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What’s wrong with the House of Commons?
Author: Hannah White

Held in Contempt argues that Brexit and Covid-19 have reinforced a vicious cycle of decline in Westminster – of executive disregard for parliament, which undermines public trust in its role, and in turn further emboldens ministers to side-line the legislature. This is damaging parliament’s ability to play its part in UK democracy.

The book shows how Brexit and Covid-19 have highlighted and exacerbated existing worrying trends – government’s increasing use of fast-track processes to make laws in ways which minimise the role of parliament and ministers’ disregard for scrutiny and their disinclination to update inadequate parliamentary processes. These trends in government behaviour are contributing to low public trust, which itself is damaged by the exceptionalism and unrepresentativeness of MPs and the arcane nature of parliamentary procedures.

MPs should recognise these problems and look for ways to reverse the cycle of decline into which their institution has fallen – nurturing greater public trust in and government respect for parliament’s role. But this is unlikely to happen because many of the shortcomings of the House of Commons operate in the government’s favour, so it has no incentive to allow reforms to take place.

Potentially only a disaster – such as a major fire in the crumbling Palace of Westminster – will be enough to jolt MPs and the government out of their complacency, compelling them to acknowledge the strength of public unhappiness with the way they are currently ‘doing’ politics and forcing them to identify and act to rectify the shortcomings of the House of Commons.

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Hannah White

The introduction uses the 2019 prorogation crisis to introduce the idea of government contempt for parliament and how this has been exacerbated by the twin crises of Brexit and Covid-19. It describes the role of the House of Commons and sets out current data on low levels of public trust in parliament before examining the factors that shape that trust. Finally it briefly describes the structure of the book and the key arguments of the five main chapters.

in Held in contempt
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Hannah White

Chapter 1 opens with a vignette of a House of Commons committee scrutinising a set of Covid-19 regulations that had already been superseded, illustrating inadequate scrutiny of new laws introduced to deal with the pandemic. This example introduces the argument that Covid-19 reinforced ministers’ existing tendency to treat parliament as an inconvenient hurdle.

The chapter goes on to examine the ways in which the House of Commons can influence government both ‘on stage’ in public and ‘off stage’ through private and pre-emptive influence. But governments often try to minimise opportunities for scrutiny, and in recent decades there have been worrying trends, including increased use of emergency legislation, skeleton bills lacking policy detail and growing use of secondary legislation which is barely scrutinised.

The chapter examines how Theresa May tried to side-line parliament during the Brexit process, and Boris Johnson deliberately pitted ‘parliament versus the people’ as a strategy to ‘get Brexit done’ and win a general election. It then looks in more detail at the inadequacies of the role that government allowed parliament to play in the Covid-19 pandemic. It argues that these expedient political strategies have done long-lasting harm to public perceptions of parliament.

The chapter concludes by arguing that government should change its approach to parliament, first, in the public interest, because when parliament is allowed to do its job properly it enhances the processes and practices of government, and second, out of self-interest, because strengthening parliament’s reputation will ultimately strengthen the credibility and trustworthiness of government.

in Held in contempt
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Hannah White

This chapter opens with a vignette of the House of Commons’ arguments over Brexit in September 2019, which illustrates the long-standing debate over whether MPs should act a representatives of, or delegates for their constituents. It makes the case that Brexit undermined the confidence of many members of the public that they were being properly represented in parliament.

The chapter goes on to set out the academic distinction between descriptive and substantive representation, and the data which show how unrepresentative MPs are of the British population. It lays out the arguments for why diversity is important in parliament and the work that has been done so far to increase the diversity of MPs, before considering why improvements in diversity have been so slow in Westminster.

The chapter argues that the Commons needs to become more diverse and also more inclusive for those who visit and work there – in terms of its physical environment, its culture and the way it operates: an unrepresentative House is only unjust in principle but impairs the effectiveness of the House of Commons and undermines its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

in Held in contempt
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Hannah White

This chapter begins with a vignette of ‘super Saturday’ in autumn 2019 when the House of Commons held a ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit but hardly anyone – including MPs – understood what actually happened in the House of Commons. It makes the case that parliamentary procedure is excessively complex and arcane and argues that it is detrimental to democracy if the public does not understand what is going on in parliament.

The chapter explains what parliamentary procedure is and how its uncodified nature makes it difficult for MPs, let alone the public, to understand. It considers why procedure is so complicated and argues that complexity should not be an inherent feature of parliamentary rules. It explores what has been done to try to simplify parliamentary procedure and make it easier to understand, and the barriers to democratising the workings of parliament in this way.

The public’s perception is that the House of Commons is a private club, run according to incomprehensible rules which set MPs apart from their constituents. This is damaging and should be addressed by a continuous process of reviewing and simplifying the rules. But this will only happen with government support.

in Held in contempt
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Hannah White

The chapter opens with a vignette from a Commons debate in June 2020 on an independent bullying investigation process. The story illustrates a persistent problem which undermines the reputation of the House of Commons – the tendency of MPs to treat themselves as an exception to the rules which they dictate for the rest of the country.

The chapter explains the ways in which MPs do have an exceptional status – as elected office holders with certain privileges and powers. But it argues that MPs often misinterpret their status and inappropriately exempt themselves from the rules – using the examples of the Cash for Questions and MPs’ expenses scandals.

The chapter argues that self-regulation breeds misbehaviour and that the Palace of Westminster exacerbates MPs’ sense of their exceptional status. It concludes that MPs need to be honest with themselves about the actual purposes for which their powers, privileges and exemptions have been granted and recognise the proper boundaries that these place around their exceptional status.

in Held in contempt
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Hannah White

This chapter opens with a description of the decrepit nature of the Palace of Westminster. The chapter discusses the problems that have dogged the project to restore the palace and the consequences – actual and potential – of parliamentarians’ refusal to allow it to proceed. It argues that the disinclination of today’s politicians to renovate the palace means that historical choices will continue to condition future behaviours and thinking in intended and unintended ways.

The chapter argues that the problems which have dogged the restoration are symptomatic of wider issues which are undermining public trust in the House of Commons, and that these need to be addressed in order to reverse the spiral of decline in public confidence in parliament. MPs’ failure to make the House of Commons more diverse, comprehensible and modern has created a risk parliament’s credibility and relevance as an institution.

in Held in contempt
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A parliament to be proud of
Hannah White

The conclusion opens by arguing that MPs ought to be more concerned than they are about the spiral of declining public trust and government contempt into which the House of Commons has fallen. It observes that there have been significant efforts in recent years to communicate the work of MPs but argues that the public is more likely to judge parliament by the behaviour of MPs than by the outputs of parliamentary processes.

MPs should make the House of Commons an exemplar of best practice rather than an exception to the rules. The long history of the House of Commons is no guarantor of modern value and the preferences of current MPs should not be allowed to prejudice the future of the institution by preventing reform. MPs should address the inappropriate degree of control over the procedures and processes of the House of Commons which is exercised by whichever party is in government.

The chapter concludes that at present there is neither the will among MPs nor the incentive for the government to undertake the reforms that are needed to reverse the vicious cycle of decline. Ironically, perhaps it is only if the unmodernised palace finally goes up in flames and parliamentarians find themselves forced out of Westminster without notice that they will be forced to reflect on many previously unthinkable questions about the way our politics operates.

in Held in contempt