The House of Commons is joining the 21st century. The best gentleman’s club
in London is recognising that it has members from both sexes, and needs to have
the same standards of professionalism as the civil society it legislates for,
as well as terms and conditions of work that its electorate understands.
Adaptation has come none too soon. The chamber is poorly attended, the
infrastructure of support for MPs is laughable, and its customs and practices
are rooted in the middle ages. But if Robin Cook, leader of the House of
Commons, is expecting unanimity from his proposals to reform the way that
parliament goes about its business, he should think again.
Like any other organisation, the Commons has its traditionalists. The
proposals from Cook’s Commons modernisation committee encompass many of the
procedures, processes and practices of government. One suggestion – to shorten
Westminster’s July to September summer break by a month – would have removed
the debate about whether the House should be recalled to discuss Iraq at a
stroke. It would already be sitting.
Overall, the proposals are designed to make parliamentary life more
accommodating for MPs and their families, and to reconnect parliament with the
electorate. Parliamentary business will begin earlier and conclude by 7pm on
most nights, for example, bringing an end to the traditional 10pm vote. Of all
the reforms, this one in particular will help towards professionalising
It will make a parliamentary career more accessible, creating better balance
between men, women and different age groups. Shorter working hours also mean
debates and votes can be held at times when they will be better attended and
reported. The knock-on benefits for the senior civil service, who work long
hours as a direct result of arcane parliamentary practices, should not be
New Labour is proving to have stamina for change. Most thought that after
the first flurry of constitutional reform, mainly manifesto commitments
inherited from John Smith’s time, its appetite for change would evaporate.
Instead, its planned reform of the House of Lords, together with Cook’s plans
for the House of Commons, will transform parliament more completely than any
time since the 1832 Reform Bill.
Cook will face criticism from traditionalists trying to preserve their
privileges; some members can only hold down their non-executive directorships
and day jobs because they can vote in the Commons at 10pm. But the only
criticism he should be prepared to listen to, is the one that criticises him
for not going far enough.
By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Work Foundation