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My Thoughts Today
An ill-used association of words and pictures
Regulating Parliament is a direct assault on its ability to function
This government has a track record of trying to gag Parliament in one way or another, the most infamous example being their attempt to force the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill through a few years back. This week's Parliamentary Standards Bill is a similarly undesirable piece of legislation, even in the largely emasculated form in which it's been passed, and as with so much bad legislation prompted by public outrage it owes its origins to politicians' fear for their own jobs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no apologiser for the financial misdeeds of our Members of Parliament. The system under which their expenses have been operated is scandalous in the very obvious sense that it was always bound to offend the electorate and result in a scandal. Those who over the years have voted in favour of its various provisions without considering their corrosive effect on the culture of Parliament have shown themselves ill-suited to the intellectual demands of their office just as surely as those who have taken calculated and misleading advantage of those provisions have demonstrated the low regard in which they hold the solemn responsibility they hold on behalf of their constituents.

We do not send representatives to Westminster to enrich themselves, we send them there to scrutinise legislation and taxation, and to hold government to account on our behalf. Whilst we're used to talking in terms of governing and opposition parties, the truth of the matter is that every MP is supposed to be an opposition MP defending our rights and our constitution against government action which otherwise becomes little more than elected dictatorship. For this reason any legislation which limits the ability of MPs to speak freely in Parliament or to carry out the research necessary to remain informed on issues affecting their constituents is objectionable.

In the case of the Parliamentary Standards Bill the original draft would have curtailed an MPs right to freedom from prosecution for statements made in the chamber of the Commons (aka Parliamentary Privilege) and this would have marked a fundamental shift in the relationship between government and governed. Thankfully this clause failed to make it into the final legislation, but amidst the outrage over that particular clause something much more invidious has been allowed to remain.

The amended Bill still sees the introduction of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, a Quango which will sit in judgement on the financial actions of MPs. I understand the public mood to see Parliamentary expenses cleaned up but this is not the way to do it. Parliament has stood as an independent and sovereign power since the Glorious Revolution, the House of Commons repeatedly extending its powers over both the Lords and the Crown in recognition of the democratic mandate through which its members sit.

How therefore can any appointed body, devoid of democratic mandate, be deemed to hold a greater competence to oversee Parliament than its own elected members? This move is not only a constitutional nonsense, it's a direct assertion that the people we elect to determine the laws governing our entire nation are competent to rule on every little detail of our lives (something at which New Labour have been very busy) and yet somehow incompetent to maintain standards of probity amongst themselves. The Right Honourables are now officially without honour.

A much better solution would have been the inclusion of a recall power whereby if local constituents were unhappy with their Member of Parliament they could through a sufficiently popular petition (say 10% of the constiuency electorate) force a byelection. Or better yet, just have the police properly investigate all of the financial fiddling which has allegedly been going on and prosecute accordingly. Regardless of how they may sometimes portray themselves, Members of Parliament are not above the law and if it has in fact been breached those concerned should be held accountable through means which already exist and merely need to be applied rigorously.

today I am mostly: annoyed
the music in my head: Silent Treatment-The Bangles-All Over The Place

7 opinions or participate
friend_of_tofu From: friend_of_tofu Date: July 22nd, 2009 12:41 pm (UTC) (permanent link)
The PSB is a mess. No good comes of knee-jerk legislation.
feyeleanor From: feyeleanor Date: July 22nd, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC) (permanent link)
Alas knee-jerk is all that New Labour has ever seemed to understand.
friend_of_tofu From: friend_of_tofu Date: July 22nd, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC) (permanent link)
They're hardly alone in that, not that that's a justification. Lack of core principles, I call it.
feyeleanor From: feyeleanor Date: July 22nd, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC) (permanent link)
Very true and I was equally appalled by a number of knee-jerk laws passed by John Major's government and expect the trend to continue if/when David Cameron is elected. I guess the downside of Democracy is the need of those who wish to remain in power to be seen to be doing something.

Call me a cynic, but I believe that nine times in ten government doing something makes the situation worse than if they chose not to do anything at all.

Edited at 2009-07-22 05:29 pm (UTC)
friend_of_tofu From: friend_of_tofu Date: July 22nd, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC) (permanent link)
Yes. Doing less is often better, but it doesn't look as good! Very true.
savantfoxt From: savantfoxt Date: July 31st, 2009 11:46 am (UTC) (permanent link)
Other countries media and people are amazed at both the low level of corruption and immorality that British MPs have shown with their expenses, and the fury with which the British press and public have reacted.

The obvious example, Berlusconi, makes all our MP's look like jobbing amateurs and he's still hugely popular in Italy.
Imagine the furor over Major's affair with Curry if it had been discovered while he was in office whereas Mitterand didn't bother to hide his affairs, the French press simply shrugged at it in a characteristically Gallic manner.
What about the previous 'scandal' over cash for peerages, as if that wasn't the way it had always been done?

Certainly, it's not right.
But if I expected honest, open and scandal free MPs - you'd end up with Tony Benn and Anne Widdicombe (two politicians I do respect) debating in an otherwise empty room!

We blame MP's for our current financial woes rather than the millionaire tax dodgers who cheat the country out of billions of revenue and bankers who ruin the country and sail away on golden parachutes.
It's MPs ineffectiveness at running the country, lack of desire to change the status quo and a complete lack of coherent policy by any party that's the real problem; they've all become short term knee-jerk pragmatists at the mercy (or beck and call, if you prefer) of oil prices, financiers and media moguls - but not of public opinion.

I think that anger over expenses is just displacement, a specific target for swift public retribution but what Britain really wants is new ideas and real change.

feyeleanor From: feyeleanor Date: July 31st, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC) (permanent link)
Very true. Respect for MPs hasn't been this low since before the Great Reform Act and yet corruption is very much the exception rather than the rule.

I suspect what's galling to the public isn't our representatives' cupidity (which seems surprisingly restrained compared to many countries) but their lack of backbone. For every Tony Benn or Anne Widdicombe there are a dozen party hacks who never question the official line or vote with their conscience, and thereby fail to represent the views and interests of the majority of their constituents.

Mind you, with an estimated eighty percent of our law made in Brussels without any democratic oversight whatsoever, it's hard not to feel that the average Member of Parliament is now somewhat redundant and that the British public have already relegated them to the scrap heap.

I'd like to believe the situation can be salvaged as I have a strong affection for our constitutional arrangements but it's hard to see how at this juncture short of another Cromwell, and I don't think that would be a particularly enjoyable experience for any of us.
7 opinions or participate