This week I shall be writing about the make-up of committees in the House of Commons. No, don’t turn the page, because what sounds like an obscure technicality is suddenly central to our democracy.
Committees are made up of MPs in proportion to the size of each party in the Commons. So, in the last Parliament, the Conservatives, in government with a slim overall majority, would always have a majority in each committee.
It was like that on my Select Committee, which looks in detail at the areas of Culture, Media and Sport. Although to be honest we mostly worked cross-party anyway so it didn’t really matter.
But there are other committees too. When a bill goes through Parliament, after the main general debate, which is called Second Reading, the bill goes into its committee stage, and the legislation is considered in detail line by line. It is here that most of the amendments to the detail of the bill are made. And these bill committees should also be composed in proportion to the balance of the whole House.
And there’s the rub, because at the recent General Election, the Conservative government lost its overall majority. It can get votes through with the support of the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland, but since they are not in formal coalition, they don’t have an automatic majority.
So they should not have a majority on bill committees either. But this week ministers forced through a vote on the floor of the House to change the rules: the government will always have a majority on bill committees.
Conservative ministers argue that it is necessary in order for them to get through legislation. But since the country did not give them a majority, I don’t think it is right that they should be allowed to give themselves one.
And there is the problem with democracy: you don’t always get the result you want. But nothing is more precious than our system of parliamentary democracy and the freedom that comes from that. The ability to remove your representative and the ability to change your government.
Which is why the system must be respected. To rip up the rule book to retain power in this way is sinister and anti-democratic. The current government might get away with it this time, but they will be setting a dreadful precedent seemingly in the interests of their party and not of our country.