As it’s Guy Fawkes Day, at the end of a long run of bum-numbingly exhausting late night sittings, the idea of metaphorically blowing up parliament and all its antiquated working practices has a fleeting appeal. It is a paradox that while the House is entirely capable of wrestling with huge constitutional changes – including legislation for a referendum on the alternative vote, the equalisation of constituency electorates and a reduction in the number of MPs – it is curiously incapable of the small reforms that could at a stroke modernise the way it works.
Gripe 1: Why, in order to bag a seat in the chamber, which has far fewer spaces than there are MPs, must members sit through “prayers” at the start of business? I like the new Speaker’s chaplain, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, and think she does a fine job. But if this parliamentary convention, which bars those who have not sat through this mini Church of England service from reserving a space on the green benches, seems archaic to me, I can’t imagine what it feels like to MPs of other religions, atheists and agnostics.
Parliament may well be exempt from such constraints, but I would imagine that most other employers imposing such a requirement would find itself on the sharp end of religious discrimination suits. And my sense is that it would be better for MPs to do their praying in their own time. There are other places in the Palace of Westminster for CofE MPs to congregate if they want to put themselves in a God-fearing state of mind before start of play. The scenes of hellfire on the painted vaults of the Chapel of St Mary’s Undercroft work fine for me.
Gripe 2: What is the problem with electronic voting? I know the arguments in favour of the present system. Backbench MPs benefit from traipsing through the division lobbies at the same time as ministers, enabling them to do much good work on behalf of constituents with a tap on the shoulder and a quiet word in the ear. The fact that MPs are forced to queue in their hundreds in the corridors behind the chamber also offers a captive audience for those seeking support for Early Day Motions, backbench campaigns and all manner of useful initiatives.
Yet I am unconvinced that allowing MPs to vote quickly and painlessly with a chip and pin from designated stations would be a net loss for democracy. It works fine in other countries. The European parliament has voted electronically for decades; the French legislate with a quick show of hands, verified if necessary with an electronic ballot; while the US lets Senators and members of the House of Representatives cast their votes with a personal ID card from a large number of high-tech electronic voting stations.
Given that our system seems to take about 15 minutes per vote and that there have been between 1200-1300 votes in each of the last three parliaments, the time of some exceptionally busy people is being wasted on a horrific scale. An MP with a 80 per cent voting record will spend 250 hours – more than six 40-hour working weeks – simply queuing to cast a vote. I don’t want to downplay the benefits of being able to access ministers in an informal setting – that is one of the most valuable things about being an MP – but this is a high price to pay.
Gripe 3: The late night sittings…It’s traditionally been left to female MPs juggling parliament with parenthood to point out that it’s a dumb idea to have exhausted MPs regularly voting on matters of national importance after 11pm. Weirdly, there hasn’t been much solidarity from the men facing the same work-life challenges. As a father of small children, I’d welcome change. I’m glad that the new 2010 intake has yet to be entirely institutionalised and may want to fight for more family-friendly and predictable sittings that coincide with normal business hours outside the Westminster bubble.
But it’s a perennial debate, of course, and one that crosses party lines. That’s why Westminster’s bonkers sitting times have survived previous attempts at reform, even though some of the arguments against starting earlier and finishing earlier are a bit daft. One MP patiently explained to me that leaving members from far-flung constituencies to entertain themselves in the capital in the evenings would lead many astray, with disastrous consequences for numerous marriages. He also maintained that morning sessions were undesirable because it was more important for the Chamber to be available to school tour groups at that time.
Yet the result, often, is knackered MPs sprawled out in the library late into the night, desperately trying to stay good-humoured and alert. Close to the chamber and a refuge between votes, the library and tearoom take on the dismal appearance of an airport departure lounge at a time of mass flight cancellations. That’s why I was glad when Sir George Young, Leader of the House, last month acknowledged that the substantial change in the House’s membership, following the largest intake of new members since 1997, meant that there was now “an opportunity to look more radically at how we operate”. I sincerely hopes he takes it.
Jo Johnson, a former editor of the FT’s Lex column, is the Conservative MP for Orpington and is a member of the PAC.