Parliamentary Reform - back to Jenkins!
The recent series of revelations about MPs Expenses have focussed minds on changing that system. However, there is as much, if not more, need for attention on electoral and procedural reform. The main functions of parliament are to ensure that the laws we pass are effective and to hold the Government to account for the way taxation is raised and spent. Taxes should be fair and based on ability to pay and should be spent wisely. As I recently pointed out in the debate on the timetable for the Policing and Crime Bill, the Government controls the amount of time MPs have to consider legislation. As is so often the case, only one day was allowed to debate the Bill, which left us with no time to even consider amendments on extradition and policing reform. This is what I said, explaining why I would not be supporting the Government's timetable:
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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): If there is something rotten with the body politic in this country as far as expenses are concerned—and there is, and I do not exclude myself from that—it is right that there should be media and public attention on the work that we do. Equally, attention should be paid to the rotten way in which we conduct our business. Today is a supreme example of that.
I agree with every word that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said. It is not as though there is pressure on Government time. For weeks now, we have had days of general debates, and when we get back after the Whitsun break, there will be at least two days of general debates. There is time. The Government could, if they so chose, give time to important legislation such as the Bill that we are considering today. For those reasons, I urge the Government to reconsider and will be voting against the programme motion, as I have on several occasions in the past.
The best way to restore our democracy would be to give more power to elected representatives so that people feel that when they vote they are electing people who can make a real difference if they use their powers effectively. When Labour came to power in 1997, a Royal Commission, chaired by Roy Jenkins, was set up to look into electoral reform. I supported the recommendation of the Jenkins' report published in 1998 and met with him to discuss the proposals. Below I reproduce what I wrote to constituents who contacted me about the report:
"In an ideal world I would prefer a unicameral system but we would need a drastic improvement in the way the Commons scrutinises legislation.
Otherwise, I am a supporter of the proposals of Lord Jenkins' Royal Commission, which was set up as a result of a manifesto commitment in 1997. Jenkins proposed that candidates with the highest votes from minority parties, who do not succeed in the first past the post constituency elections, would be allocated to additional member places in accordance with their party's share of the votes on a "regional" basis.
I believe that the Jenkins proposals would ensure that voters in constituencies where there is a large majority for one particular party will have as much of a chance of having their views taken into account by the parties as voters in marginal constituencies. The Jenkins' proposals maintain the constituency link but the presence of top-up members with an affiliation to a local area will help keep elected representatives of safe seats on their toes. These desirable effects should help encourage people to vote.
It is my view that Jenkins proposals offer a fairer voting system and will lead to greater accountability of elected representatives and hence greater confidence in our public institutions, and should thus receive support irrespective of any short-term electoral consequences.
If we must have a second chamber, I would like to see it indirectly elected (for example via local authorities, regional Government, professional bodies and trade unions). If it were directly elected by PR (which I support for the Commons as recommended by the Jenkins Commission) it would have just as much, if not more, legitimacy than the first chamber and this could lead to problems."
Sadly there was no commitment to implement Jenkins' recommendations, which were quietly dropped. Following the expenses row, if we are to restore the public's faith in our democracy we need to go back to the work already completed by the Royal Commission.