Jo offers views on involving the public in politics


Jo has put her views to a new Parliamentary committee on how to reform the House of Commons and increase public involvement in politics.

The new House of Commons Reform Committee has been established to look at how MPs should be appointed to chair committees, and how the public could initiate debates in the House of Commons. Jo, who is a passionate campaigner for greater public involvement in politics, has suggested a variety of ways in which this could be done.

Jo has suggested that the public should be able to use petitions to decide on topics for debate in the House of Commons. Alternatively, people could vote on topics put forward by MPs. She also said that tracking the progress of Bills online should be made easier, and restrictions on the sharing of video clips of Parliament online should be lifted, to make the political process more accessible to the general public.

Commenting, Jo said:

“I am pleased that this new committee has been established and I hope that it will come up with some good suggestions to improve the relationship between Parliament and the public. Allowing ordinary people to have a say in what is debated in the House of Commons would certainly be a good way of making people feel what goes on in Parliament is more relevant to them.

“The internet is a fantastic tool for engaging people in politics, and it is high time Parliament fully embraced it. For example, video footage of what happens in Parliament should be seen as the property of the people who elect us, and so they should be allowed to share it online just as they can with the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and European Parliament.”

The full text of Jo’s recommendations to the Committee appears below:

Introduction

I thoroughly welcome the Committee’s formation and trust that it will approach the issues outlined with a genuine spirit of reform. Such a spirit is something which I find sadly too often lacking in the House of Commons, where tradition and the status quo are often not questioned. My ideas mainly relate to how we can engage the public much more with Parliament, though I will also briefly address the other issues in the inquiry.

Appointment of Members and Chairmen of Select Committees

In keeping with a democratic institution, these positions should be elected by MPs, by secret ballot to avoid cajoling by party whips. Procedures should allow for Committee membership broadly reflecting the balance of political representation in the House.

Appointment of Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means

The success of the recent election for the Speakership makes an excellent case for these positions to be elected in a similar way. The hustings process in particular enabled MPs to challenge candidates on how they would perform the role of Speaker, making a more informed judgement.

Scheduling Business in the House

Many MPs have long argued for a Business Committee to schedule Parliamentary Business, such as exists in Holyrood and in many other Parliaments around the world, and I share this view. This should be drawn from all parties, and while recognising Government requirements for time for its legislative programme, it should be independent of Government. Provisional business should be published at least a month in advance: the current practice of finding out what will be discussed only a week or two in advance makes it incredibly difficult for MPs to plan their time. In reality, the Government does plan business further ahead than 2 weeks, but does not publish its plans. Other large organisations do not operate with such secrecy about future timetabling, and there is no need for the House to do so. Of course MPs will understand that provisional business can be subject to change due to unforeseen circumstances.

Enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House

Petitions

I understand the Procedure Committee has looked at the current practice of Petitions, and compared examples from elsewhere such as the Scottish Parliament where petitions can be submitted online and a Committee discusses petitions presented. Such ideas could be developed further so that the public could influence debates in the House. This could be done through the Petitions system, perhaps with a certain threshold of signatures triggering a debate in the House or Westminster Hall.

Public choosing debates

Similarly, the most popular Early Day Motions could be voted on by the public and prioritised for debate. A weekly debate on an issue or EDM chosen by the public could replace one of the current Adjournment Debate slots in Westminster Hall, or its sitting times could be extended by using it on Monday afternoon or Thursday morning for such a purpose. The subject of the topical debate is currently chosen by the Leader of the House, but instead this could be voted on by the public from a shortlist agreed by the Business Committee. There could also be a function for the public to submit possible topics for these debates.

Online interactivity

Facilitating many of these new initiatives will require the use of the internet, though thought should also be given to ensuring fair access for those who are not online, perhaps by a House of Commons Public Engagement telephone line for voting and suggesting topics. As time goes on, however, the proportion of people using the internet will grow until it is as ubiquitous as using telephones. Parliament must move with the times, recognising and embracing the opportunities this gives for opening up public access to politics and meaningful two-way involvement. The House should be looking at all aspects of its organisation and how they need to change for the digital age. The Education Service is one example where this has started already, with a wide range of online tools to complement the face-to-face work they do, and reach out to places geographically remote from Westminster. The Public Bill Office is rather further behind. Changes need to be made to let the public track bills online and the data must be presented in a suitable electronic format to enable external organisations to develop tools to help people get to grips with the legislation, making it accessible, along the lines of the Free Our Bills campaign (www.theyworkforyou.com/freeourbills and EDM221). Similarly, while watching BBC Parliament for hours on end may be an attractive prospect for a small minority of people, the internet has huge power to help the wider public see the bits of Parliamentary proceedings that they are most interested in, whether about their area or an issue close to their heart. The BBC’s new Democracy Live service is one example of how this can work. Currently this power to engage is severely hampered by restrictions on use of Parliamentary clips online (EDM 1104). On the BBC Democracy Live site which will stream footage from the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and European Parliament, Westminster alone will not allow full functionality, for example letting users “share” the clips they like. The Administration Committee has looked into this issue and concluded that relaxing these restrictions is desirable – I hope this Committee will endorse that view and encourage this to be done speedily and completely. After all, footage of what happens in Parliament should be seen as an electronic Hansard, the property of the people who elect us.

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