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UK Parliament – Parliamentary Reform

The new intake of MPs in 1997, particularly the large increase in the number of women MPs, and Tony Blair’s theme of modernising Britain provided the impetus for Parliamentary Reform.

As with the introduction of Select Committees in 1979, reform requires a Leader of the House ready to promote it and a Prime Minister who is not actively against or too busy to intervene to prevent it.

A Modernisation Committee of the House of Commons was set up straight after the 1997 election, chaired by the Leader of the House. The two main changes that it made were:-

  • To hold more business in the morning and reduce the number of late night sittings
  • The programming of legislation so that the time allocated for discussion was fixed

As Tony Wright MP, the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, has commented, there are two types of modernisation, that which makes it easier for the Government to get its business through and that which strengthens Parliament against the Executive. Both these changes are of the first type.

The Modernisation Committee also looked to remove archaic practices. Some survive, however, and MPs who want to submit a Ten Minute Rule Bill have to sleep all night outside the Ten Minute Rule Bill Office to be the first few in the queue the next morning.

Edwina Curry, fed up with this practice, left her teddy bear outside the office door with a note to say that it represented Edwina Curry.  She arrived bright and refreshed the next morning and took her place ahead of the grumpy and tired MPs who had been there all night but they decided not to have a row with her.

Changes such as pre-legislative scrutiny and Select Committee discussion of Government Appointments have developed and made an important difference in strengthening Parliament but the main impact was caused by the expenses scandal which gave a new impetus to change.

It led to the election of a reforming Speaker, John Bercow, who has made changes such as the increased use of emergency questions by MPs to Ministers and the appointment of the Wright Committee to look at further reform.  It reported in 2009 and its three main recommendations were implemented after the general election:-

  • The election of Select Committee Chairs by all MPs thus reducing the power of the Whips. Now all Select Committee members are elected by MPs of their party
  • The introduction of e-petitions so that those that attract over 100,000 signatures may be debated by Parliament
  • The setting up of a Backbench Business Committee so that issues can be debated that are not just those that the Government wants.  MPs were able to vote on Afghanistan for the first time.