Parliamentary and Constitutional Reform

Fabian's service on the Parliamentary and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

Fabian has served as a member of this committee for just over one year. Its work is potentially very significant yet is undertaken within the cloistered confines of Westminster. Few people perhaps appreciate the endeavour and value of this and other committees in the political life of the UK. In this web site page Fabian answers questions about the committee, its work and his membership of it.

Why did you elect to serve on this committee? I wanted to make a contribution at Westminster and not simply be a backbench MP voting when required. I have, and still hold, a long-standing interest in foreign affairs but when I did not get elected to the Foreign Affairs committee again, I decided to pursue some of my other concerns. One of these is the mechanics of the way our country is governed as I have long realised that while our system of democracy is good, it is not yet perfect. The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (PCRC), newly established after the last election, is possibly the best platform I could have for understanding complex issues and trying to inform future changes.
What is the exact role of the committee? The House of Commons agreed in June 2010 just one month after the general election that this committee should be established to consider political and constitutional reform, scrutinising the work of the Deputy Prime Minister in this area.
How often does it meet and have you been able to attend all the meetings? The committee meets very frequently, sometimes more than once in the same week. Since I joined the committee in November 2010 there have been 32 meetings and I have been able to get to 17 of them. None of the members, not even the chairman, can get to all of them, which is one reason why there are 11 MPs on its membership who can attend. That is how the work keeps going.
Who is on the committee?

The committee consists of eleven Members of Parliament, drawn from across the political parties, both those in government and the official opposition. The current members are:

Member Party

Mr Graham Allen MP (Chair)
Mr Christopher Chope Conservative
Paul Flynn Labour
Sheila Gilmore Labour
Andrew Griffiths Conservative
Fabian Hamilton Labour
Simon Hart Conservative
Tristram Hunt Labour
Eleanor Laing Conservative
Andrew Turner Conservative
Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat

Notice that the chair is not a member of the party in government. For me this is one of the good aspects of our system of democracy.

How is the work of the committee undertaken? The committee decides the inquiries that it wishes to undertake. Expert witnesses give evidence, occasionally some members of the committee might make visits in connection with an inquiry and formal reports are published. The intention is that this process provides an informed basis for future change and legislation. Let me give one example - constituency boundary changes. Unless the implications of these are studied in great detail they could lead, unintentionally in some areas, to electors feeling they were being sidelined in the process of making their democratic choices.
What are some of the most recent matters that the committee has been looking at?

I will pick out a few that may be of general interest.

The succession of the monarchy: At present the first born son of the monarch succeeds to the throne irrespective of whether or not there might be an older sister. Our history is peppered with bizarre successions to the throne because of this rule and we have only had monarchs who are female when there has been no eligible male. Linked to our history we also have the rule that the monarch cannot be a member of the Roman Catholic Church or marry one although there are no objections to any other branch of Christianity (or to any other religion for that matter). This is clearly not in accord with a modern view of the equality of women and freedom for religious belief. I am pleased that the rule is set to change. However is not a matter just for Westminster as our present Queen is currently the monarch (head of state) in some other countries in the Commonwealth and their acceptance of the idea is very important. You can read the committee's final view - Click here

Individual electoral registration:
This is an issue of great personal concern to me. At present there is an obligation in law on each householder to register the eligible voters in each dwelling. This is a method that harks back to the idea of their being a head of the household. It reduces the amount of paperwork since there is just one form completed per dwelling. It has its critics who point out that many people do not get registered. One person's failure to complete the form disenfranchises everyone at that address. Others argue the system is open to fraud with the possibility of fictitious names being added to the list. Since there is no positive identification of voters when they turn up at a polling station, anyone could be mustered to turn up to use the names registered thus rigging the electoral outcome. There is a widespread general concern about the low levels of participation by the electorate, particularly for local government elections and in by-elections. Accurate and complete electoral registration is essential but requiring every individual to fill in a form, even if done on line, is not a guaranteed fix to the problems and weaknesses of the present system. Personally I fear that proposed changes will impact unequally on different sections of the community and even further reduce participation in elections. I fear that the Labour vote, in particular, will suffer. Here is what the committee concluded and recommended - Click here.

Codifying (or not) the UK constitution:
In contrast to the USA we do not have a written constitution. Over there in 1787 the founding fathers (George Washington and his colleagues) wrote down what was to be the basic framework for how the USA was to be governed at national and local level. This constitution set out the clear boundaries of the Legislature (those who make the laws), the Executive or Government (those who run the country) and the Judiciary (those who determine guilt and mete out punishment for law breakers). The USA consutution also defines the realtionship between federal (national) government and the government in the constituent states. In the UK we have our traditions established over the centuries when power was first wrested from the monarch and finally ending up with the supremacy of the House of Commons for deciding legislation. Undsertanding the UK operation can be complex. Our legislators (MPs and members of the House of Lords) can also be members of the government. Until recently, the House of Lords was the highest court of the land (the Supreme Court). Some argue that not having a written constitution is a strength allowing the UK system to evolve as required. It might have been even harder (say) for women to get the vote had there been a constitution that historically had laid down a rule that a household, not a person, had a vote. A written constitution might have made more difficult than it is proving, even now, to reform the membership of the House of Lords. Supporters of a written constitution can argue, for example, that it could have protected the erosion of the power and independence of local government - a trend of the last thirty years. The committee has not yet reached a firm conclusion on this matter and is studying changes being made in other countries. For more details - Click here

What are the outcomes of the hours that the committee spends talking and listening? Does anything useful come out of all the work? I suspect that history will decide if the committee was an effective agent for consensus and some change. In the short term its work has streamlined debate in the Houses of Parliament as all the research and the arguments have taken place outside the chamber and so MPs and peers will be better informed when they come to consider any legislation.
In the time you have been a member of this committee, what particular input have you been able to make that makes the time you have spent worthwhile? How would you answer a constituent who might think such meetings are a waste of your time? Let me answer the constituent first. It is the principal job of MPs to debate, agree and authorise our laws. We then study what effect they have and finally we must ensure that they are applied justly, efficiently and fairly. The work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is right at the heart of ensuring that MPs' work can be effective in the future, whatever circumstances may unfold nationally and internationally. It is therefore work that some MPs must undertake and I believe I have the knowledge and skills to make a valid contribution. In the one year only that I have been a member, I am not going to boast about any personal achievements. I do think I have brought to our discussions my own deeply held vision concerning justice, fairness and equality. I believe that these have chimed with and reinforced my colleagues views which have collectively helped shape the committee's reports. However, I doubt there will ever be a piece of legislation that gets christened, 'Fabian's Law'.
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