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.