Part of the great political reform programme to be generated from the Commons will entail a head-to-head with Government. The aim, as I have said before, is not the Romantic one of trying to move back to the 1860s when MPs made and unmade Governments and were seen as great initiators of legislation. That was the age when only 3% of males had the vote.
Responsible government – in the sense of governments being held to account by voters – necessarily entails party Government. Trying to go back to a pre-party age will drive the reform programme into a cul-de-sac.
The aim of the Commons must be to ensure that the Government’s programme is better prepared and, to use that horrible phrase, “fit for purpose”. There will always be emergencies to which a Government must react. But outside this narrow area all legislative proposals should start with the publication of a green paper which:
• Explains why the measure is necessary.
• Justifies why the new measures cannot be achieved under existing legislation.
• Sets out the reasons why Ministers believe the option they are proposing is the right one.
• Analyses the costs, benefits and risks of the different options that have been considered.
• Lists the discussions that have already taken place and the timetable for further discussion.
• Invites the relevant select committee to help shape the main parts of the Bill.
• Gives a timetable when the Commons might expect a Bill.
There is nothing revolutionary here. Much of this was agreed by the House in 1997 following the Scott report, but never implemented
The House also needs to establish a Committee of equal weight to the Public Accounts Committee which would be concerned exclusively with the Government budget, its size and the main headings of expenditure. This new Committee is urgently needed for reasons I have explained elsewhere. This reform is urgent if the Commons is to play its role in helping the Government shift, over the short to medium term, the record levels of debt it needs to market.
One of the other necessary reforms I have already mentioned in the establishment of a Business Committee which sanctions the Commons’ timetable. This Committee would be responsible for ensuring that all Government measures are properly debated and amended by the weight of argument. But it would also be responsible for delivering back to Government its Bills on an agreed timetable.
The Business Committee would also be responsible for ensuring that Select Committee reports are properly debated soon after publication. It would also timetable space for Select Committees to introduce legislation resulting from their reports.
But the overall aim of the Committee should not be more, but less legislation, and of course better legislation.