One of the surest signs that our antiquated Parliament is lagging behind the rest of society is that drinking on the job is not just tolerated it is, in fact, subsidised. If many of us had a few jars between important work tasks we’d be risking our jobs but for MPs it’s part and parcel of the culture.
Fears over the drinking culture reached a head this year when some impromptu fisticuffs hit the headlines, but it has been an ongoing issue for years with late-night voting merging into a boozy macho culture among some MPs and their staff.
In the Commons bar an MP can get a pint of Guinness at £2.20 or an eight-year-old whisky at £1.35, which is pretty reasonable rates considering London prices. Reduced rates for food and drink are down to a substantial taxpayer subsidy, of course, last year to the tune of £5.8 million.
Speaker John Bercow is the latest would-be moderniser who, according to reports this week, seems to have hit a brick wall in his attempts to cut costs and clean up the culture a little. However Bercow’s moves still reflect the feelings of entitlement rife among MPs as his proposals have amounted to little more than ‘at receptions and events where alcohol was served, glasses would be topped up less frequently’ and for staff, but not MPs, to be banned from drinking in working hours.
A Commons spokesperson told the Mail: “Following feedback on the practicalities of a complete ban, the management board is proposing a greater emphasis on education and support.”
The argument for subsidised, on-site, bars and restaurants is that MPs may be called upon to vote in the middle of the night or hang around for the Commons bell to signal a vote and so can’t leave the premises. This doesn’t seem to be an argument for conducting Parliamentary business half cut, nor does it explain why these premises have to be subsidised. I would not suggest that we make them eat Burger King as visitors to some of our hospitals are encouraged to do; some decent canteen facilities and pleasant places to loiter is all that’s really necessary.
However, the real answer to modernising Parliamentary culture is to go beyond questioning the need for subsidised boozers and tackle the bizarre conduct of business. Waiting around for bells to ring, MPs “talking out” motions, queuing to vote “aye” or “nay” without being able to register abstentions and a host of Byzantine rules make Westminster an insiders club, and an inefficient one at that.
Caroline Lucas MP made a serious contribution to reforming Parliament with her 2010 paper (pdf) which called for, among other things, electronic voting, holding over votes to a specific voting period each day, a systematic modernisation of Parliamentary language, and an end to night shifts that make family life extremely difficult for MPs, which is seen as particularly hard on women MPs.
The examples of the London Assembly, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament show that serious decision-making does not have to be conducted in such an ossified environment. While I’m aware that many members of these institutions make substantial contributions to the profits of the drinks industry in their free time, the creation of a more professional environment means the weird culture of Westminster is all but entirely absent during business hours.
It’s simply not necessary for voting to be conducted into the night, and unhelpful to have rules that the general public often find it difficult to understand, let alone engage with. Drinking on the job is simply one aspect of an institution that has not kept up with the times leaving it far from fit for purpose.