Lessons for Dáil as MPs decide to take more control of affairs


Changes in the way Westminster operates could be a blueprint for political reform here, writes NOEL WHELAN

POLITICAL COVERAGE in Britain in recent weeks has understandably focused on chronicling the dramatic shifts in opinion polls and the shapes being thrown by the political parties in advance of the general election, likely to be held in May.

However, below the radar, significant developments have taken place within the current Westminster parliament, the cumulative effect of which has the potential to radically transform the relationship between parliament and the executive branch of the British political system.

Ten days ago Westminster MPs, on a free vote, overwhelmingly supported a series of fundamental reforms to how the next House of Commons will organise its business. MPs voted by 221 votes to 106 in favour of rule changes which will see all the chairs of the select committees which shadow government departments elected by MPs in a secret ballot. In future each party’s select committee members will also be elected by internal secret vote within their respective parliamentary parties.

Even more significantly MPs approved procedural changes, which will mean that for the first time in over a century parliament will take control of its own agenda.

The changes require the new parliament to establish immediately a backbench business committee to set the parliament’s agenda for 15 days of each session. The MPs also approved a proposal establishing a general house business committee in the new parliament to be comprised of one third government representatives, one third opposition frontbenchers and one third elected by backbenchers of all parties. It is envisaged that this group would ultimately set the parliamentary agenda for all non-ministerial business.

These may sound like technical changes but together they will dramatically increase the independence of parliament from whatever government is elected in May. By taking the power to appoint chairs and select committee members from the party leaders and whips and giving it to backbenchers in a secret ballot, the capacity of those committees to hold ministers and public servants to account will be significantly enhanced.

By restoring to itself the power to set its own timetable and agenda, parliament will have brought about a significant rebalancing of the relationship between it and Whitehall.

The Westminster vote follows on from proposals developed by a parliamentary reform committee set up by Gordon Brown at the height of the controversy over MPs’ expenses last year. The committee was chaired by senior Labour Party backbencher Tony Wright and among the matters on which it focused was standing order 14 (1) of the House of Common’s internal rules.

Section 14 provides that except in certain circumstances “government business should have precedence at every session”.

It was introduced by the British government in the 1880s as a response to the obstructionist campaign by Irish Parnellite MPs. Parnell and his colleagues had filibustered and otherwise interrupted Westminster business for years as part of their campaign to have an Irish Home Rule Bill debated.

However, the standing order was retained to this day and has been the cornerstone of the British cabinet’s control of the parliamentary agenda since. This recent vote for change in Westminster has put a stick of dynamite under that cornerstone.

There are many reasons why after more than a century of acquiescence to executive dominance, many British parliamentarians have suddenly being emboldened to assert the rights of parliament. Westminster has been traumatised by the public backlash to lasts year’s expenses scandal.

For months the Daily Telegraphhas published daily stories detailing several years of expenses claims by MPs. In the aftermath of these revelations an unprecedented number of sitting MPs have been deselected by their local constituency organisations while many more have announced they will voluntarily retire in May. No longer susceptible to the blandishments or threats of party whips these outgoing MPS have joined forces with long time backbench reformers like Wright to deliver a blow for parliamentary democracy.

The vote on the reform proposals was also well timed to attract maximum support from sitting MPs expecting or at least hoping to be in the next parliament.

Current government backbenchers realise they are likely to be on the other side of the chamber from May and want to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the new Conservative or Conservative-Liberal government.

Irish TDs operate in a parliamentary system modelled on Westminster and in which the Government still has a stranglehold on the parliamentary agenda and an effective veto on the appointment of committee chairs and other parliamentary officeholders.

Indeed the control over parliament exercised by the executive branch in the Irish system has been even more pronounced than in Britain.

There has been much talk of late in Irish public debate about the need for political reform, much of which has focused on constitutional change, particularly changes to our electoral system. This debate is welcome.

Rebalancing the relationship between Dáil Éireann and the government is one area where real change could be achieved by legislative or procedural change. If there was real political will, this reform could be achieved within weeks.

Taking back control over its own affairs is something Dáil Éireann should set about doing now.