Friday, February 26, 2010

House Points: Rebuilding the Commons

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Tricky business

Forget Gordon Brown and bullying. Forget even Ashley and Cheryl Cole. The big debate of the week took place in the Commons on Monday. It concerned, as Hansard puts it, the “Report from the House of Commons Reform Committee on Rebuilding the House”.

That committee has come up with a number of proposals for reform. Some, like sitting in September, look merely cosmetic. Others, like giving the public the power to initiate Westminster Hall debates, look to be worthwhile experiments.

And one, the establishment of a business committee to take away some of the government’s power to decide how much time is allocated to different bills and debates, is absolutely vital if MPs are to be able to oversee the executive properly.

Speaking in favour of these reforms were some of the most thoughtful figures in the Commons: Sir George Young, David Heath, Tony Wright, Frank Field. And Harriet Harman supported them too.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic. Hilary Armstrong, the former Labour chief whip, looked like one of Macbeth’s three friends after she had been told they were out of eye of newt. Hers was the voice of conservatism, but do not judge her too harshly for she was born to it. She inherited her North West Durham seat from her father Ernest, who was also a Labour whip.

There is no such excuse for her apprentice Natascha Engel, whose performance was simply embarrassing. She intervened on just about every other speaker in the debate, yet still ran out of time for her own contribution. And still you had no idea what she was on about.

It was clear Engel wanted to oppose the report. It was less clear that she had been able to think of any rational reason for doing so. So she protested that the Reform Committee had “never asked what was the point of Parliament, and what was the point of Members of Parliament”. And complained of being faced with “tiny, tinkering reforms” – without telling the House about the larger reforms which she favours.

The sad thing is that there were few MPs in the House on Monday, and they were largely the enthusiasts for reform. We shall see next week whether Engel’s confused rambling spoke for the majority.

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