Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Oh mother ! Abuse of parliamentary democracy ?

On the Today programme this morning the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster complained that the lack of a full debate in the Commons on the Equality Act and adoption services (see Nonsense on Stilts :devout vs out) was "an abuse of parliamentary democracy". Only a little acquaintance with our archaic and executive-dominated "Mother of parliaments" would show that it is the Commons itself which is an abuse of democracy.

To give but one example, the Trident debate. Firstly, opinion polls show that around half the country would be happy not to replace Trident (figures vary above and below 50%) yet not one MP tabled an amendment putting that position. If such an amendment had been tabled, the Speaker would probably not have called it for debate because he alone determines what is debated.

Finally, there are two reasonable ways to organise debate in legislatures. The traditional way is for debates to begin and end with speakers for and against the motion or amendment under discussion. The European Parliament way is to allot time to each party group according to their strength in numbers. The House of Commons conducts its debates on the basis of opening and closing speeches by the government and the "official opposition" thus ignoring or diminishing the role of any other parties. In the Trident debate where Labour and Conservative agreed on the motion, this meant two speeches in favour of Trident at the beginning and two more at the end.

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