Our politicians should spend less time in select committees, and more in the chamber of the house
In the first years of the Thatcher government the leader of the House of Commons was that clever man and somewhat preposterous personage, the late Norman St John-Stevas. He was sacked by Mrs T after less than two years and later transmogrified into Lord St John of Fawsley, though not before many unforgettable appearances in parliament. Ferdinand Mount in the Spectator once described Norman at the despatch box as a cross between Pope Pius XII and Larry Grayson.
But his mark endures. His chief legacy was the much enlarged system of parliamentary select committees, such as the home affairs committee, which has just issued a report on drugs; the public accounts committee, whose assault on Starbucks forced the company to cough up taxes; or the quaintly named culture, media and sport select committee, before which Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, appeared on Tuesday.
A case can be made – was indeed made with much self-congratulation on Week in Westminster on Radio 4 last Saturday by Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee – that these committees have greatly enhanced the role of parliament.
And yet at the time, more than 30 years ago, a contrary case was made: that the new committees would encourage grandstanding by MPs and, still worse, that they would be bound to detract from the importance – and weaken the power of – the House of Commons itself. Might not that warning have come true?
These committees certainly keep busy. On Wednesday the science and technology, work and pensions, public administration, Treasury, public accounts, environment, food and rural affairs, and communities and local government committees all heard evidence in rooms with names redolent of Our Island Story – the Wilson room, the Grimond room and the Thatcher room. Some of the work they do is doubtless useful, even if the latest recommendation on drugs is a statement of the bleeding obvious, which some of us have been muttering unheard for decades past.
Most of those hearings pass without any public notice, but then the ones we all remember are dubious. Years ago the US House of Representatives committee on un-American activities became nationally and internationally notorious for bullying and humiliating witnesses, and the English, even Tories, were disdainful of that coarse American brutality. But our own committees have taken it as a model.
Can anyone forget the sight of Dr David Kelly, the weapons inspector, being berated by MPs, with Andrew MacKinlay telling him “you are chaff”? MacKinlay was actually one of the better Labour MPs of the time, and was remorseful when Kelly shortly afterwards killed himself. No doubt we all enjoyed watching James Murdoch squirm (as far as he is capable of doing) while being told he was a mafia boss by the Labour MP Tom Watson. Or again, there was that odd-looking bloke with big hair whose security firm fouled up at the Olympics, and who was ritually shamed by a committee chaired by Keith Vaz, with David Winnick, one more Labour MP, telling him it was “a humiliating shambles“.
But hold on. MPs like to say they work arduously and do a good job. Now the real – the central, the all-important – job of parliament should be scrutinising legislation and holding the executive to account. In those respects, the record of the Commons in recent years has been pitiful. The last Labour government was a conveyor belt for laws, some tabloid-driven, most badly drafted. An egregious example was the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 – to protect children and vulnerable adults – which went through parliament unexamined but whose consequences have been as lamentable as was widely foreseen.
So were the consequences of the worst crime and folly in our recent history, an unneeded, unwanted, unlawful and horrible war whose 10th anniversary we are approaching. When I hear MPs singing their own praises, or watch them bullying witnesses, I consult yet again the division list for the crucial Commons votes of 26 February and 18 March 2003: the two government motions favouring an invasion and the contrary amendments saying – what almost no one would now dispute – that “the case for war against Iraq has not yet been established”.
So what do Margaret Hodge, Andrew MacKinlay, Tom Watson, Keith Vaz and David Winnick have in common apart from their committee work? Yes, that’s right. They all voted for the Iraq war. That was rather more of a humiliating shambles than any security failure at the Olympics, one might think, and a very disgraceful moment in parliamentary history. Useful as the committees may sometimes be, it’s time for MPs to pull themselves together and knuckle down to their proper work, in the chamber of the house.