Shooting from the whip

Too often MPs are held accountable to party whips rather than to the electorate whose needs they should be serving.

John Lehal: managing director of Insight Public Affairs
John Lehal: managing director of Insight Public Affairs

On Tuesdays at 1pm when the House of Commons is sitting, a group of MPs meet under the chairmanship of the Labour MP Natascha Engel. The Backbench Business Committee has been ­transformative in handing power to backbench MPs, as the committee’s members select parliamentary business for debate based on the importance and relevance of the topic, and the breadth of parliamentary support.

Though the debates they allocate usually fall on Thursdays – a notoriously quiet day in Westminster – they have ensured that topics such as cycle safety, Gurkha pensions, Hillsborough and mental health have been guaranteed parliamentary time, secured a government response and attracted media and public attention.

Despite the committee’s success over the past four years, the Government has failed to hand further power to MPs through the establishment of the House Business Committee, once a key plank of the proposed reforms in the coalition agreement.

When Douglas Carswell joined UKIP, he stated: "This isn’t mainly about Europe. It’s the failure to deliver meaningful pol­itical reform that drove me to do this." Carswell and others have been agitating for greater powers for Parliament, yet despite some small successes, there is much to be done.

An example would be the parliamentary committees that scrutinise legislation. Sitting alongside ministers and shadow ministers are MPs who review legislation clause by clause and line by line.

Yet if you are a former carer interested in a social care bill, or a business owner with knowledge of labour market reforms, you probably wouldn’t have the chance to scrutinise the legislation and challenge ministers.

The all-powerful party whips decide who serves on these committees, and control the timetabling for the entire passage of legislation. The last thing they want is informed experts delaying government bills.

They decide the timetable for when legislation moves to the House of Lords, irrespective of whether stakeholder views have been heard, amendments have been scrutinised and pol­icy has been challenged. As Carswell said: "Instead of answering to the electorate, too many MPs end up answering to whips."

Meanwhile, many MPs eager to climb the political ladder are happy to play along with the whips who reward good behaviour and have a hand in deciding which MPs’ careers flourish.

MPs avoid rocking the boat, vote for legislation irrespective of whether it could be improved, and toe the party line for fear of giving ammunition to political opponents.

The backbencher wants to be a minister. The minister aspires to take their place in Cabinet. The Cabinet minister covets one of the four major positions of state. Everyone wants to be Prime Minister.

Put simply, the ambition of MPs and the power of the whips have forged a toxic combination in which far too much power remains in the hands of the Government. Sadly the Government, drawn from Parliament, controls Parliament.

Until this changes, neither the Government nor Parliament will have the faith and confidence of the public.

John Lehal is managing director of Insight Public Affairs

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