Comment: Time to drag Westminster into 21st Century

Parliament is crippled by many of its more antique traditions. The ‘old boys club’ is in dire need of reform.

By Caroline Lucas MP

The ringing of the division bell is a familiar sound to anyone working in the parliamentary buildings across Westminster. Much like the archaic language which parliamentarians are still expected to use in the chamber and the practice of voting on legislation late at night, the bell and the voting system itself are time-honoured customs which Westminster traditionalists would have you believe will never – and should never – change.

Westminster is a very beautiful place, a site of great history and culture. It exists as a living, breathing tribute to the UK’s proud democratic heritage. But the fact that it looks like a museum does not mean it should always be stuck in the past.

The problem with many of the current processes that shape our Parliament is that, added together, they represent a hugely inefficient system which has failed to move with the times. This in part explains why, outside the Westminster bubble, parliament is generally perceived as a remote, unaccountable and incomprehensible institution.

Since being elected to parliament six months ago, I have, like many new MPs, found its old-fashioned procedures baffling at best – and obstructive at worst. Take voting. Every time the division bell goes, you have to stop what you’re doing and run. Even if you move quickly, it can be a challenge to get from your office, often in a far flung corner of the parliamentary estate, to the chamber in the eight minutes allocated. At present, going to the bathroom en route or even encountering a scrum on the escalators might mean you miss a vote.

What’s more, when MPs will vote is often totally unpredictable. There are occasional days when the House is sitting and MPs do not vote at all. But on most sitting days, there is at least one vote and there can be four, five or more votes in a day. On the days with multiple votes, the time spent slowly filing through the ‘aye’ and the ‘no’ lobbies could be spent actually scrutinising legislation, meeting constituents or dealing with the hundreds of communications that MPs get each day.

It is quite right that MPs should, as much as possible, listen and contribute to debates in the main chamber – but being an effective MP involves many other tasks, such as work on committees and debates in the parallel second chamber in Westminster Hall.

As a result, MPs cannot always sit in the Commons chamber for the duration of a whole debate.

In a new report, The Case For Parliamentary Reform, I outline the urgent need for reform of some of these procedures – and how we might go about changing the way Westminster works. As the government’s programme of severe spending cuts comes into force, the financial cost to the tax payer of time-wasting in Westminster takes on a new and more urgent significance. Just queuing up to vote, for example, accounts for around £30,000 a week in MPs’ total salary costs. In the last Parliament there were over 1200 votes. Since it takes about 15 minutes per vote, that means an MP with an 85 per cent voting record would have spent over 250 hours queuing to vote – a huge waste of time and money.

To put this into context, six votes in the European parliament would take Members a minute and a half. Here it would be an hour and a half.

An electronic voting system could make far better use of MPs’ time. Handheld electronic devices would help speed up the voting process, and various security options could be used to make sure it was operated only by the Member. You could also ensure it was only operable within the chamber or voting lobbies – as opposed to a nearby pub – and therefore maintain the opportunity for people to meet ministers. Furthermore, if votes were collected and held at one time at the end of the day, this would remove the need to travel backwards and forwards.

Aside from electronic voting, I also make the case for measures to prevent the ‘talking out’ of Private Members’ Bills. The current process allows individuals to soliloquize for hours because there is no limit to speaking time. A recent example was a debate on the Sustainable Livestock Bill, which Tory backbenchers attempted to ‘filibuster’ or talk out. Between them, they sought to hamper the Bill, using process not argument. One Member stood and read out some poetry.

This meant that the vote on the Bill happened much later than would have been the case if only real debate had occurred. Many MPs by this time had to leave for meetings in their constituencies. This is surely an insult to Members who wanted to seriously debate the Bill, the Speaker and most importantly the electorate, who do not want to pay to run a debating Chamber that is being mocked by its participants.

On a similar note, new rules for the Speaker on limits to backbench speaking time would ensure greater participation in debates.

In order to drag parliament further into the modern day, we should also increase transparency so that MPs (and constituents) know in advance if they have been selected to speak in a debate. An end to late night sittings would make MPs’ hours and those of parliamentary staff more family friendly.

Also, crucially, a systematic overhaul of parliamentary language to make it self-explanatory would help to demystify the parliamentary processes, while increasing transparency and accountability. The ‘Honourable Gentleman’ this and the ‘Noble Baroness’ that do nothing to engage the general public.

The reforms outlined here would be straight-forward to achieve, and would go some way to ushering in a more efficient, cost-effective and user-friendly parliament. They’re not all new; some build on previous proposals from the Wright Committee and from the select committee on modernisation of the House of Commons. Some have been agreed in the past, but not implemented. Others were rejected by previous parliaments at a different time. Some are new proposals, drawn in particular from experience in other legislatures.

A new parliament, in new circumstances, should examine these proposals again, and consider the examples set elsewhere. For example, many parliaments already have electronic or other automatic voting systems.

At a time when the political process is struggling to achieve legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the public, it is more vital than ever for the UK parliament to demonstrate that its work is efficient, transparent and accountable. Now is the time to shake off the image of the ‘old boys’ club’ – and move Westminster into the 21st century.

Caroline Lucas is the Green party MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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