ministers are elected to safe seats and that security of tenure may lead them to give less priority to constituency work than an MP elected to a marginal seat. It also encourages the growth of a class of ‘career politicians’, individuals who have spent their entire working career in politics. Many MPs have jobs apart from their job as an MP; some view this as a good thing, as it means that MPs will have experience of the ‘real’ world, whilst others regard this as a bad thing because of the potential for conflicts of interest between their commercial responsibilities and their role as politicians.
The House of Commons Select Committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons listed a number of key tasks of MPs, including:
- supporting their party in votes in Parliament (furnishing and maintaining the Government and Opposition);
- representing and furthering the interests of their constituency;
- representing individual constituents and taking up their problems and grievances;
- scrutinising and holding the Government to account and monitoring, stimulating and challenging the Executive;
- initiating, reviewing and amending legislation; and
- contributing to the development of policy whether in the Chamber, Committees or party structures and promoting public understanding of party policies.
The recent Kelly Report also noted some of the unusual features of being an MP, including:
- Responsibility for legislation, and the parliamentary privileges associated with the sovereignty of Parliament.
- Direct accountability to constituents through elections.
- The requirement to have two places of work – in Westminster and in the constituency – and to travel regularly between them.
- The potentially unlimited demands on an MP’s time and the fact that an MP’s duties are rarely, if at all, circumscribed in terms of hours or duties, in the way that most jobs are, either legally or by convention.
- The risk of losing their jobs at regular, or occasionally irregular, intervals, not necessarily related to their own performance and often not knowing for certain until the last minute.
Party politics dominates the House of Commons and is largely responsible for the manner in which all business in the Chamber and elsewhere in the House is conducted. Without party discipline, a government would find it impossible to govern. MPs tend to vote with their party because they believe in their party’s policy but they may also vote because the party whip tells them to. They obey the party whips, even when they disagree with the party line, either because they may wish to advance up the career ladder within the party or because the ultimate alternative means no party support, without which an MP may find it difficult to maintain his or her seat. They also obey the whips because the enormous volume of business means that there is not sufficient time for all MPs to study all issues in detail and they therefore rely on the whips to give directions, where the MP himself may have no knowledge of the issue or the debate which has taken place. Thus, a political party with a majority in the House of Commons is generally able to get its way. However, backbench rebellions were common under the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments.
On matters of conscience the political parties will occasionally allow a free vote, that is one where the party whips will not direct MPs how to vote. This allows MPs to test the views of the constituents and also to vote according to their own conscience.
The current annual salary for an MP is £64,766. In addition MPs are entitled to claim allowances to cover the costs of retaining staff, running an office and living in their constituency and in London and for travel costs between Westminster and their constituency. The recent expenses scandal, involving revelations about the precise nature of the expenses which MPs have sought to recover under the umbrella of these allowances, has called into question the propriety of such claims and the way in which they are monitored and audited. A report into MPs expenses has made a series of recommendations for change which are currently under discussion. However it is MPs themselves whose vote decides the level of their pay and the amount and method for claiming expenses.
Ministers and other office holders receive additional salaries of amounts varying from about £14,000 for junior roles such as select committee chairman up to £132,000 for the Prime Minister.
These amounts are paid on top of their basic salary as MPs. Furthermore all MPs benefit from a contributory ‘final salary’ pension scheme.
MPs determine their own salaries and allowances by a majority vote.
Lobbying is the term used to describe the practice of trying to influence an MP’s votes, either by his own colleagues or by his constituents or by other interested parties. Within Westminster there has grown up a professional industry of lobbyists, who are paid by commercial organisations or wealthy individuals specifically to represent their interests and to lobby MPs accordingly. The professional lobbying industry was estimated by the Hansard Society in 2007 to be worth £1.9 billion and employ 14,000 people. The power and influence of lobbyists is a cause for concern. The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee has called for “a statutory register of lobbying activity to bring greater transparency to the dealings between Whitehall decision makers and outside interests.”
The industry has two self-regulatory bodies, but the committee has described the self-regulation as “fragmented” and involving “very little regulation of any substance”.
Reform of the House of Commons
The method of operation of the House of Commons is idiosyncratic, and incorporates many forms, traditions and conventions that have endured for centuries. These, together with the plethora of committees, the hierarchies inherent in party politics and the fact that the average MP is white, male, middle aged and middle class, mean that the House gives the impression to an outsider of an exclusive private members’ club. Mindful of this, there have been a number of attempts to reform or modernise the Commons. In 1997, the select committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons was established specifically to examine Commons reform. Progress since then has been sporadic, depending on the attitude of the Leader of the Commons, who is the chairman of that committee and a member of the Government.
The expenses scandal means that proposals for the reform of MPs’ allowances are now before the House for consideration. A change in the mechanism and structure in MPs pay, whilst it may go some way towards restoring faith in the integrity of MPs, is unlikely to make a major difference to the way that the House of Commons works.
In light of the expenses scandal the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (often called the ‘Wright Committee’) was appointed on 20 July 2009 to consider and report by 13 November 2009 on four specified matters:
* the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees;
* the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means;
* scheduling business in the House;
* enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House
The committee reported in late November 2009 (‘the Wright Report’). It recommended, amongst other things, that:
* chairs of select committees be appointed by secret ballot; membership of select committees to be determined by election within the parties; a reduction in the size of select committees. These reforms are aimed at increasing attendance at and participation in select committees; and ultimately redressing the imbalance between the legislature and the executive.
* The establishment of a backbench business committee, and the division of House of Commons business into ministerial (government) business and non-ministerial business. The business committee would have to work with representatives of the government and opposition to determine a weekly agenda. This would give the legislature greater control and responsibility over its own business – business which is not necessarily the government’s business.
* Transforming, for a trial period, the Procedure Committee into a Procedure and Petitions Committee, which would deal with petitions; give petitions a greater profile; and look at introducing e-petitions. These reforms are aimed at increasing public participation in the legislative process.
On 22nd February and 4th March 2010, the House of Commons debated and voted on some of the recommendations of the Wright Report. The results of these decisions have been summarised by the Wright Committee, and some of the key changes are as follows:
* The size of select committees will be reduced
* Chairs of many select committees will be elected by secret ballot (using the AV system) by the whole house; members of the committees will also be elected by secret ballot but within parties
* Backbench Business Committee to be established (although the specific practicalities of this are still under discussion)
* Steps are being made to improve procedure on public petitions
The Backbench Business Committee has now been established.
What do others think?
Hansard Society “Reforming the House of Commons: Briefing Paper”
Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons
The Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation (2009)
The final report of the Speaker’s Conference
The Institute for Public Policy Research
References and Links
A Brief Chronology of the House of Commons, House of Commons Information Office
A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, Hansard Society
The Kelly Report on MPs expenses and allowances, Committee on Standards in Public Life
Modernisation of the House of Commons, 1997-2005, House of Commons Library
- Paul Seaward and Paul Silk “The House of Commons” in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)
- Robin Cook The Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench (Simon and Schuster, London, 2003)
- Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters How Parliament Works (sixth edition, Pearson Education, Harlow, 2006)
- FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007)