Now is the time to modernise and reform our parliament

The Green Party leader outlines a few simple steps to make parliament a more effective – and less ar

Adopting electronic voting or introducing an explanatory paragraph to explain the purpose of specific amendments to a bill probably don't sound like revolutionary stuff. They're not exactly up there with the Great Reform Acts. But even such modest changes could take us a step closer to a more efficient and accessible parliament that, if not yet fit for purpose, is at least less unfit.

Arriving at Westminster for the first time is a strange experience. The first thing I was shown was not my office – that took at least a month to be allocated – but the pink ribbon where I was to hang up my sword. The antiquated language that parliamentarians are still expected to use in the Chamber, the late-night voting and the unpredictability of the daily agenda feel pretty anachronistic and, at times, obstructive.

Westminster traditionalists cling on to these old-fashioned procedures, making valiant claims about defending our heritage. But the fact is, most people believe parliament to be remote, unaccountable and incomprehensible. I'm hardly the first parliamentarian to recognise that something needs to change.

As peers dust themselves down after several weeks of bitter conflict and sleepless nights over changes to constituency boundaries and the AV referendum, and as MPs continue to pay the price of the expenses scandal, it is unsurprising that many are again asking how we can change our political system for the better.

In my well-attended Backbench Business debate today, MPs had the opportunity to put forward their views on the hugely inefficient processes that shape our parliament – and offer their own ideas about how we can drag Westminster into the 21st century. In my report, The Case for Parliamentary Reform, published in November, I outlined a number of proposals for first steps towards change.

First, an electronic voting system would make far better use of MPs' time. The voting system we currently use is bizarre and time-consuming. Just queuing up to vote accounts for around £30,000 of the total amount spent on all MPs' salaries in one week. In the last parliament there were over 1,200 votes. As 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 – hardly the most effective use of time and money.

Hand-held electronic devices would help speed up the process. Security options could be used to make sure they were operated only by the member; you could also ensure the device was operable only within the Chamber or voting lobbies – as opposed to a pub nearby – and therefore maintain the opportunity for people to meet ministers.

Furthermore, if all votes were held at one time of the day, this would remove the need to rush backwards and forwards between offices in far-flung corners of the estate. On most sitting days, there is at least one vote and there can be four, five or more votes in a day. Time spent running to and fro and slowly filing through the "Aye" and "No" lobbies could be spent doing more useful things – like responding to constituents or scrutinising legislation.

I'd also like to see measures to prevent the "talking out" of private member's bills. Thanks to the absence of limits on speaking time, individuals are free to ramble on for hours and obstruct the progress of legislation.

An end to late-night sittings would also make working hours more family friendly for both MPs and their staff.

And a systematic overhaul of parliamentary language would help demystify the parliamentary processes. I'd like to see a far greater use of plain English – no more of the "Honourable Gentleman" this and the "Noble Baroness" that. Similarly, I'd make it compulsory to add an explanatory paragraph to explain the purpose of specific amendments to a bill, so that MPs and the public know what they're voting on.

While such reforms may seem modest, they are not unopposed. I have been regaled on many occasions about precisely why MPs should be allowed to drone on for hours, talking out legislation, and why Westminster should remain just as it is.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Parliament Act of 1911. Fast-forward exactly 100 years, and while it's clear that progress has been made, there's still a long way to go. As the political process struggles to achieve legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of voters, the task of ushering in a more effective and user-friendly parliament feels more urgent than ever.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Getty
Show Hide image

In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”