Boring boring politics? Not this
week. BBC News 24's Chief Political Correspondent, Huw Edwards,
takes a look back at a fun-packed, tension-filled week in
Parliament, which even included a visit from the Freemasons.
You think Parliament is boring? Most of the time, I'd agree with
you. Very boring. Even numbing. And certainly tedious. But bear with
me... it's not all bad. It can actually be exciting!
But hang on. I'm not talking about the cliche-ridden session that
travels under the name of Prime Minister's Questions. This
semi-scripted charade was extended to 30 minutes by Tony Blair, in
the mistaken belief that this would yield a higher standard of
debate than the previous twice-weekly 15 minutes.
There have been occasions when William Hague has been able to use
his five or six interventions to telling effect, but for the most
part this session is just a longer version of what went before. It
consists either of cringe-making planted questions from friendly
Labour backbenchers or of cringe-making planted questions from
unfriendly Tory backbenchers. To pretend that this is a forum for
exciting debate is a joke. Yes, there can be thrilling one-line
exchanges, but even these are few and far between.
For the real fun, you have to climb one of Westminster's many
grand staircases to what's called the Committee Corridor, and up
again to the Upper Committee Corridor. This is where the action is
these days. You think "The Titanic" is tense and exciting? You
haven't seen the Home Affairs Select Committee in full flow!
Especially when they're up against Britain's biggest secret society,
that fascinating brotherhood known as the United Grand Lodge of
This week, we were treated to a duel between Chris Mullin,
Chairman of the Committee, and Commander Michael Higham, Grand
Secretary of that Lodge.
Mr Mullin and his committee have for some time been asking some
awkward questions about freemasons within the police, the judiciary,
and other public bodies. In particular, they have given the masons a
list of more than 160 individuals, including police officers and
journalists, who in various ways were connected with some of the
great police scandals of recent years.
The question they ask is simple. Of those listed, who is or was a
freemason? To date, the United Grand Lodge has refused to answer.
Now, it has 14 days to do so. The Committee has threatened Commander
Higham with contempt of Parliament unless he complies.
There is something quietly amusing about all of this. To be
charged with contempt of Parliament nowadays is rare, and even if
found guilty, the punishment is unlikely to be any worse than being
summoned to the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker. In other
words, a public slap on the wrist. Humiliating certainly, but hardly
the grim punishment meted out to those guilty of this offence in
centuries gone by.
And yet without an obvious big stick with which to beat the
Commander, the Home Affairs Committee will in all likelihood get its
way. The reason for this is that the Select Committees, widely
televised, are seen to do their work efficiently. Some of them
don't, but this one certainly does.
Holding people to account is the backbone of parliamentary
activity. Parliament has suffered in the public's eyes because
ministers are all too often seen to get away with evading proper
questions. Ministerial question time, including Mr Blair's, is
ineffective in this respect. The select committees are now the true
upholders of this basic democratic activity. They're doing a great
job, and they can be good fun too.