Dr Louise Thompson is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Surrey.
Her research focuses on the UK Parliament and particularly looks at parliamentary committees, the legislative process and public engagement with Parliament and the political process. Her wider research interests are in legislative studies, British politics and constitutional reform.
Her piece ‘People will soon be at the very heart of lawmaking’ finished in the top 10 of the ESRC’s writing competition, The World in 2065– in collaboration with academic publishers, SAGE. You can read it below:
People will soon be at the very heart of lawmaking
It’s 1st March 2065. Jenny Brown is tucking her son into bed and thinking about tackling that pile of ironing that’s been sitting around all week. Her iPhone beeps and alerts her to amendment 52 of the Children Bill which has just been proposed by an MP in the House of Commons.
This amendment means a lot to Jenny, as she believes the changes to school staffing ratios made by the bill will badly affect her son’s education. She’s been following the issue through a hashtag on her phone, allowing her to read or watch debates and questions in Parliament almost instantly. Right now, she watches as the Minister accepts the amendment to the bill – one that she herself drafted online just a few weeks ago.
By 2065 this sort of direct involvement in making the laws which affect our lives could be an everyday thing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all play a bigger part in making changes to laws before they come into force, rather than just complaining about them afterwards?
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking that it doesn’t sound very radical? Technology is already racing further ahead than this – but parliamentary institutions generally lag behind. They are the institutional equivalent of your mum sending you to university with an old Nokia and a memory stick, when what you really want is the new Apple Watch and an iCloud upgrade. It’s not that they don’t know how to use technology. In fact, the UK Parliament has pioneered some fantastic initiatives like the Lords Digital Chamber and allowing the public to ask questions to ministers or witnesses using a hashtag like #AskGove or #AskEnergyFirms. It’s rather that the Parliament is often unsure how best to use it, or concerned about the effect reforms may have.
The current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, hinted at this in 2013 when he said that ‘change within Parliaments is an often a delayed response to change without Parliaments’. In other words, they are slow to change and struggle to keep pace with the changes going on around them. Television recording may have begun in the 1930s, with 11 million UK households owning a TV set by 1960, but it wasn’t until 1989 that television cameras were finally allowed to begin recording MPs in the House of Commons chamber. Apple may have sold 5 million iPhones in 2007, but smartphones and tablets were only permitted to be used in the House of Lords chamber in 2011, closely followed by a similar relaxing of the rules in the Commons.
But we have every reason to be optimistic. And this is largely due to the increasing impact of research by a relatively small group of political scientists who study the institution every day. Their work has been fundamental to some of the key parliamentary reforms of the 21st century so far. This includes the work of Meg Russell and others at University College London’s Constitution Unit, whose research into the autonomy of backbench MPs was taken on board by a parliamentary select committee and led to the creation of the Backbench Business Committee – allowing MPs rather than the government to choose issues to be debated in the chamber.
I’d like to think that my current research on the public reading stage of bills will one day be added to this list of research-inspired reforms. Public reading is an exciting innovation, encouraging the public to comment directly on a government bill, in a similar fashion to how Jenny did earlier on in this piece. Although only piloted once, with a rather clunky web forum, it could be the first step on the road to a more people-orientated examination of new laws. By highlighting what worked well and what didn’t, social science researchers can help shape how such a system may work in the future.
Where researchers are successful it is often due to a parliament and academics having a good working relationship. Indeed, the value of social science research is increasingly being recognised by Parliament. For instance, the Digital Democracy Commission launched by the Speaker in 2013 drew on academic research and appointed a political science academic as one of its commissioners. Its report includes a range of exciting suggestions for the future of parliament, including the creation of a cyber-chamber to facilitate public debate on key issues. The creation of a social science section within POST (the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology) provides a further channel for future dialogue between academics and parliamentary practitioners.
To quote Mr Speaker once more, ‘societies lead Parliaments as well as follow them’. By 2065 academic research should be leading the work and processes of Parliament as well – helping it to fulfil its role as our core democratic institution by bringing the public back into everyday decision-making.