Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

The Commons Touch: 5 practical proposals for reconnecting Parlia

Parliament is seen as out of touch with the public

Security measures following September 11th 2001 and the Fathers 4 Justice demonstration in the public gallery and the pro-hunt chamber invasion will inevitably reinforce that.  It has become more difficult for members of the public to come into parliament.  25 years ago you could walk in with no pass and the Sergeant at Arms’ staff were there to direct you to where you wanted to go rather than to check you for security purposes.  This first began to change in response to the IRA. And it has sharply increased with the threat of Al-Qaeda.  Now it is not only more difficult to get in as a member of the public - but Parliament looks more remote with the visible presence of armed police and with large concrete barriers.  And now even when the public get into Parliament when they go into the Chamber they sit behind a glass screen.  And they are checked on their way into and out of meetings or the public areas of committee sittings.  This is all clearly necessary.  But we need to take account of the effect that it will create in the public's mind and try and redress it.

The Government's large majority and a relatively ineffective opposition means that some see parliament as a rubber stamp for Tony Blair. This reinforces the sense of distance between the public and parliament. Parliament is seen as "there for the government", not "there for me"


In some respects this is perception rather than reality. Almost without exception, MPs now work much harder in their constituency than used to be regarded as necessary.  It used to be the case that whilst those with small majorities worked hard in their constituencies - those with large majorities would sometimes not even "visit" their constituency for long periods of time.  Now, even those with large majorities go out of their way to see as many of their constituents as possible as often as possible - and seek them out rather than just waiting till they are asked for help.

And the Select Committee system - created in 1979 - provides, irrespective of the size of a government's majority, a robust system of accountability.

There's also the particular problem - longstanding but growing - of young people feeling out of touch with parliament.  This is despite the fact that there are a number of very young MPs – who won their seats whilst still in their twenties - for example Claire Ward, Labour MP for Watford who was elected in 1997 at the age of 25 and is PPS to John Hutton at the Department of Health,  Labour’s David Lammy MP, who was 27 when he won his seat in 2001 and Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather’s Brent East win last year at the age of 29, and. But that is not how it is seen - so we must address the perception.

I suggest that we consider the following measures in addition to the proposals in the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons “Connecting Parliament with the People” (HC 368, 16th June 2004).

Writing to your Member of Parliament or a Minister should be Freepost.  Ministers can write to anyone without paying - so can Members of Parliament.  Yet if anyone wants to write to us they have to pay.  This is wrong.  We need to hear from our constituents and the public at large, and they should not have to pay. This would not only be a good practical measure - it would symbolise Parliamentarians’ acknowledgement that we need to be constantly in touch with the public and want to hear from them. On the basis of the cost of this measure where it operates in New Zealand, I estimate this would cost £456,471 per annum. There is also a parliamentary freepost scheme in Canada.

Parliament should be an 0800 freephone number.  The public know that organisations that want you to be in contact with them have a free phone number. If you are prepared to take the trouble to call your MP you should not have to pay for the "privilege" - rather, parliament should be prepared to pay because it wants to hear from the public.

All MPs should do written annual reports to their constituents - as many now do.  MPs write to their constituents, they reply to individuals who write in about problems or with their views.  At election-time we put out literature including an election address which all candidates can send freepost.  But these are only once every four years and they inevitably focus on the party's plans for national government rather than exclusively on the MPs plans for their work as constituency MP.  An annual report is an opportunity every year for the MP to state clearly to their constituents what they have done in the past year and what they plan to do.  That is what all other accountable organisations do.  People's confidence in parliament is increased if they know what their MP has done, know what they plan to do and have the chance to give feedback on those plans.

Select Committee meetings - when taking evidence in public - should be held outside the palace of Westminster.  The best venue would usually be a local authority town hall.  Mostly Select Committees meet in the House of Commons when they are taking evidence.  These sessions are public.  But the public area can seat no more than on average 20 in most of the committee rooms. When there is a controversial or particularly interesting hearing, there will be even fewer places for the public once the press and departmental advisors are seated.  From time to time select committees have sat outside Westminster.  Usually this is where they need to go to a particular part of the country to take evidence - rather than to create the opportunity for the public to see their work.  When the International Development Select Committee, under Chair Tony Baldry MP, took evidence from a panel of Sierra Leoneans living in London, for their report on Migration and Development (2003-4: HC 79-1) they held the hearing in Southwark Town Hall in Peckham.  Before the Select Committee formal hearing began, the 6 members of the Select Committee attended an informal reception at the Town Hall and mingled and had discussions with many of the 200 attendees who then filled the council chamber and public gallery to hear the formal evidence session (pictured).  In the response to particular comments of the 6 Sierra Leoneans giving evidence, (i.e. loud applause) the select committee were able to tell which comments had particular resonance with the wider Sierra Leonean diaspora and were backed by particularly strong feeling. All the 200 attendees were able to see a session of a parliamentary committee at work.  This would not have been possible if the session had been held at Westminster.

All MPs should be expected to teach citizenship classes in their local secondary schools.  The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority can assist by developing teaching materials for the hour long class and follow-up which can be undertaken with the class by the teachers at the school.  I have taught hour long citizenship classes in three of my local secondary schools (Waverley Upper School, Sacred Heart School and Walworth School – pictured) which involved a brief talk about the responsibilities of an MP, broke them down into groups to do work on political issues (e.g. draw up a manifesto and then present it to the others in the class) and have the opportunity to ask a wide range of questions. This not only will help young people understand the work of parliament but also help MPs understand the needs and concerns of young people.

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