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How to humanise Westminster A fair-minded Speaker, a ban on day-drinking and parliamentary sittings via video conference — there are plenty of ways to make MPs' lives easier

Will Lindsay Hoyle make Westminster more humane?

November 5, 2019   8 mins

The new Speaker must set a new tone
Kate Hoey, MP

After 30 years in Parliament it is a wrench to be standing down. Sadly, I leave with the House of Commons devalued as an elected chamber and with the image of politicians in general never lower.

I have served under four Speakers, of whom Bercow was most definitely the worst. His love of his own voice, his deliberate attempts to humiliate individual MPs and his bias on EU issues — his foibles are all significantly to blame for the shambles of this Parliament.

I very much hope that our new speaker will be genuinely fair-minded — someone with no favourites, no personal vanity and no wish to be the story. This will help the House of Commons revert to a place where politeness, even in the midst of huge differences, rules.

I believe that ‘modernisation’ moves — such as allowing children in the chamber and voting lobbies, lowering of dress standards, and clapping — have all contributed to the feeling that the Commons is not a workplace but a showground. New MPs need to remember that the traditions in the Commons had a reason for lasting so long. While I don’t expect all the changes to be reversed, it will be up to Speaker Hoyle to look again and exert his own influence. I hope he does.

Move Parliament to Milton Keynes
Philippa Perry, psychotherapist

I think our present system needs to change to something more like jury service, because egos have no place in Parliament. At the very least Parliament could move to Milton Keynes as a deterrent to narcissists.

Our trouble is that the more we appear to be hurtling into crisis, the more the electorate craves certainty. We may mistakenly think we need a bish-bash-bosh approach, and someone to blame. Needing a scapegoat is our most brutal trait, as blame turns to hate and the urge to purge and annihilate.

Let’s have neither rich against poor, nor poor against rich, nor tribe against tribe. We need, more than anything, kindness. To bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number is a tall order, but we could try to bring the greatest kindness to everyone. We could thank the rich for their tax contributions rather than grab it, and use the money to house, tend and feed us all. Let us extend that kindness to the planet.

We can start by being as understanding and kind to our children as possible. Kindness is what they will learn and pass on in their turn.

End anonymous communication
James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation

If you want to make the experience of being a politician more bearable, ensure that people can only communicate with politicians when they use their own name. Put an end to anonymous communication to MPs.

I don’t mean ban anonymous accounts: far too draconian. I just mean that if you aren’t prepared to put your name and address on a message, that message won’t be seen by an MP or their staff. Electronic communications to parliamentarians and their offices should be automatically filtered: no name means no-one’s going to read it.

I’m fairly militant about free speech but I don’t think free speech includes the right to send anonymous abuse; too many people currently misuse that freedom to send threats and abuse that make many MPs’ lives miserable and are corroding our public life. If people had to use their full name to engage in public conversation with politicians,  the volume and intensity of abuse would drop sharply.

We expect politicians to do everything on the record and in the open, and quite right too: transparency is essential because it ensures they can be held to account for their actions. But if we expect openness of politicians, because it ensures their good conduct, we should accept that a similar standard should apply to members of the public and their behaviour too.

Unshackle MPs from Westminster
Polly Mackenzie, Director of Demos

One of the worst features of being an MP is trekking between home and constituency. Much has changed since the days when Ross Poldark was elected a (fictional) MP, and disappeared to London for months at a time: even the most far flung parts of Cornwall and Shetland can be reached in a day’s travel from London. But we now expect MPs to make that journey at least twice a week. No wonder so many feel so exhausted.

We should bring Parliament into the 21st century by enabling some of its sittings — especially committee sessions — to be held entirely by video conference. MPs from far flung areas should able to conference in to the main chamber for ordinary sittings. And electronic voting should be possible, whether from in the chamber, or from a secure line in the constituency.

Traditionalists will say that you need everyone to be physically present, so that MPs can chat to Ministers in the lobby. But what kind of a system is it that relies on an MP to be charming while walking through a corridor? MPs should be able to make a choice about what best serves their constituents, not be forced to rattle around the Palace of Westminster regardless of whether they’re doing any good.

Look after parliamentary aides
Marie le Conte, author of ‘Haven’t you Heard: Gossip, Power and How Politics Really Works’
Our politics is broken in a thousand and one ways; it’s hard to know how we can go about fixing it, if we ever find ourselves out of the Brexit vortex. But one vital change that’s long overdue would be an absolute overhaul of the way MPs’ staff are employed.

At the moment, each individual MP is in sole charge of hiring, paying and managing his or her aides. This causes all sorts of problems. The hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on salaries makes it look, to the untrained eye, like MPs are racking up huge expenses, for instance. Meanwhile, on top of everything else, MPs are forced to occupy a management position that most were never trained for.

It’s time the House of Commons set up a body dedicated to the hiring and management of parliamentary aides. On a day-to-day basis, the MPs would remain the bosses of their aides — whom they would still pick. But they should not have to deal with anything related to their salary, or what normal workplaces call “human resources”.

This would be a huge weight off the shoulders of MPs but it would also change the life of their staff. The new system would put an end to questionable hiring habits from MPs, a number of whom currently have staff on precarious time-limited contracts that they may or may not renew at any given point.

And, as we have seen time and time again, parliamentary aides bullied or sexually harassed by their MP have no-one to formally turn to, because their MP is their lone boss.

Happy and safe researchers are effective researchers, and effective researchers means effective MPs. The system needs to change to facilitate that safety. That this has not happened yet is a scandal.

Give Parliament a better building
Tanya Gold, freelance journalist

Charles Barry’s neo-gothic Palace of Westminster is a masterpiece, but it is not a fit place for a modern legislature, either practically or philosophically. It was built in the mid-Victorian period after the old palace burnt down and the principles it expresses are those of that time: deference to aristocracy, exclusion of women, and pomposity, all harking back to an idealised past.

The interiors, by Augustus Pugin, are magnificent, but they might encourage parliamentarians to go mad, as he did; how can you govern a real nation from a palace that is a painted construct — essentially a stage set for a play about British domination, on a marsh? The parliamentary chambers themselves encourage masculine grand-standing, which is alienating; shouldn’t we have a circular chamber to encourage consensus?

In any case, it is falling apart, filled with faulty wiring, asbestos, and Victorian pipes that have yet to be replaced. The building caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2018; fire safety teams patrol it 24 hours a day. The basement was flooded with sewage on the day of the Brexit referendum; the stone is rotting; the toilets stink; it is infested with vermin; the parliamentary archive in the Victoria Tower — the most important archive in Britain — could not be saved in the event of fire. There would be no time.

In 2016 a joint committee compared maintaining the building to “trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole at the other end”. How can a healthy legislature work here, when they do not even feel safe?

Parliament should move to a more suitable building, but it won’t. Instead they squabble about how to tell the electorate what it will cost to repair. Much like the country, it cannot let go of its dreams.

Let MPs have lives
Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos think tank

You can’t be responsible for the lives of millions if you don’t have a life yourself. The civil service — committed to flexible working and offering plenty of part-time roles — is great at making sure its employees have a decent work-life balance. It’s time Westminster followed suit.

Improvements have been made, but the house still sits until 7.30 two nights a week — and 10.30pm on Mondays. As well as making any kind of healthy social life impossible, there is good evidence that long hours like these are counterproductive. One review of the consequences of such habits “showed that long hours working, especially when coupled with sleep disruption, caused deterioration of task performance, because it had detrimental effects on such things as rates of error, pace of work and social behaviour”.
The shameful toddler-like outbursts in the chamber could be reduced if MPs simply got more sleep. And their judgement would be better — so these changes are in all our best interests.

Another relatively simple change would be to allow MPs to job share. This would not be without its complications in terms of campaigning and voting, but with a little careful thought and planning, it shouldn’t be impossible.

As well as benefitting those with children or other caring responsibilities, many people have argued that this is the only way to enable people with disabilities to become MPs. In other words, it’s the only way to make sure our house of representatives is actually representative.

Fix Westminster’s drinking problem
Julie Bindel, feminist activist and journalist

In 2017, the so-called Pestminster scandal led to the resignation of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. He had been accused of “lunging” at a female journalist and propositioning her following a boozy lunch. The case represents an uncomfortable truth: Westminster has a drinking problem.

That was the conclusion of Laura Cox, who, in a 2018 report on the culture of bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff, wrote that, “a ready access to alcohol in the various bars on the premises was referred to (as an aggravating factor) by several contributors”. There are eight bars for MPs alone, with more for the lords. One was actually shut down after a glassing in 2017.

The report had been commissioned following a number of serious allegations — made against some male MPs by members of House staff, almost all of them women. It comes as no surprise, then, that many of the high-profile women stepping down as MPs at the next general election have cited abuse as a factor in their decision.

It’s time we followed Cox’s recommendation and limited access to booze in parliament during the working day. Doing so would make Westminster a safer and more respectful environment for every MP — but for female MPs in particular.

It would also, of course, make Parliament more effective. The Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Wollaston once spoke up about colleagues voting while drunk. Ensuring MPs are sober while they are running the country is a good idea — not just for the sake of their more sensible colleagues, but for all of us.

Liberate MPs from the letter-writers
Peter Franklin, associate editor at UnHerd

The moment a new MP is elected, the letters and emails start pouring in. Hundreds of them. He or she will be expected to reply to every rant, every round robin, every request for help.

Still, that’s their job, isn’t it? Well, no, it isn’t. They are elected as legislators: their job is not to be their constituents’ agony aunt. Their job is to propose, scrutinise, amend, debate and vote upon the laws by which we are governed. It is a vital task — the lifeblood of a representative democracy — and yet the time available for it is under constant pressure from the post bag and the inbox.

MPs are there to serve their constituents, but the letter-writers represent a small fraction of each community. It is true that some correspondents are in real need and that MPs are often able to provide real help. But most of the requests concern matters over which the MP has no direct say.

There’s got to be a better way. If we properly devolved power to directly elected mayors, most issues could be dealt with locally. This would free-up MPs to dedicate their time to those matters that are actually decided in Westminster. Oh, and they might just have a little bit more time for their own families too.

Various Contributors bringing a range of different voices.


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