What’s wrong with the House of Commons? Top 10 facts by Hannah White

Posted by Becca Parkinson - Thursday, 31 Mar 2022


‘Anyone who cares about parliamentary democracy should read this book.’

Gary Gibbon, Political Editor, Channel 4 News
  1. If the House of Commons is to continue fulfilling its important role in our democracy, it must reverse the downward spiral of public distrust which is weakening its role in our system of government.
  2. By 2019, levels of confidence in the UK parliament among the UK public had dropped to just 19 per cent – fewer than one in five Britons ‘tended to trust’ their national parliament. Among all European legislatures, the UK parliament is now one of the least trusted.
  3. The Brexit process was damaging for the House of Commons. Theresa May’s strategy for delivering on the result of the EU referendum involved side-lining parliament, and rejecting as illegitimate attempts by parliamentarians to influence what Brexit might look like. Boris Johnson doubled down on May’ narrative of ‘parliament versus the people’ and attempted to prorogue parliament so that it could not interfere with his plans. 
  4. Brexit and coronavirus have exacerbated a growing tendency for governments to treat law-making as a ‘tick box’ process, passing legislation as fast as possible, introducing ‘skeleton’ bills with minimal detail and creating sweeping powers to allow themselves to fill in the detail at a later date.
  5. The House of Commons is not representative of the population it serves, and anachronistic working practices and the physical constraints of the parliamentary estate could slow or even reverse recent trends towards increased diversity of MPs.
  6. The rituals, traditions, language and heritage of parliament lend gravitas and importance to the deliberations of MPs. But it is too easy to assume that a long history is a synonymous with contemporary superiority. What goes on in the House of Commons can be an impenetrable mystery for those outside looking in – the rules must be simplified.
  7. Some MPs have a dangerous tendency to assume there should be one rule for them and another for everyone else. The doctrine of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ – that parliament is the highest legal authority – leads some MPs to treat themselves as a class apart with damaging consequences for public perceptions of parliament.
  8. Successive generations of MPs have been unwilling to take on the risk, cost and inconvenience of work needed to restore the crumbling Palace of Westminster. Their failure to act is not only multiplying the likelihood of a catastrophic accident, but also ratcheting up the eventual cost of the project.
  9. The history of the House of Commons demonstrates that significant change only happens following a crisis. Brexit and Covid have both posed significant challenges for MPs but neither has created a crisis in the House of Commons capable of focusing attention on the change that needs to happen. Nor has the catastrophic decline in trust in the House of Commons prompted serious attention from MPs, let alone action.
  10. Perhaps it is only a major crisis in Parliament – a literal conflagration – which could be significant enough to jolt politicians into acknowledging the shortcomings of the way we are currently ‘doing’ politics. Perhaps it is only a disaster which can reverse the cycle of decline into which Westminster has fallen.

‘Hannah White thoroughly examines why public trust in the House of Commons is now so low – perfectly encapsulated, as she points out, by the inability of MPs and Ministers to decide how to restore and renew the Palace of Westminster as it literally crumbles around them.’ 

Baroness Nicky Morgan, Former Conservative MP

Held in contempt: What’s wrong with the House of Commons? is available to pre-order now, publishing on 19th April.

Hannah White is the Deputy Director of the London-based think tank the Institute for Government. She is a regular commentator on Westminster and Whitehall for radio and television in the UK and internationally, and writes for publications including The GuardianThe TimesThe Telegraph and Prospect. She received an OBE in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to the Constitution.

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