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May 27, 2009


The Great Simpleton

The answer to 3 is simple: stop them acting as super social workers and spending more time scrutinising legislation.

Tom Freeman

4. Fewer MPs overall means, other things being equal, a lower ratio of backbenchers to ministers and so less capacity for holding the executive to account.

Vino's Political Blog

I would argue that, by doing constituency surgeries, and being 'super social workers', MPs are doing what their voters want. You can hardly blame them for doing that. There are no votes in scutinising legislation; but there are votes in sorting out people's problems with officialdom.


Fewer MPs means a smaller pool of talent to recruit ministers from. Perhaps we should recruit non-MPs as ministers. This would also reduce the Governments patronage over Parliament.


I like your point about families. The fewer people around one the more work can get done - until the point is reached when you are on your own and then you can REALLY get stuff taken care of..


4. Fewer MPs overall means, other things being equal, a lower ratio of backbenchers to ministers and so less capacity for holding the executive to account.

This is essentially bollocks. It would suggest that having 2,000 backbenchers would make the executive more accountable than having 100. But voting power is obviously much higher with 100 than 2,000.

Congress, both houses, shows this quite vividly, managing with about 1/8th or something the members we do for population. But the problem is having 200 MPs will mean a very different form of government, essentially presidential, and such a radical change seems to require a bit more than the mix of real anger/politics of envy that we have seen.


Good to have you back anyway! :)

Bob B

"This is essentially bollocks"

Absolutely. As it is, ministers are mostly there to provide the PR stuff and make - or endorse - a few crucial decisions.

The notion that MPs are there to provide a pool of intellectual talent from which ministers can be recruited is laughable, especially nowadays.

There were times when the respective front benches glistened with arrays of academic ability but not any more. Cameron may have got a 1st in PPE at Oxford but it's very clear that he is pretty clueless about economics - with the modernised, reformed PPE degree it's possible to specialise in ways that were not permitted with the original degree structure when it was necessary to take at least two exam papers in each of politics, philosophy and economics subjects in finals.


"Having fewer MPs" = rejigging the political balance to suit the Conservative Party, no?

Bob B

C'mon. The present electoral system doesn't produce remotely representative results:

"The average electorate size [in the 2005 general election] was 68,492. In Conservative won seats the average was 72,715, Labour 66,665, LibDem 69,162, Plaid Cymru 44,296, and SNP 58,448. . . The average majority was 7,687. Among Conservative seats the average was 8,283, in Labour seats 7,815, and in the LibDem seats it was 5,357."

"Labour majority of 67 based on 35.2% of the UK vote - flimsiest base of public support ever for a majority government. Labour supported by only 9.6m out of 44.4m voters - lowest total of Labour votes in any post-1945 election except for 1983. With turnout an abysmal 61.3% this government was supported by only 21.6% of whole electorate. . . For every million who voted Labour they secured 37 MPs, for every million who voted Conservative they achieved 22 MPs and for every million who voted Liberal Democrat they secured 10 MPs."


A couple of questions:

1. How certain is it that most of the constituency work done by MP's is actually necessary? Or even desirable? If the laws, and thus the legislature, deal with the general case, should the members of the legislature intervene in particular cases?

2. If one of the reforms needed is to raise MP's salaries, then I think in the current mood it would be politically necessary to reduce the number of MP's, if only to cap costs.

3. I agree the first question can be turned round - how many of the laws passed by Parliament are necessary or deisrable? But if the answer is, 'Few', then the MP's should have more time for the constituency work even if they were fewer.

Finally, I am sorry to hear about your family disaster, and hope that all is resolved. I am certainly glad to see you blogging again!


Most of the "Reform" ideas are incoherant. The number of MPs has no clear relationship to their effectiveness let alone their integrity. Any cost saving from cutting numbers is a tiny drop in the sea of public spending. It would be more useful if someone could think of a way to get better MPs selected in the first place. And give them better incentives to act in the public interest once in office.

Bob B

"How certain is it that most of the constituency work done by MP's is actually necessary? Or even desirable?"

My understanding is that, at least for Labour MPs, housing, welfare and benefits issues tend to take up much of their surgery case loads and mail. Much of that could be dealt with more appropriately by competent local councillors - but they are often in short supply.

Btw no one has mentioned Cameron's clarion call: Power to the People.


The constituency work of MPs it must be remembered derives from the original purpose of the Commons; that the members petition for redress against abuses by the king or his servants. It is a role central to all assemblies of this type everywhere.


It's not the number - it is if they help at all.

They spend lots of time in committees calling people who are supposedly 'experts' into a room. These experts tend to be senior managers who couldn't be more removed from the work.

The MPs rarely have any method, and instead spend their time punishing for not following rules.

They would be better employed going into the work with the workers and removing the things that get in the way of delivering services.

No more tiers of legislation by politicians and instead policy formed upon the basis of what matters and that helps.

Imagine! Isn't it time we up-ended this country's management a little and they had the humility to come to meet us half way?

Bob B

In fact, HoC select committees usually have academic and/or other expert advisers who influence the course of inquiries and the choice of witnesses. As preludes to starting inquiries, the committees often issue open invitations to submit evidence.

Several commentators have suggested that strengthening the select committee system and ensuring the independence of committee chairmen from party whips offices are among the most effective ways of gaining better policy transparency and holding governments to account.

Surely, the interests of "the wuckers" are effectively represented by the trade unions.

Btw from occasional news leaks it would seem that, like MPs, the leaders of some of the biggest trade unions have accountability challenges to answer for concerning their own expenses and perks. Try:


'a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power'

A massive, sweeping, steaming pile of cliches, right there... he's not especially articulate, is he?

Bob B

The trouble with the "Power to the People" cliche is that it tends not to work well in practice.

Remember Lord Shaftesbury, the Tory who campaigned for the factory acts, contrary to laissez-faire, to rein back on the abuse and exploitation of women and children in factories and mines? Winston Churchill as a minister pushed through the wages boards act in 1909 which established wages councils empowered to decide and enforce minimum wage rates for certain industries.

The state finally intervened to ensure basic primary education in 1870 - instead of leaving schooling to the voluntary sector - because educational attainment in Britain was lagging behind other west European countries. Why did Mrs Thatcher's government introduce the national curriculum in the Education Reform Act of 1988 to raise education standards?

Why did a Conservative government introduce the uniform business rate in 1988?

Does anyone seriously suppose there should now be less regulation of financial institutions - or of MPs' expenses?

What or who is to enforce the polluter pays principle?

Adam Smith recognised: "The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain." Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 3.

Smith also recognised the need for competition policy.

Governments of most of advanced market economies support healthcare services out of tax revenues or national social insurance schemes. Public spending on healthcare as a percentage of national GDP is about the same in America as in Britain but Americans spend about as much again on private healthcare whereas we spend very little. Even so, about 46 million Americans have no insurance cover for healthcare costs.

Cameron seems to me to be a rather superficial thinker.

Andrew Duffin

I agree. This was almost the only bit of Cameron's speech that I didn't like. (Whether he can or will or ever meant to deliver any of it is quite another matter the EU angle, for instance, was glossed over).

Outside the metropolitan areas, a constituency can be large and varied and yet still contain a relatively small population. Think of the Western Isles for instance. If you were to combine that up with something else to make a 100k population unit, where would you choose? Aberdeen?

It doesn't work; localism is a good thing but it requires local MP's.


Now let's examine the sort of experts who end up shaping public sector legislation.

Lord Laming - no method - introduced IT case-management systems and a package of stuff. When it was found not to work, the government employed him again to say that people weren't applying it right and that they should work harder. They throw a few millions at tackling the symptoms - trying to coax workers back.

Lord Darzi - I am sure a skilled surgeon, but in no way a specialist in assessing social services. Removed from the work, with no method and little understanding of what impact his great reforms have achieved, more of the same happens.

Sir Michael Bichard - huge plans for efficiency savings. His background? Leading an IT consultancy. His solution to cost savings - massive shared service centres - back-up with IT of course. No evidence that they improve services - lots of suggestions that they damage services...

You say that there are plenty of experts called up to the committees! Well I say that these so-called experts keep damaging public services massively. They have no method, come up with good ideas that then get forced onto public services.

Perhaps the experts are the same experts who ran the banks and other financial institutions? Or the regulators who were their to regulate them? A lot of experts sat around and watched then.

There has to be a better way than this.

Bob B

Thanks, Lucas - presumably, you insist on principle on seeking personal medical advice from unqualified doctors. Well done.

It's certainly not part of my case that all "expert advice" to HoC select committees or whatever makes good sense or that I necessarily agree with all expert opinions - which may diverge.

I've often expressed reservations here and elesewhere about the £12 billion of taxpayers' money being spent on a NHS national database of personal medical records or Lord Darzi's promotion of polyclinics where a patient is likely to end up seeing a doctor they've never seen before and won't see again. I don't inevitably agree with all conclusions and recommendations of select committee reports but I certainly believe that the evidence submitted and the conclusions are usually worth consideration.

What I was concerned to do was to counter any created impression that select committees just blunder around with no sense of direction, blown hither and thither by the whips offices, media pressures and populist opinions. To counter your list of failing experts, it's not too difficult to come up with examples of select committee advisers who are respected for their knowledge of their disciplines. Not all medical professors are akin to Professor Southall:

Expert opinion in the criminal courts has much to answer for in cases of miscarriages of justice:


No Bob B - I will quite happily see a Doctor when I am ill - but I wouldn't go and see the HoC committee if I wanted to improve the health system.

This doesn't mean that they aren't consumate professionals at the top of their game! They can be respected all they like.

But it does mean that just because they are surgeons, or judges, or nurses or social workers or IT consultants that without good method they can improve their systems!

The committee method for improving public sector services is a very poor method.

I do believe that it has been argued that a definition of madness is to keep on doing the same things. I would like to argue that this method of improvement by committee actually damages learning and suppresses improvement! It limits improvement to a few people in a room! A surgeon would be great to operate on you, but not great to change the system.

And I am afraid that this is no longer good enough!

Bob B

That's mostly just rubbish, if I may say so.

Select committee don't make policy decisions. What the committee proceedings do is provide a valuable arena for reviewing and publicising alternative, informed points of view as expressed by knowledgeable people who submit evidence or are invited to give testimony.

The evidence, the testimony and eventual reports of the committees combine to inform the media and the public at large. In many cases, committee reports are approved unanimously and therefore carry multiparty support - which is probably one reason party whips dislike them so.

The select committees are one of the few effective means for assembling - and publicising - expert opinion on a scale sufficient to challenge the resources at the disposal of the civil service and to powerfully interrogate the sources of advice presented to ministers - which is probably another reason that the whips so dislike the select committees.


"2. Which MPs do we lose? Under current arrangements, there’s a danger that the MPs who get to fight the new, larger, constituency elections will be the party loyalists. We could therefore lose the mavericks, and end up with an even more homogenous parliament than we already have."

It's tempting to suppose that's the whole idea.


I think that where Bob and Lucas are both a little right but wrong at the same time is the problem of the 'Culture of the Expert'.

Experts can often be that, providers of opinions. This is often what (informed views are). So for example if an expert believed, after being taught on an MBA program, that targets are the way to achieve change, then asking this expert what they think you will get their opinion about how to change and what to change to. If however you were to ask a systems thinker about targets, they would say the performance is 95% the result of the system design and only 5% the person. Therefore a target that focuses upon the 5% is crazy. Then the systmems thinker might say, you need to understand data over time to understand performance. If you had asked only one opinion, then you would only have got one answer. The way to understand is to go into the work, where the work happens.

My worry is that Select Committees are hierarchical in nature. They sit to the one side, but next to the top of a structure. Their paradigm is information flows up, decisions are made, and informations flow back down in the form of instructions. This is a fantasy of how organisations work.

They pull experts out of the work, listen to lots of opinions (and they are opinions and not knowledge about the system - cause/effect/dynamic understanding) and then issue edicts on this basis. Quite literally an accumulation of opinions.

But collecting people's opinions and then deciding which is the best one to then performance is not good method.

I suppose you have to then ask what the purpose of the select committees is?

Bob B

"They pull experts out of the work, listen to lots of opinions (and they are opinions and not knowledge about the system - cause/effect/dynamic understanding) and then issue edicts on this basis. Quite literally an accumulation of opinions."

You may not think much of central bankers or economists but the Treasury select committee heard and read much evidence from both in the course of its inquiry into the Banking Crisis:

Most politics depends on opinions about theories of how economies and monetary systems function or about social interaction so what's new or different in this context?

The problems ensuing from implementing plans by setting targets were well explored by the late Alec Nove in his books on the Soviet Economy published in the 1960s and 1970s. I recall attending one of his seminars in the early 1960s where he illustrated the issues with reference to accounts in Soviet media - after Stalin's death in 1953 and Khrushchev' denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made that new openness possible.

Managers and workers in Soviet enterprises were often paid bonuses (!!) for overfulfilling production targets set by GOSPLAN. Resulting problems were illuminated by numerous examples. One that I recall was the setting of a production for roofing material in metric tonnes. The outcome was that enterprises tended to produce heavy-duty roofing materials rather than light-duty materials as that bias required less effort to achieve the set target and attract the bonuses. The example sheds light on the notorious persistent shortages of products in the Soviet system.

The introduction of targets into the NHS by New Labour produced similar distortions. Evidently, health ministers and their advisers hadn't read up on the problems of centrally planned economies, which is a bit strange in the light of this profile of David Nicholson, the present head of the NHS:

"Nicholson has been with the NHS for 29 years. He joined as a graduate trainee in the same year he joined the Communist party, which he then saw as the best vehicle to take forward his passionate support for the anti-apartheid struggle. He says he was not a Eurocommunist: he was among the Tankies who did not see an ideological need to distance themselves from Moscow. . . Nicholson drifted away from the Communist party and abandoned his membership in 1983."

Btw in America, Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke were academic economists before they became central bankers. Trichet, now head of the ECB, was a civil servant but a graduate of the notorious École Nationale d'Administration.

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