Fixing the House of Commons
By James Boyd-Wallis
24th June 2022
What’s wrong with Westminster? That was the question the CIPR Public Affairs Group asked Hannah White, author of ‘Held in Contempt’, in a webinar earlier this week.
Hannah, the deputy director of the think tank The Institute for Government, provided a timely and perceptive critique of the House of Commons.
She argued Brexit and Covid have exacerbated long-term problems with how the House of Commons functions, undermining public trust in one of the cornerstones of our democracy.
Hannah, who previously ran the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the Cabinet Office, tackled five themes as part of the discussion.
The government, in recent years, has side-lined the House of Commons. It is no longer viewed as the chamber for legislative debate and scrutiny but rather an “annoying hurdle to jump over,” she argued.
Arcane rules and procedures are too complex for many MPs, let alone the public, to understand, creating a significant barrier to progress.
What’s more, the House of Commons is not descriptively diverse, which means it is “less likely to produce effective outcomes for the diverse range of people” it now represents.
Compounding these problems is that MPs believe they are exceptional. But this exceptionalism has helped create many scandals. In addition, the tendency of MPs to focus on individual wrongdoers does little to help the reputation of the Commons, as “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel”, Hannah argues.
Last, the Palace of Westminster is, quite literally, collapsing. But any attempts to repair the decaying building are repeatedly blocked by MPs who are unwilling to put the long-term interests of the institution above their short-term benefit.
Declining trust. Waning relevance
Hannah argues these internal and systemic shortcomings have eroded public trust in the House of Commons, which is now at an all-time low. This lack of trust further encourages the government to ignore the house, diminishing its relevance.
When the public then questions the House’s ability to hold the government to account, our belief in our system of government is challenged. The result is a vicious cycle of decline in our democratic institutions.
So, what can MPs do?
Hannah argued two things must change.
First, MPs must acknowledge that declining public trust in the House of Commons is an issue they can fix. It is not a fait accompli. Second, they must accept responsibility to do something about it.
Recommendations about how to reform the House of Commons already exist. And there are examples where MPs have taken action to implement long-term systemic change.
For instance, in response to the cash for questions scandal in the early 90s, Prime Minister John Major set up the Committee on Standards on Public Life. This committee led to many of the ethical systems later put in place.
So, while Hannah was not overly optimistic that things may change, hope remains that they can and will improve.
While few lobbying scandals involve professional public affairs practitioners – just look at the David Cameron and Owen Paterson cases – Hannah noted that lobbying is a risk for MPs. Despite this, she recognised it is essential so that Parliamentarians can make informed policy decisions, supported by insight from ethical public affairs practitioners.
However, Hannah argued the rules and language used in Parliament make it difficult for the public to influence legislation, favouring those who can afford specialist advice, and urged that Parliament and the legislative process be simplified and opened up.
Public affairs practitioners can commit to ethical practice by joining the UK Lobbying Register: https://lobbying-register.uk/