Friday, 15 May 2015

Time for better scrutiny in the Westminster Parliament

Guardian Parliamentary sketch writer John Crace's wrote a 5000 plus word essay on Thursday("The Long read, Welcome to the Bubble," 14 May, providing an insider's guide to the Westminster Parliament.(
It was very much written from the perspective of a sketch writer, proving colour and texture to the sometimes baffling and arcane ways of Westminster, as his predecessor, the inimitable Simon Hoggart, undoubtedly the doyenne of sketch-writing, did so well on The Guardian's politics  pages for decades.

Crace makes a few small errors, such as describing MPs' researchers and assistants as SPADs, whereas SPADS (Special Advisors) are only employed by Cabinet ministers.

But his biggest error, based on my own thirty year practical involvement in Parliament is to miss the faults and foibles of both government backbenchers and opposition MPs trying to scrutinize Government policy, and keep ministers to account.

This is less done in the theatrical Prime Minister's questions or ministerial question times (fun for sketch-writers and sound bites, hopeless for policy challenges), but in select committees and in legislative scrutiny committees, which although to non-specialists may  come across as dull, are essential to ensure poorly-worded bills, or unintended consequences of proposed legislation, are challenged and importantly, changed.

In addition, MPs' written questions to ministers are important, as ministers cannot dismiss their content with rhetorical flourishes they tend to employ in the debating chamber when facing oral questions, and rules require them to be factual. Their problem is ministers can -and do - answer questions they have not been asked, thus wasting time and taxpayers' money or ignore inconvenient parts of questions that have.

Both the Speaker and procedure committee need to clamp down on this abuse of Parliament by ministers, which became an epidemic of contempt for Parliament in the closing months of the last Parliament. And the media  needs to pay more attention to this essential Parliamentary scrutiny, and report it

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