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Westminster: Does Parliament Work?

John Garrett has been an MP for fifteen years. He used that time skilfully, perceptively and unobtrusively in observing the shortcomings of the Mother of Parliaments. His training as a Management Consultant combined with his personal predilections have combined to explore in a precise but committed manner its current limitations.

This is a radical and penetrating analysis. Parliament does not control the executive -- rather the executive controls Parliament. Parliament's role in scrutinising legislation is severely limited. Other studies on individual Bills have demonstrated this. On the other hand, MPs are encouraged to take themselves far too seriously precisely because they have so few possibilities of exercising real power. It is in the Government's interest to perpetuate the myth that back benchers have power.

The debating chamber in which stars such as Michael Foot gloried has become a cauldron for abuse and theatricals. It is the arena for attention seekers. It takes the public's eye off the one really important development of the last decade, namely the Select Committees. In his chapter |Running Commentary on Decline' Garrett mercilessly pillories the manner in which Parliament has failed but is surprisingly optimistic about its power to change if it has the vision and determination.

His chapter on rights reflects the growing influence of such organisations as Charter 88. His insight into the legislative process makes depressing reading. What I find astonishing is that he is able in a detached manner to analyse precisely those defects in the Parliamentary system which, having a different temperament, led me to leave it in frustration after the same period that he observed it from inside. I have to confess to a strong bias in the writer's favour drawn from my own experience and sharing most of his attitudes. On such matters as the timetabling of Bills, the need for special second reading committees, the lack of experience open to Parliamentarians as against Government as well as members conditions of work, he cannot be fainted.

Ever since I read Montesquieu it has been a mystery to me how our Constitution could permit ministers and indeed leading members of the judicial system to sit both in the legislature and be part of the executive.

The really positive development of select committees which still leaves much to be desired and the control of expenditure are areas where the author brings his own personal knowledge to bear extremely effectively. The chapter on |Investigation' is perhaps the least readable but the most important of all.

In integrating the European dimension into his analysis John Garrett may well anger the more xenophobic strand in his party. Members of parliament who, like members of the judiciary in this country, all too easily fall a prey to tradition and even medieval costumes. There is much to learn from other models of democracy that would permit us to modernise our own system in the interests of individual freedom and proper parliamentary scrutiny of the executive. Unlike some of the more flamboyant of his colleagues John Garrett's combination of integrity and critical appraisal of the institution of which he remains a member ought to be compulsory reading for all who are concerned about the adequacy of our democratic system.
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Author:Rose, Paul B.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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