Interview: A crisis could shake MPs into reforming - Hannah White

Westminster has been rocked by scandal after scandal recently.

Interview: A crisis could shake MPs into reforming - Hannah White

Westminster has been rocked by scandal after scandal recently. So how can MPs rebuild their damaged reputation? Hannah White, a Parliamentary Expert, has some ideas.

Hannah White's new book, Held in Contempt: Political Reform in the Age of Contempt, comes to an astonishing conclusion.

She suggests that perhaps the only thing that could shake MPs from their complacency, and bring about the needed changes to the Palace of Westminster, is if the Palace of Westminster was set ablaze like the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

She writes that "the task of re-creating Parliament under such circumstances would prompt reflection upon many previously unthinkable questions regarding the way our politics works."

She insists that she does not wish a "disaster on Westminster" when we meet.

She adds that she has observed that complex organisations such as Parliament only change when there is a crisis or shock.

White has no doubt that things must change.

She argues that the 2008 expenses scandal was a great example of a major shock which led to reform. However, the House of Commons can still feel exclusive and run for its members' benefit.

She claims that too many MPs consider themselves "special" and are exempted from the rules that govern the rest. The allegations of bullying and other misconduct that continue to surface as well as the lack diversity on the Commons benches are all rooted in this sense entitlement.

She also spoke out about the need to simplify the rules and procedures of Parliament, which are so complex and obscure that only a few experts can fully understand them.

White, who is also the deputy director of Institute for Government and a former clerk to Parliament, is one of these experts. White began her career as a clerk in an office that dealt with MPs who couldn't understand the work of their colleagues but weren't ashamed to admit it.

"[As an MP] it's not okay to say, "I don't understand how it works," because part of being there and being an established MP, which people should vote again, is that it's important that you know how it all works.

"So, you don't have an incentive to tell everyone, 'This is crazily complex and we should do something about it', because you pretend that you know everything."

New MPs have the option of training, but they seem to be resistant to it. Party managers are not encouraged to insist on this.

Your whips won't let you understand procedure. They will tell what you need to know and then tell you how to use that information to your advantage, such as what to vote for.

It can be difficult if you're more independent and are determined to do what you want.

Some argue that Parliament's oldest rituals and formalities are its greatest strength. They lend proceedings weight and meaning.

You could end up with an ineffective, weak institution with all the power and grandeur that a Zoom meeting would have.

White says, "I'm not saying we should abandon it all."

"The public enjoys a lot of tradition and flummery. It's not a binary choice. You can have both complexity and tradition, which I oppose, or a modern, simplified parliament with little tradition.

"I believe you can preserve some of the superficial traditions. While you will retain some of the history, unless your institution is willing to reflect on and evolve, you'll soon become obsolete.

White is not the only one to call for fundamental reforms in Westminster.

John Bercow, a former Commons Speaker, liked to portray himself as a moderniser. White recommends that he reform the Private Member's Bill system.

Private Member's bills are one way that a backbench MP can make an impact. They allow them to propose their own laws. The system is, in fact, a lottery. The annual draw is held for the right to introduce legislation and MPs are eligible.

Even if they do get selected, it is almost certain that their bill will fail as the government won't allow enough time to debate it.

This is frustrating for modernisers such as White.

However, reform proposals from a committee made up of MPs have been thrown out the window. There is always something more important at Westminster than how MPs run their affairs.

There is very little incentive for either the government or the main opposition party, which hopes to replace the government, that they give more power to troublesome backbenchers.

White claims that Parliament's long-running story of restoration is a perfect example of an institution inherently incapable of reforming.

She is one of those who are calling for MPs to be moved to temporary locations while the work is being done. This was something that was all set to occur after decades of negotiations before it effectively went back to square 1.

White thinks the historic Palace of Westminster, with its maze of corridors and staircases, is the exact opposite of what White envisions a modern, inclusive workplace.

She says that even if you are only moving temporarily, it would allow you to embrace change.

White encourages traditionalists to embrace the forward-looking spirit of Victorians who rebuilt Palace of Westminster in 1850s after a fire. They used state-of the-art technology and materials.

"Instead of worrying about how to preserve what we have and restore what is left, we could see it as - and then sell it to the public as - 'we want modernise politics'.

But, is this really what MPs want?

Modernizers are plentiful, but there are many who love and cherish the traditions and rules that give UK democracy its distinctive flavour. They would be opposed to any attempts at "modernization" they see as foolish and misguided.

It is the MPs who have the final say, and not the think tank directors or political commentators or the voting public.

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