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Book review: Code of Conduct: Why we need to fix Parliament by Chris Bryant

by
18 August 2023

Richard Harries reads an MP’s argument for parliamentary reform

CHRIS BRYANT is exceptionally well qualified to write this book about how Parliament needs to change. As a historian of Parliament, he admits to being something of a rules freak, having read Erskine May, the principal guide to parliamentary procedure, in many editions. He has been MP for the Rhondda since 2001 and chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges since 2020, which has played such a key part in recent years.

His charge is a serious one. At the time of writing, 21 MPs had been suspended by the House, resigned their seats, or left the chamber before being suspended for a day or more since 2019: “statistically the worst record of any parliament in our history, by a long chalk”.

Bryant is, however, a passionate defender of parliamentary democracy. His purpose in writing this book is not just to castigate what has happened recently, but to put forward proposals for change. In particular, he argues that the legislature (the House of Commons) needs to take back some power from the executive (the government of the day). First, it would mean having more control over the business and the timetable, which, at the moment, are totally in the hands of the Government. Then, it would mean making ministers more accountable in various ways — for example, by recording whom they meet and why. He also has many suggestions about what should not be allowed in the way of lobbying, and the kind of penalties that should be imposed.

While recognising the weakness of the present party system and the policy of whipping MPs to support the party line, he argues that it is right and proper for the electorate to know what it is that a party stands for. Resignations on principle may be necessary, but should be rare.

Chris Bryant MP

The book is written in a vigorous colloquial style and has the merit and grace of the author admitting his own failures — perhaps a healthy legacy from his time as a Church of England priest? He knows that none of us is perfect, but argues that to be a “good enough” MP demands higher personal standards than we have now, and serious changes in parliamentary procedure.

A second edition of this book could benefit from three further areas of discussion. It is widely recognised that the revised select-committee system mirroring government departments, introduced into the Commons by Norman St John Stevas in 1979, has been a success, and it would have been good to have Bryant’s evaluation of their contribution to holding the government to account.

Second, he says nothing about the third leg of democracy, the judiciary, and its part in relation to Parliament, which has been such a key issue in recent years.

Third, more discussion of Henry VIII powers would be welcome. These allow a minister to enact sometimes major legislation without real parliamentary scrutiny. This has particularly concerned the House of Lords in recent years.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is his autobiography, The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise (John Hunt Publishing) (Books, 6 April, Podcast 21 April).

 

Code of Conduct: Why we need to fix Parliament
Chris Bryant
Bloomsbury £14.99
(978-1-5266-6359-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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