David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions last Wednesday. Photo: AFP
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Mumsnet petitions to overhaul PMQs

More than 46,000 signatures and counting.

A petition launched by Mumsnet to overhaul PMQs has almost reached its 50,000 target in less than a week.

Justine Roberts, chief executive and founder of Mumsnet, created the petition after a survey of 1,200 members of the online forum revealed the level of disaffection British mothers feel with politics.

In a damning indictment of Westminster culture, when asked which characteristics would be advantageous in politics, 94 per cent of respondents said ambition, 92 per cent cited social connections, 86 per cent said ruthlessness, 84 per cent said being well-off, and 78 per cent said being male.

Nine out of ten Mumsnetters said they feel that the political culture in SW1 is sexist, while two thirds believe success in politics is all down to what school or university you went to and the "old boys' network".

Nearly two-thirds of respondents on the parenting site, which is 97 per cent female, thought that more women in top political jobs would mean politicians had a great understanding of their concerns.

Eight out of 10 do not believe that MPs conduct themselves well or that PMQs is effective. More than three quarters think it is “unprofessional and outdated”, while half think the weekly 30-minute session damages the reputation of Parliament.

The online petition at change.org describes PMQs as “one of the biggest turn-offs”. The petition states:

The Hansard Society have proposed a new kind of politics: a new, engaging way to conduct PMQs which can help rebuild trust in politics and politicians. This could include introducing rapid-fire Q&As, more open questions, taking questions directly from voters via social media, and penalties for MPs who behave badly... Join me in calling on David Cameron to pilot changes to PMQs along the lines proposed by the Hansard Society - before the next election.

It has received more than 46,000 signatures in less than a week, almost half the 100,000 needed for a petition to be formally considered for debate in the House of Commons.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.