Heard and not seen

A brave and commendable attempt by my local MP to get the government to drop the NHS Bill met with predictable failure in the House of Commons yesterday.

Brave because Andrew George was defying the Lib Dem leadership (not sure how bothered he is by promotion prosepcts though). Commendable because I’d suggest that he was expressing the views of the vast majority of his constituents in west Cornwall (and the country as a whole) and many Lib Dem members. Predictable because this is the way things seem to work at Westminster.

I can’t pretend to a particularly sophisticated understanding of how parliament works. I won’t pretend that there is much of a democratic deficit as there clearly is in much of the Eurozone (Ireland’s Budget discussed in the Bundestag before the Dail, Greece and Italy run by unelected technocrats) or as much undue influence by lobbyists as there clearly is in the United States (though revelations continue about the role of McKinsey & Co seems hard at work on the NHS). But there clearly is a problem.

It’s something I’ve observed at close quarters following the progress of two bits of legislation with a massive impact on housing. Parts of both the Localism Act and the Welfare Reform Act were hugely controversial and, to my way of thinking anyway, misguided. MPs and peers from all three main parties and none distinguished themselves in debates as the Bills went through parliament. In some cases, they secured amendments that improved the final legislation. In most, cogent and rational objections, several pointing out flaws that will end up costing more in the long run, were simply steamrollered through by the government. For those interested in the detail of what happened on localism and welfare reform, I blogged about it endlessly for Inside Housing, including here, here and here.

The irony is that while it is the House of Lords that is routinely billed as being in need of reform (unelected, relic of the 19th century in the 21st etc etc) it is the House of Commons that is the real problem in all of this. Our system of combining the executive and the legislature, and the payroll vote that creates, means that only a substantial rebellion by government MPs can change anything. With the NHS Bill, the Localism Act and the Welfare Reform Act, four or five or eight or nine Lib Dems and even the odd Tory rebel were not enough to defeat the government.

That’s not surprising when you consider that 22 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs are members of the payroll vote – ministers or parliamentary private secretaries who are expected to vote with the government or resign. Even if all the Lib Dem backbenchers rebel at the same time and join all the MPs from Labour and the other smaller parties it will not be enough to tip the balance.

The good news is that rebellions are becoming more common. As the website revolts.co.uk points out, the first 110 divisions in this parliament saw 59 votes against the government by its own MPs, the highest rebellion rate since the war. The bad news is that coalition plans to cut the number of MPs to 600 will reduce the number of backbenchers unless there is a proportionate cut in the payroll vote.

Clearly that analysis ignores what happens behind the scenes, the threatened rebellions that are bought off with concessions, the times the government backs off scenting trouble ahead and the times that persuasion works on ministers behind the scenes. It ignores the practicalities of governing and the way that votes have to be whipped to drive through a legislative agenda. And it ignores the dangers of members of an independent legislature can be bought off by lobbyists and outside interests (as seems to happen in the US Congress, for example).

But does that make it naïve to expect parliamentary votes based on rational debate and consideration of the evidence? I would suggest not based on the way the NHS Bill and the exact opposite of the ‘no more top-down reorganisation’ pledged by David Cameron is being railroaded through parliament against the wishes of the public and the professions. Or the way that the bedroom tax was imposed in the Welfare Reform Act. Or, in fairness, in the way that the last government pushed through the Iraq war on the flimsiest of evidence that subsequently turned out to be false.

Little wonder that MPs are so unpopular when it is so hard for them to be seen to be making a difference.

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