Douglas Carswell MP: Parliament isn’t working
Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich & Clacton and co-founder of Direct Democracy, laments how voters don't have real control over politicians and politicians don't have real control over the real power-brokers - senior civil servants.
Another year, another Queen's Speech. Yet more headline grabbing laws churned out by our politicians. Parliament produces a torrent of legislation, but is it any good at putting the spotlight on government?
The House of Commons is a house of charades; Ministers pretend to make the big decisions and we MPs pretend to hold them to account. Voters give up.
Parliamentary procedure is partly to blame. Debating rules favour seniority over originality, ensuring those with something fresh to say speak last, if at all. It is a tradition for the Commons Speaker to defend the rights of the Commons – when in retirement. If only Mr Speaker was as fierce when in the job. Institutionally flat-footed, Parliament lacks punch.
Fresh into the Commons, and angry about what had happened to kids in my constituency forced out of their special school, I jumped at the chance of serving on the Commons Education Select Committee. Two years, three foreign trips and half a dozen reports later, how much has made any difference? Control over education lies not with politicians promising to improve it, but with unaccountable officials.
Believing that MPs have a duty to understand our armed forces, I volunteered to visit our troops in Afghanistan. There I discovered shortages of helicopters, apaches, drones and much else. Worse, I began to suspect our troops lack these things because our limited defence budget gets spent in the interests of the defence contractors, not our armed forces. Yet none of the questions I am allowed to table gets answered properly. None of the officials responsible gets held to account. Ministers mouth nonsense and our soldiers pay the price.
Parliamentary scrutiny is all the harder since it is not always clear who now has executive power. Real power has slipped away from Ministers to an alphabet soup of quangos – the QCA, FSA, CSA, DVLA, DPA, to name a random few – call the shots. Vain, self-important politicians might not wish to admit it, but this “quango state” now runs us - not those you vote for.
After two years in the Commons, I have met most Ministers, but I have yet to meet anyone who really runs our health service, schools or criminal justice system. Ministers have become mere mouthpieces for their departments. As in the TV series “Yes Minister”, it is the senior civil servants, Sir Humphrey Appleby, whose really decides. The biggest decisions most Ministers make in their departments are on the wine list.
Does it really matter which MP happens to currently have the role of Home Secretary, or Defence Minister, or Foreign Secretary? Not, it would seem, according to the 40% of voters who now choose not to vote.
Some of the blame must rest with Labour. There is a perverse irony in Gordon Brown’s promise to “restore trust” in a political system he has done so much to debase. Yet it is more than merely the failure of one particular political party.
Conservatives are right to promise change; more free votes in the Commons, more time for debate, announcements made from the floor of the House. Yet no government will long be held in check for such promises of self-restraint alone.
Parliament needs shaking up; less ritual, more rigorous holding to account. Rule changes should mean shorter, punchier debates, with MPs contributing because they have something worth saying. Commons committees should be given the power to confirm the appointment of senior civil servants and judges. Fears that such a move would “politicise” the civil service and judiciary ignores the reality that both already form public policy. They have been politicised not in a partisan sense, but because they have more power to decide things than those we actually elect. Democratising the appointment procedures (with the prospect of a P45) might at least make unelected officials a little less inept - and more respectful of the popular opinion they currently despise.
More than just the tools, the House of Commons needs the appetite for holding the executive to account. Under our current system, MPs are encouraged to see themselves as a cheerleader for either the current government, or a future one. Apart from the mad and the bad, few are there as champions of the people against government as an end in itself. MPs are overwhelmingly elected from seats that they realistically stand little chance of losing in a General Election. Governments may form or fall in marginal seats, but most constituencies are far from marginal. Part rotten borough, part one-party fiefdom, “safe seats” mean many MPs simply do not have to worry about what the voters think. Once in the Commons, their careers rise or fall not because of what voters think, but because of what their party bosses – the Whips - decide.
Could we not have an electoral system that forced individual MPs to be more responsive to the voters, and less in hoc to the Whips? Proportional representation would certainly make matters worse, isolating the Westminster village from the voters. Yet multi-member constituencies, where voters had two or three MPs representing them, could make our political class more accountable.
Competition in business is good for the consumer. So, too, in politics, competition would benefit the voter. Multi-member seats, coupled with US-style open primary selections, would ensure proper political competition. From Labour heartlands to Tory shires, from the humblest backbencher to the grandest Minister, voters everywhere would get a meaningful choice over who represented them.
People do not just need more power to choose their MPs. Voters need power to have a direct say over what MPs debate and vote on. Like in New Zealand and Switzerland, people should have a right to initiate laws and hold referendums – and force MPs to discuss the issues that matter to them. Instead of leaving it entirely to politicians to hold government to account, people should be able to do the job themselves.
As a Conservative, I no longer believe that the status quo is worth conserving. Unchecked executive power has turned Britain into a Big State country in which “more government” has become the default answer to every public policy question. Britain is heading in the wrong direction; we need radical changes in the way we are governed to turn things around. It might mean we get better value politicians, too.