Westminster: Does Parliament Work? By John Garrett. Gollancz, 246pp; £16.99. Review by Tim Beaumont. This book claims to be the first examination of Parliament "from a managerial perspective". The author is a management consultant who has been a Labour MP for 15 years. He has already written books on The Management of Government and Managing the Civil Service. Now he has turned his attention to Parliament itself.
John Garrett knows his subject and has command of the necessary methodology. But it is probably asking too much to expect the book to live up to its publisher's claims - that these qualifications result in something startling. Parliament is too much in the public eye, with too many critics writing about it week in, week out, for there to be anything much left to say.
The author adopts "a typical consultancy format", considering the development of the present sources of authority, their practice and procedure, before proposing certain reforms. As he points out, there is a lot to reform. The newly-free countries of Eastern Europe recoil when they look to the Mother of Parliaments as a model, appalled at its lack of democratic control over the executive. How easily it could shift into what they have just escaped from. Indeed, it may be that our ex-colonies' fondness for copying our example had something to do with the freedom it gives, not to "the people" but to the people in power.
Once you examine the functions that Parliament actually performs (as opposed to those it claims to perform), they boil down to delivering a running commentary on "the management of Britain's decline". Its practical amendment of legislation is minuscule. The powers of delay of the Opposition and the House of Lords are almost non-existent.
Parliament can be breathtakingly vulgar. It conducts its question-time like a bear garden. The author singles out the male chauvinist jeering that can be called up by any attempt at serious examination of sexual matters. I well recall the puerile rejection of the first Plant Protection Bill, because MPs found the vernacular names of rare plants so funny that they couldn't contain themselves (as the saying goes).
Impotence and Philistinism are not its only faults. Government ministers are drawn almost exclusively from its members, and if it's not entirely true that Parliament is "a talent pool" which could not sustain a single multinational company, it is certainly true that a pool which consists of the conforming elements of one party in one of its Houses is not exactly rich. The result is that the functions of lawmaking have drifted into the hands of a highly conservative Civil Service and of judges who are scarcely trained for the job, and to Europe with its secretive Council of Ministers and unbridled Commission.
Garrett has some suggestions for change, but he does not look seriously at the unrepresentative nature of elections. He merely suggests a Royal Commission on Electoral Reform, as if the whole matter had not been thrashed out a hundred times, by various bodies including Royal Commissions. He praises the passing of the Audit Act in 1983, but points out that the Government would (not unnaturally) like to see the powers of the Public Accounts Committee trimmed. He accepts the urgent need for time-tabling bills, which has long been firmly resisted by romantic "House of Commons men" such as Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. One of the few points he raises which was new to me, and is worth pursuing, is that the Speaker possesses hitherto ignored powers which, if he or she cared to use them, might improve the performance of Parliament.
This is a thoroughly workmanlike book, which will undoubtedly be a source book for reformers. But there is little in it which is original - and almost all of it is depressing.
Lord Beaumont is a former chairman of the Liberal Party.