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parliamentary reform

parliamentary reform is a general term covering a variety of proposals and changes which need to be carefully distinguished. Alterations to the composition, powers, procedure, and structure of Parliament have continued since the first parliaments were summoned in the 13th cent., but a sustained campaign for parliamentary reform did not develop until the 18th cent. After the Septennial Act of 1716 there were intermittent calls for shorter parliaments, for a reduction in the number of placemen to lessen the growing power of the executive, and for the abolition of some rotten boroughs to give more representation to the counties. These were modest proposals that would have increased the already overwhelming influence of the aristocracy and gentry. More radical suggestions were put forward during the Wilkes agitation in the 1770s when the case for manhood suffrage was deployed for the first time since the Civil War period. A comprehensive reform programme was put forward by the Westminster Committee, affiliated to the Yorkshire Association in 1780, calling for manhood suffrage, equal electoral areas, annual parliaments, secret ballot, payment of members, and the abolition of the property qualification for MPs—the six points of the charter 60 years later.

Legislative response was at first slow. A few small boroughs were reformed in the 1770s and 1780s for gross corruption but no review of the entire electoral system was undertaken. Statutes against bribery were largely ineffective. But a series of major changes came 1828–32. Repeal of the Test and Corporations Acts in 1828 allowed protestant dissenters to become MPs and the following year the same concession was extended to Roman catholics; the Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished 56 of the smallest boroughs and brought great new towns like Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Leeds into the representation, introducing a standard franchise for the boroughs. Further legislation in 1867, 1884, 1918, 1928, and 1969 extended the right to vote eventually to all men and women over 18. Religious disabilities were removed when Jews were allowed to become MPs in 1858 and atheists in 1886. The long-standing problem of bribery and intimidation at elections was dealt with by secret ballot in 1872, reinforced by the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883.

J. A. Cannon

Modern consideration of reform of Parliament has been concerned with different aspects. In earlier centuries, the term ‘parliamentary reform’ connoted measures to make Parliament more representative and more independent of the executive. Today, making Parliament more representative is usually associated with electoral reform: parliamentary reform is concerned with the organization of the House of Commons.

The advent of mass democracy brought renewed fears of growing parliamentary subservience to the executive. At first such fears focused on the powers of the party whips, and these anxieties reached their zenith soon after the Second World War. More recently, discussion has centred on the procedures of the House. The way the Commons did its business almost insensibly strengthened the power of the executive: ministers, backed by the resources and experience of their departments, had a near monopoly of knowledge. The problem is that so much of the business of the House is transacted on the floor of the House itself. Until the procedural reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, the role of committees in the House was limited. The legislative standing committees were appointed to consider the committee stage or detailed amendments to bills, the principle of the bill having been already approved at the second reading. These standing committees had a fluctuating membership and no subject specialism. In the American Congress, by contrast, the Agriculture Committee or the Foreign Relations Committee of Senate are specialized and their composition relatively permanent. The British standing committees are designated by letters of the alphabet, Standing Committee A, Standing Committee B, and so on. The only element of specialization is that members are chosen in the light of their knowledge of the subject-matter of a particular bill: thus, former teachers and members of education authorities may be appointed to standing committees dealing with education bills.

The consequences of non-specialization and fluctuating composition are twofold. Members do not gather the sort of informed authority that a long-serving member of a specialist committee will have, and cannot challenge the government in the same way. Nor can the committees develop a corporate identity that can compete with the overriding loyalty of party.

What these arrangements do is to reinforce, almost insensibly, the claims of party allegiance. Most of the debates take place in a chamber that is, at best, half-full: when the division bell rings, members appear as if by magic, asking ‘which is our lobby?’ It is not that members vote against their consciences: on most issues their consciences have nothing to say. It is only on the great issues of the day—a Suez affair, for example—that members are likely to feel the tug of conscience. Thus, what has been called the Prussian discipline of the two great parliamentary parties owes as much to the mundane arrangements of the House as to the power of the whips.

For some fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, the House went on its way complacently, ignorant of the often radically different procedures of other legislatures. A proposal in 1959 to set up a select committee on the colonies was denounced as a radical constitutional innovation which would detract from the sovereignty of the full House. Not until the 1960s did discussion switch from the (alleged) power of the party machines to the institutional arrangements of the House. Bernard Crick's seminal Reform of Parliament (1964) saw in the House's lack of information its major weakness. The elections of 1964 and 1966 brought into the House a new generation of backbenchers hungry to play a more active role in its work. The Wilson government responded with the establishment of a few select committees with powers to inquire into the workings of particular activities of government, such as science and technology. This experiment, though tentative, set the pattern for more extensive change. The Heath government continued on similar lines. Margaret Thatcher's arrival in office saw the setting up of the modern select committee system, with committees which broadly paralleled the various government departments. The task of these committees is not to legislate but to inquire, by questioning ministers and civil servants. This takes place in a setting which discourages, if it does not wholly prevent, the easy evasions of question time.

The departmental select committees have now become part of the accepted practice of the House. Their scope remains limited for they have no power to consider particular bills, which are still referred to the standing committees. On the other hand, their reports present information with a detail not hitherto normally available.

These procedural changes have been accompanied by a loosening of party ties in floor votes. Backbenchers are now more willing to cast occasional votes against their party. This assertion of greater freedom began in the 1966 Parliament and seems to have continued. Yet the change must not be exaggerated; party loyalty remains overwhelmingly the chief determinant, or at least the chief correlate, of voting. Parliamentary reform and the greater independence of backbenchers have dented, but not greatly impaired, the supremacy of party in the House of Commons.

Hugh Berrington

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