Pre-legislative Scrutiny

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6th January 2004.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 9:30 am, 6th January 2004

Thank you for calling me to speak in this very important debate, Sir Nicholas. If there is one thing that should unite politicians of all parties in this House, it is a desire to ensure that Parliament is more effective and that it becomes more relevant and a more important forum. I hope that those of us gathered here this morning will agree on how we might proceed and that the Minister will take our views seriously.

Politicians of all parties are struggling to reignite people's interest in our democracy. It is sad that many members of the public rightly or wrongly perceive us to be out of touch, out of date and unresponsive to outside opinion. They do not understand or even care about what they believe to be our archaic and irrelevant procedures and practices. The media does little to help and much to hinder. Civil servants and Ministers, through fear of challenge or lack of imagination, may feel little need to relax their grip over a supplicant Parliament. Blaming others, however, gets us nowhere. Parliament must take responsibility for itself, and I hope that the Government, who control our agenda, will assist it. This Government, like all Governments, need constantly to renew their connection with Parliament and the public.

The answer is under our noses in the form of online pre-legislative scrutiny—an ugly mouthful, but one that means taking our democracy to its next level and to its next era, in which Committees properly examine draft Bills or, even better, White Papers, or, better still, the Minister's instructions to counsel—the ideas behind the Bill. That would give Bills the examination that they deserve in advance of their becoming law.

There is a tendency for Parliament to fear technological developments. For many years, the broadcasting of proceedings, first on radio and then on television, was resisted. Some believe that the internet now threatens the principle of representative government, since it offers the possibility of direct decision taking through e-plebiscite—a big, if monosyllabic, conversation that would bypass Westminster altogether. We are right to be worried about being bypassed, but pre-legislative scrutiny turns that worry on its head. It can reinforce representative democracy rather than undermine it. It would mean the public's thoughtful involvement in our law making rather than a crude "yes or no" totting-up of views on a particular issue without proper explanation or involvement. It would give this generation of democrats the chance to develop a fully participative democracy rather than revelling in the irrelevant past, as some of us do in this place. Through this process, Parliament could once again become a respected forum of the nation.

If evidence on proposed Bills was broadcast live on the parliamentary and BBC websites, for example, every voter who could get near a computer would be able to view proceedings and could submit their own views using the e-mail address that would run across the bottom of the screen. Those views would be received and processed, not by anyone here or in party politics, but by an independent mediator—perhaps, as in the brilliant example of the Communications Act 2003, the Hansard Society, a much respected and independent institution.