Christmas books pages usually invite columnists to nominate their publishing event of the year. Well, here’s a corker: The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, published by the House of Lords Citizenship and Civic Engagement committee. That obscure body has 12 members and takes itself seriously. The Ties that Bind was the fruit of hearings it held into ‘civic engagement through the prism of the civic journey each one of us who lives in Britain will undertake’. Its 168 luxuriant pages of red and black print, published ‘by the Authority of the House of Lords’, has nine chapters, bullet points, footnotes, boxes, appendices and a further wodge of evidence online.
The word ‘evidence’, once reserved for blood-stained kerchiefs at crime scenes, now means ‘waffle from vested interests’. And perhaps ‘civic journey’ means an expenses-paid trip to Westminster to talk to -parliamentarians.
Apart from the clerks who assembled it, did anyone read The Ties that Bind? I picked up my copy from a table outside the Commons press gallery, where, each sitting day, a dutiful fellow stacks the numerous reports produced by parliamentary organisms. I have never seen a journalist so much as flick through one of those publications. Yet The Ties that Bind had a sticker on its cover announcing a ‘STRICT EMBARGO’ to ensure no review was published before a certain date. There was something forlorn about that sticker. It was like hotel Gideon Bibles that say ‘Do not remove’.
So much activity at Parliament is pointless. Take other titles on that press-gallery table. The Countryside at a Crossroads: Is the National Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 Still Fit for Purpose? ran to 95 pages and ended with a flowchart of rural commissions. Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education was a 154-page doorstop that had fancy charts and, oh shame, an inserted ‘corrigendum’ about an error on p103, paragraph 351, where £2 billion should have been £6 billion. Billions, schmillions.
By my count there are 106 parliamentary committees, most with secretariats, press officers, annual reports, Christmas drinks bashes and a need to justify their existences. At Commons select committee meetings a few years ago you might spot a single clerk. Now there are two, plus teams of researchers — equipped with expensive computers — who hog the tables once reserved for reporters. How intensely they look at those computers! Playing Candy Crush, perhaps. That’s what Tory MP Nigel Mills was doing on his mobile during a meeting of the Work and Pensions committee.
Administrative toil is found for all these souls but it does not seem to make them happy. Westminster is frown town. Scuttling minions race here to there, ever unsmiling. Wan youths in suits scowl at mobile telephones as they hurtle along cloisters, in peril of being flattened by ministerial limousines. At the subterranean entrance underneath Big Ben, their jaw muscles twitch as they hurriedly tap their secret numbers into the security pads which will admit them to this bower of bothers. Everyone is in a rush. Everyone looks frantic.
What do they all do, and why? Some produce Hansard debate reports from the almost completely ignored Westminster Hall. Others arrange schools’ Skype outreach for the Speaker (you wouldn’t want that man actually on the school premises). There are LGBT lesson plans for teachers, workshops about the Suffragettes and kids’ videos called Making Change Happen. Perhaps we should have sent Theresa May one of those.
Every parliamentarian now has a gaggle of researchers to fight off the electors, to keep the coffee pot full and to help the MP comply with carbon footprint or submit entries to the House’s diversity and inclusion awards. Elsewhere there are Women in Parliament tuitions to be, er, manned. The Commons and Lords run joint Workplace Equality Networks, which you can only join if you belong to a state-approved minority. Parliament’s Engagement Service (not a lonely hearts club) runs talks for the public on everything from tweeting to the work of the Vote Office. One of its interactive sessions was called ‘How would you improve the House of Commons?’ It turned out they were interested in knowing what we all think of the lavatories. All these activities require employees.
And on it tumbles, this yeti-ish snowball of displacement activity. Consider the Treasury select committee, chaired by Tory Remainer Nicky Morgan (she makes sure her photograph is all over its website — did I mention that all the committees have their own internet operations?). It is currently undertaking 23 inquiries, ranging from economic crime to digital currencies to the work of the National Infrastructure Commission, which should perhaps retaliate by itself holding an inquiry into Nicky Morgan and her crew of rambling nonentities.
If the Treasury select committee can find something truly gripping to say about even one of those 23 inquiries, I’d be surprised. Each evidence session entails preparatory materials. Each witness must be vetted and subsidised and greeted, and then there are the verbatim minutes to be produced and checked and published and… well, the activity never ceases. And if this welter of paper-shuffling created by the committees is not enough for you, the all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) offer an alternative seam of busy-busy-ness. Its register alone runs to 1,172 pages and carries a horrifying litany of financial bungs from lobbying groups. Lobbyists fly around Westminster like bluebottles at the eyes of a dead horse. More people. More security passes. More hassled lives.
Is all this vital to that ‘civic journey’ of The Ties That Bind? At a time when 17 million voters must be wondering if there was any point in the 2016 referendum, is this how to energise our democracy and persuade the British public that its views matter to the ruling clique? A Parliament shorn of such barnacles might be less remote from the people. And cheaper. And the barnacles themselves might have a happier time doing real jobs.