Bercow reforming Parliament – what should he do?

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colin_talbotSpeaker Bercow clearly has his work cut out for him. Not least because his own former Conservative party colleagues clearly loathe him and some have been making extremely injudicious statements about getting rid of him as soon as they get into power.

As an aside, hubris usually comes after a triumph – in this case some of the Tories seem intent on sinking into it even before waiting for anything as tiresome as an election.

There is clearly a danger that parts of the Conservatives are drifting towards the sort of a-democratic, or even anti-democratic, attitudes that infected portions of the Republican party in the US during the Clinton presidency. These  have continued ever since – and have been a significant factor in destroying their political prospects.

But back to Parliament: here are a few ideas for institutional reforms for our reforming Speaker Bercow:

Spending - the British Parliament has less control over spending decisions by the Executive than just about any other democratic state in the developed world. This is partly at least because of the supine attitude of Parliament itself – there is nothing constitutional or legal to stop Parliament taking on a more active role in the pre-scrutiny of spending decisions.

It need not even take away from the Executive the eventual right to decide on its spending plans, merely subjecting these plans to scrutiny and debate before final decisions are taken. If you want examples closer to home than Europe just go to Edinburgh and Cardiff and see how the devolved governments do it.

In order for Parliament to fulfil this role we probably need a Parliamentary Budget Office to carry out analysis of draft budgets and retrospective analysis of actual spending for select committees and others to utilise.

Select committees have come a long way as active scrutinisers of government in the past couple of decades, sometimes heroically given their meagre resources. The current debate focuses on reforming the way in which chairs and members of the committees are appointed, which is important.

But even with a more independent membership, they would still have very limited capacity. A doubling of select committee staffing, with more specialists seconded in from public services and academia, would start to address the massive imbalance in resources available to government versus the committees.

And implementing fully the Liaison Committee’s recommendations about what select committees should be looking at on a regular basis – especially performance – would be a useful step.

National Accountability Office – the Speaker should pick up and champion the recent suggestion from the public administration select committee (PASC) that the role of the National Audit Office should be changed so that it can critique policy objectives when necessary and it should audit, on a regular basis, the performance of government departments. This would also help the select committees in their scrutiny work.

Machinery of Government changes – another PASC recommendation made a couple of years back was that significant changes to the structure of central government – such as the creation and then demise of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills  in only two years – should be the subject of parliamentary debate and agreement before they are implemented.

These may seem like nerdy changes that won’t attract much attention but they should be judged by a simple yardstick – just watch how viciously the executive branch of government, politicians and civil servants will react to any of the above – whichever party is in power. That will tell you just how important these changes are for curbing the power of the executive and enhancing the role of Parliament.

About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is Professor of Government in the School of Social Sciences (Politics), University of Manchester, and a former adviser to the Treasury select committee. He writes and comments widely on public management reform. Colin has worked with numerous national and international public sector organisations, as an adviser, consultant and researcher. He blogs at Whitehall Watch.

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