If a week is a long time in politics, then a year is an age. The first year as an MP has shown me some great examples of parliamentary debate, scrutiny and passion but also some of the most disappointing scenes I have ever witnessed in a workplace.
For my first experience of prime minister’s questions, I stood at the main door to the Commons chamber looking down towards the Speaker. Far from the Speaker’s ear and microphones I witnessed Conservative MPs – Tory men – barrack, jeer and insult opposition MPs. What I’ve realised since then is that the abuse and snipes are most acutely targeted at women and it disgusts me.
Prior to being elected I spent my entire career in the private sector, in professional working environments that were fast-paced, creative and output-driven, whether they were companies of 400 employees or, as in my last job, a start-up of a dozen dedicated people. Coming from that background, the Commons is a culture shock and not a good one. Everyone enjoys a bit of pomp and ceremony, but all too often the pageantry and tradition seems to persist to embed power, orthodoxy and privilege. It needs to change.
I haven’t got everything right since being elected, but one thing I’ve learnt most is that the poisonous environment in parliament needs to be overhauled. Fortuitously, so does the crumbling building MPs and peers currently work in. MPs will move to renovated offices and a new chamber, just a short walk up Whitehall, but not until well after the next general election. MPs and the political classes that regard Westminster as home need to reflect on how we can change the culture of our politics with this move. The new building must be the rationale and catalyst for change in the way our politics is exercised and delivered.
Efficiency and delivery were two hallmarks of every company I worked for. Baked into the culture and mission of each organisation, it meant the whole team focussed on outputs and results. These two concepts seem alien in Westminster. Processes are laboured and change is slow. I should stress there are many hardworking House staff desperately trying to drag parliament into the 20th century, let alone the 21st, but they need MPs to be allies and not obstructors in this endeavour.
That is why I want to see changes in the way Westminster works. Parliament’s lower house has two debating chambers currently: the green-benched House of Commons and the less iconic but useful Westminster Hall, a chamber for topical debates that is well regarded by backbenchers. Westminster Hall is where I have participated in and heard the most illuminating and persuasive debates since I was elected. Neither chamber is run at capacity.
Reform of the Commons often rightly focuses on the bizarre and self-defeating sitting hours and their impacts on anyone with family or caring obligations. But let’s also look at the efficiency of the chambers. Don’t just work longer, work smarter. I want to run both chambers hot. Let’s not just address the Commons’ unreasonable sitting hours that reinforce the separation from reality of the ‘Westminster bubble’ but let’s also look at how we can get more value out of our chambers. The government objects to greater opportunity for scrutiny – but it would make for a more purposeful parliament and better governance.
With each government department only questioned every six weeks or so due to lack of space in the Commons diary and then only for half an hour or an hour at best, scrutiny is limited. So, let’s run question times longer and move petitions, ten-minute rule bills and non-urgent statements out of the Commons and into the second chamber. Traditionalists will spit out their Earl Grey tea at such suggestions, but Westminster Hall is a poorly used asset. With my business hat on I’d say it has high embedded costs but poor productivity and utilisation, so let’s up its usage by increasing its operating hours. That would free up more time for longer question times in the main chamber and more time for debates and scrutiny. Electronic voting is covered elsewhere in this collection so I won’t repeat the case for efficiency in voting here but it’s a complementary argument.
The new building will have a new Commons Chamber and a new Westminster Hall. They will need to deliver better value, but they should also introduce and embed a better culture in Westminster. The new chambers should end the culture of name-calling and derision so often associated with the green benches. I’ve been on the receiving end of abuse from elected folk who should know better. There’s no place for abuse, name-calling or slurs in politics, so let’s draw a line under it in the new chamber. No more groans or blokeish jeers when opponents dare to disagree, but instead a new culture of respect for those with opposing viewpoints or political perspectives. We can all fall foul of these best intentions on occasions but currently we are at such a low base any improvements would be positive.
Updating practices needs not just new handbooks and lines of accountability, it also needs visual signs of change. I think in pictures, so forgive me for advocating change you can see as much as change you feel in process, procedure and action.
Deep in the shell of Richmond House, the 1980s monolith that used to be the department of health, are workers preparing to build a replica House of Commons which MPs will decant to in the early 2020s. It will cost millions. If the taxpayer is to get value for money – quite a nebulous concept in politics – then it must not simply be a clone of the large room in the palace MPs currently debate in.
The new chamber should embody a new spirit of the Commons: courteous, spirited and determined. As it will be a secondary chamber that will be retained after the Palace of Westminster is refitted let’s make it purposely different and better. For a start, let’s have it fully accessible to address the woeful provisions for those with disabilities. Let’s make it digital-friendly and let’s take a long hard look at the procedures and traditions to make this a truly 21st century parliament.
I don’t want to see replica green benches. Let’s distinguish this chamber from the House of Lords’ red benches and Commons’ green benches by making this a chamber of blue benches. A new colour for a new era of politics. By all means let’s retain the Pugin-esque design flourishes and overall layout but let’s change the colour of the benches to show things have changed. It will be a visual reminder of the better politics the public rightly demand from their elected representatives. If we simply carbon copy the culture of the current Commons to a copycat chamber we miss an opportunity to reform and renew.
Being an MP is a genuine privilege but this odd environment I now work in needs to function like any other workplace in Britain: efficiently and professionally. It does neither at the moment and that needs to change. That means addressing sexual abuse and opaque accountancy practices. So, with a new building let’s also create and instil a new culture. Blue benches, not green. Efficient and productive, sweating the new assets for every ounce of value for the electorate. We don’t need to wait for the blue benches to be opened for this change, but let’s resolve that a new home won’t just copy over the bad habits of the current Commons. Britain deserves better than that.