London – Parliamentary democracies need parliaments to function. This is as true of the Westminster institution in London, sometimes described as the mother of parliaments, as it is of the Diet in Tokyo or of any other parliamentary legislatures in states round the world that struggle (and the struggle is constant) to uphold open and free societies, while also ensuring the delivery of quality government by the state.
The problem is that parliaments in their traditional, Westminster-type form involve crowded chambers, which are just where COVID-19 thrives and spreads.
Faced with this formidable new obstacle, British parliamentarians have devised, and are now trying out, a virtual parliament that avoids having members on packed benches, in either House — the Commons or the Lords. Somehow, it is hoped, this will still carry out the necessary function of holding the executive to account and scrutinizing government programs and legislation, without members being physically present.
The new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, a good social democrat in contrast to his hard-line Marxist predecessor, has been especially vocal in arguing that “there is no substitute for parliamentary scrutiny.”
So far the results have been mixed. The basic problem is that a large plenary chamber, almost empty and with just a scattering of members of parliament, all carefully sitting two meters apart, hardly looks like a functioning assembly in which the government is being called vigorously to account, let alone where legislation can be argued out and voted on.
Yet unwittingly this unprecedented innovation has given fresh exposure to a deeper and longer-standing weakness in the Westminster model.
The harsh reality is that the vaunted mother of parliaments, even in normal times, has been dismally slow to match the ballooning size and complexity of modern administration, while oscillating between rubber-stamp subservience to government at some stages and complete paralysis at others (as during the recent Brexit phase). Respect for this venerable institution has plummeted. At a time like now, when government has surged into people’s lives on a scale not seen since the height of wartime, the need for a really good parliamentary inquisition, rather than just partisan point-scoring, is more intense than ever.
With this poor record, and with an increasingly connected electorate demanding to know what is really going on inside government, and why the endless cascade of more laws and more regulations, the case has been growing for some years for giving Parliament more teeth. possibly learning something from U.S. congressional committees.
This is where proper and penetrating scrutiny can really be switched on with laser force. To paraphrase an observation once made by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, plenary chambers are parliaments on show while committees are parliaments at work. Or to put it another way, the plenary chamber is the theater of politics; the committees are the workshop. And the theater part is not nearly as popular, or impressive, as it was once deemed to be. Nor is it calling executive power in check as ruthlessly or as thoroughly as it should.
The concern is not new. Back in the 1970s, almost 50 years ago, reformers were urging that the Westminster Parliament needed to establish a completely new permanent structure of specialist committees that could look deeply and systematically into government departments and their budgets.
Of course, at Westminster there have been throughout its long history numerous parliamentary committees set up to inquire into this or that scandal or disaster, as well as legislative committees for processing, and sometime amending, government bills. Also, since the 19th century, a number of so-called estimates committees have evolved, but with the very limited remit of checking whether public expenditures authorized has been lawfully and competently dispensed, and not improperly or fraudulently diverted — often the norm in earlier times.
Not surprisingly, it was felt by 1970 that the time had come for much more of a grip. The proposal was put forward for an entirely new committee structure, powerfully staffed and questioning departments not just on how money was being spent but why it was spent, and what were the policies behind the funding in the first place, and why they might be going in the wrong direction.
It took almost 10 years for a reluctant Parliament gradually to accept this quite modest advance, with it only coming into full operation with the advent of the Thatcher government in 1979.
But that was 40 year ago. Today, when public pressures are stronger than ever, data-flows more massive and demands for transparency ubiquitous, the system still falls well short of what a digitally empowered and connected public now expects.
The famous prime minister’s question session at Westminster once a week is probably the one part of the old “show” that should be retained. For the rest it is powerful and probing committees, well-staffed and with real inquisitorial power to influence the legislative program and actual budgets, which offer the best way to meet the demands of a restless and dissatisfied democracy.
In the current emergency, with social distancing and lockdown taking absolute priority, this is anyway where necessity leads. It is no longer a case of choosing. If Parliament is to regain people’s trust then it is only through a committee system with enhanced powers, rather than through a return to showy rows across the floor of the chamber, that this will be achieved.
The constitutional implications of Parliament sharing through its committees a larger part of the processes of government, are undoubtedly enormous in the British context. But ironically, the experiment now being attempted, thanks to COVID-19, to try running Parliament on a virtual online basis, could pave the way for just the overdue reforms which this revolutionary age has long demanded.
There may be lessons here for other parliaments, or, on the contrary, there may be lessons here that Westminster can learn from others.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.
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