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8 August 2014

Charles Walker MP: “We’re not there to serve the public, we’re representatives of our communities“

The champion of the backbenches talks to the New Statesman about idealism, democracy, and the need for "injury time" in Commons debates.

By lucy Fisher

Charles Walker is a self-appointed champion of the backbenchers. “Parliament is a much greater institution than Government,” declares the Conservative MP for Broxbourne.

Eloquent and passionate about British democracy, he says: “I think Parliament is probably this country’s greatest achievement. We dismiss it so lightly now; we think Government is the only game in town, that that is the end game, but in fact Parliament underpins it all.”

Preferring the role of backbench MP as guardian of democracy and scrutineer of the executive, Walker despairs of “this fiction and modern narrative that we’re all just here waiting for promotion”.

He exclaims: “How can you be promoted from being a Member of Parliament? You can be asked to serve as a Minister of the Crown, but where did we get the idea that this is kind of a holding tank for people’s pure career aspirations?”

Full of historical nuggets about Westminster, he points out that up until the turn of the twentieth century, an MP tapped to become a minister would, by convention, have to offer a constituency by-election: a formality that nodded to the natural conflict of interest between the two roles.

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He adds: “Now those sort of dividing lines don’t exist anymore. Parliament is seen as a vehicle of the Crown.”

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The sandy-haired politician is well suited to his role as vice-chairman of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers, which he describes as a “safety valve for backbench issues”.

It also dovetails well with his role as chair of the Procedure Committee, which considers the practice and procedure of the Commons in the conduct of public business.

Concerned about the lack of capacity for MPs to have their say in time-limited debates on important issues of the day, and particular military affairs, Walker wants to introduce provisions for “injury time” in the Commons – extra time that lies outside the usual hours of Parliament to allow all members a chance to speak in the chamber on the most significant issues.

He says: “I do think there needs to be a mechanism for the House to say – we need more time to look at this.”

The former marketing and recruitment executive has worked diligently on improving the employment environment for MPs since his arrival in Westminster in 2005. He is currently introducing an independent dispute mediation service for MPs and their staff, after it emerged in March this year that a loophole in the Commons complaints system meant it did not apply to MPs’ staff.

A string of allegations about certain MPs shouting, swearing and hurling staplers at staff were widely reported, and accusations of a culture of sexual harassment and heavy drinking in Westminster shook the House.

As a tee-total non-smoker, Walker is certainly no regular in the bars on the Parliamentary estate. With wholesome, almost boyish looks, he has a thoughtful and bookish air about him, a suggestion that makes him laugh.

“I was not a great student,” he says emphatically. “Dyslexic, and probably lazy”. He also developed obsessive compulsive disorder at the age of 13, which he revealed during a debate about mental illness in the House two years ago. 

With characteristic lightness of touch, he described himself as a “practising fruitcake”, before explaining how the disorder could take him to “dark places” and see him washing his hands up to a hundred times a day. His candidness was widely applauded.

It was a stint at The American School in London in St. John’s Wood that saw him eventually take to academia. “I had some specialist support – I’m very lucky my parents could afford that – and that sort of turned me around.” In a pleasing instance of symmetry, the woman Walker credits with his transformation, now in her 80s, today helps his son with reading and writing. He is married and has three children altogether.

His stepfather Christopher Chataway was a Tory MP, though Walker is quick to shoot down any suggestion of nepotism, pointing out that Chataway had left the Commons before marrying his mother. He admits, however, that his stepfather’s idealism had a profound influence on him as a young boy.

“He was never cynical, he always believed in the power of politics to do great things. And it must be able to. When you get people saying ‘You politicians, you’re all so useless, what have you ever got right?’, I think: ‘Well, we live in the fourth richest economy in the world, we’ve got the eighth largest economy [in terms of purchasing power parity], we’ve got the NHS’.”

He says with a wry smile: “It’s nice being an idealist, isn’t it?”

Conversation turns to the recent scandals enveloping Parliament. He describes himself as “deeply disturbed and upset about things going on the moment. We had expenses five years ago, now we’ve got this paedophilia issue. There are great upheavals and it does drive one to despair.”

He is also worried that the work of Parliament is being damaged by spending cuts. “Everybody is in straitened times, but our democracy is very, very important to us and I don’t want to see it constrained by budgetary considerations.”

He continues: “When you constrain the work of parliament, you tend to constrain – wittingly or unwittingly – the ability of your elected members of Parliament to hold the executive to account. And that is only to the advantage of Government.”

Walker derides criticisms that the Coalition has entered a period of Zombie Parliament, having announced just over a dozen substantive new Bills in the Queen’s speech in June this year.

“We are legislation junkies!” he cries. A true Conservative, he would rather see the Government legislate less than more.

Pointing to counter-terrorism measures, he says: “You could look at a whole slew of Home Office laws in the past 15 years where really there were already existing laws in place that could meet the challenge to hand. Not always but often.”

In future he believes a cap on the number of Bills brought forward by a Government would be “wonderful”.

Shaking his head, he says: “We measure our political virility in this country by a) whether you achieve ministerial office and b) how much legislation you can cram in to a Parliamentary year. Wouldn’t it be better to have fewer and better scrutinised bills?”

He is also troubled by the growth of case work – he even loathes the word itself – facing MPs. “It is to the absolute advantage of Government for MPs to be buried under piles of letters that are sent on pot holes, hedge row trimmings, parking fines.”

He adds that these are “worthy matters, and I don’t dismiss people’s concerns lightly – but they’re not the primary duty of MPs.”

He grimaces: “Your readers are going to hate this, but when I hear people say we’re public servants, well we’re not. We’re not there to serve the public. We’re representatives of our communities, who place their faith in us to go to Parliament and exercise our judgement on their behalf on the big issues of the day.”

“The expense of politics is being driven by email,” claims Walker, describing “connectivity” as a key driver of the rising cost. Whereas once constituents may have intended, but declined, to write to their MP after an animated conversation about an issue in the pub, now, says Walker, they can fire off an email on their smart phone at 2am on a Saturday morning.

The resultant cost of writing to the constituent to acknowledge the correspondence, writing to the relevant minister about the issue, soliciting a reply from the minister, and then relaying it back to the voter, runs into the hundreds of pounds, Walker explains.

With a big smile he says: “If you want to bring down the cost of politics, stop writing to your MP.”