July 22nd, 2009

get me out of here!!!!

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.
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