Sir Edward Leigh: This old house needs to enter modern era

David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
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IT is a great privilege to be a Member of the House of Commons, but how can we make Parliament more relevant to people’s needs?

We should not be too negative about ourselves – I also serve on the Council of Europe and I look at how other Parliamentarians around Europe operate, and our debates are still much more relevant and spontaneous.

That spontaneity in Parliament is very important, but we have to accept that we have a problem with our image in the eyes of the public, on expenses and much else, including whether we are relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

It is rather sad that we have no mothers in the Cabinet. I share that sadness: after all, half the population of the country are women, and we all have mothers. Even those women who work, and work very hard, often define being a mother as the most important thing in their lives.

However, we need to make Parliament more attractive and diverse. We have not yet succeeded in attracting as many working mothers to this place as we should have done. It is our fault because of the nature of our work, our expenses regime, the salary and much else. Would a general practitioner and mother working in, say, Newcastle find becoming a Member of Parliament attractive? Her salary would probably be halved, but people are prepared to take enormous salary cuts to work in this place – it is a wonderful privilege and many of us would work here for nothing. But people have to live their lives and support their families. We now have an arcane expenses system that makes our job very unattractive to many working mothers in particular.

I have made that point to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority many times. I have said that we want a decent salary. The IPSA is independent and it should set the salary properly. It is setting about the task fairly, and trying to average out the salary in real terms over the last 110 years since Members of Parliament have had a salary. It has come up with a reasonably fair figure, but we have told it again and again that if we are to attract people who are juggling different family responsibilities, it would be better to have a flat-rate transferable allowance, rather than the arcane and complicated expenses system. It would have to be voluntary at first, because many people are locked into the expenses system, but it would enable people who are juggling family responsibilities to do so in the knowledge that they could come here and perform their public service. If we carry on with the present system of complicated expenses, I fear that these scandals will go on and on, year after year, drip by drip, affecting the credibility of Parliament.

We can make Parliament more interesting and more effective in other ways. The power of backbenchers to hold the Executive to account could be more pronounced. I am a great fan of recent moves to bring in open primaries in the selection of Members of Parliament. One of the best new MPs is Dr Sarah Wollaston, who was elected on an open primary and is a marvellously independent MP.

I would even be prepared to move eventually to the system that operates in other countries of open primaries not just for candidates standing for a parliamentary constituency for the first time, but for sitting Members. If we had that system, Members of Parliament would be much more accountable to their constituents and their views, and much less accountable to the views of the Whips Office. I have nothing against the Whips Office – but Parliament would be a better place if Members felt that their careers depended more on their constituents than the vagaries of promotion and the opinion of the Whips Office.

We have to develop an alternative career structure for Members of Parliament. There are 650 MPs and there can only be 50 or 60 Ministers. There are too many Ministers. The number of Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries seems to increase relentlessly, sucking more and more people from the majority party into the Executive. That is a wholly unhealthy way of conducting a free Parliament. We need to build the Select Committee system up to make it more powerful and attractive. We need powers and authority over appointments and even, in certain circumstances, policy. For example, the Defence Committee could have power over procurement, as the armed forces committee does in the United States. All these ideas should be investigated continuously to make backbenchers more relevant and free, and with more control over the Executive.

The primary system opens up the relevance of MPs to their own people. Everybody knows that I may have my own views on gay marriage, overseas development and wind farms being put in my constituency through a very generous subsidy system. I may also have my own views on planning in villages and HS2, but I hope and I suspect that, whether on planning, wind farms or overseas aid, I represent a certain strain of opinion in a conservative rural constituency in the East Midlands. I hope that my views are not completely out of kilter with many of the people who live in my constituency. Indeed, I believe it is my job to speak up for middle England. There is nothing wrong with that. Plenty of people speak up for other parts of England, Scotland and Wales and for other viewpoints. I sometimes think that the conservative voice of middle England is not adequately spoken up for.

I have been an MP through many Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition and they are all the same: they tend to promote their friends. My great good friend and the first leader I worked for, Margaret Thatcher, was just as bad as the rest, so this is not a coded message attacking the current Prime Minister or anybody else. However, there is the view in northern England that there is too much emphasis in our public life on the liberal metropolitan elite, and that there is not enough hard-hitting, robust debate. That debate does not necessarily have to come from the right; it can come from the left too.

• Sir Edward Leigh is the Conservative MP for Gainsborough who spoke in a Commons debate on Parliamentary reform. This is an edited version.