Sunday, 14 June 2009

Whip it!

As Devo once said. Whip it, whip it good. OK, so I'm now a Government whip and yes, I am already fed up with the jokes. Contrary to mischevious rumour and speculation, that does not mean I'm not allowed to blog or Twitter or otherwise cease to be a normally-functioning human being (if a politician could ever be described thus, which I doubt). The Chief Whip did actually give me permission to blog about what goes on at whips meetings 'so long as you make it all up'. So that's alright then.

I got the call from Nick Brown on Tuesday morning as I was heading for the Immigration Bill Committee. Hadn't actually given much thought to the prospects of being 'shuffled' till then; too much else on my plate, and the phone wasn't working so couldn't sit there gazing at it longingly hoping it would ring, as we lowly backbenchers are meant to do at reshuffle time. But I said yes, and then had to sit in Bill Committee for two-and-a-half hours wondering what it would all mean.

The starting point is that as a whip, you're officially part of the Government. As a PPS you're kind of halfway - you are part of your particular ministerial team, and therefore not allowed to ask Qs or speak in debates on matters relevant to that department, and you're not supposed to sign Early Day Motions calling on the Government to do something or other, but otherwise you are able to act like an ordinary backbencher. Once you become a whip, all that goes out of the window. You can't speak in any debates, ask written or oral questions, sign EDMs, sit on a Select Committee or be an officer of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). Which basically rules out rather a lot of what I would normally do.

Usually I'd be looking through the Order of Business, seeing whether there are any questions I'd want to come in on, or any debates I'd want to intervene in. I'd be thinking what questions to table, and whether to ask for an adjournment debate on an issue. And I'd also spend a fair amount of time involved in my APPGs, as Chair of the Credit Union APPG, Secretary of the Somaliland APPG and Vice-Chair of the Wholesale Financial Markets Group. (An eclectic mix of topics!)

I'd also recently been appointed to the South West Regional Select Committe, and we'd had our first 'offsite' meeting on Monday, in Swindon at the Steam Railway Museum. (I had to do a radio interview while I was there, and ended up hiding in a broom cupboard as that was the only place you couldn't hear the sound of a steam train whistle every few minutes. But that's another story). I've now got to come off the Committee, but will still be taking an interest in the APPGs, just not as an officer.

Of course, as I always tell people, much of an MP's influence isn't exercised in public ways. It's as much about writing to Ministers, or having meetings with them, or collaring them in the division lobby as it is about asking questions or getting into debates in the House. Questions are actually a rather crude, though important, device in getting an item onto the political agenda. They usually have to be followed up in some other way. The challenge now will not so much be about how I get across constituents' views or raise issues with the powers-that-be, as there are still plenty of ways to do that, but more how I demonstrate to constituents that my silence in the Chamber doesn't mean I'm not speaking up for them. Glad I managed to get in the debate on livestock's impact on the environment before my promotion, and a prisoners' families debate, as those were the two issues I felt no-one else was prepared to raise. Bit disappointed I won't be able to speak in the Child Poverty Bill Second Reading, which is coming up very soon, or serve on the Committee, but will definitely still be taking an interest.

So - that's what a whip can't do. Next post will be about what a whip does do.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your new position

Miller 2.0 said...

Congratulations, and please continue with the valuable insights. This is good stuff...

Emma said...

I would congratulate you, but imho whips are near the top of the list on things that are wrong with parliament.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the new job.

You make an interesting point regarding MPs' influence being largely behind the scenes.

I wonder, however, quite how adequate this is. Constituents should not only be represented, they should be represented publicly. Otherwise, how do I tell how well my MP (not you - unfortunately I live in a Tory constituency) is actually standing up for the interests of the constituency?

Any reform of parliament should include efforts to make it easier for MPs to represent their constituents in a more transparent fashion.

Kerry said...

Should point out it's not just whips that can't speak out in Parliament, Govt ministers can only speak in their own department's debates. I think what you're proposing is a separation of executive and legislature... but then you'd have a non-elected executive, as they have in the States.