Cleaning up Parliament

The following article was published by Progress here

This week’s spate of scandals have re-energised public interest in proposals to clean up Parliament. All three main parties included remarkably similar proposals in their manifestos, yet little progress has been made under the current Government. In his excellent book Five Days in May, Andrew Adonis sets out the failure of the Liberal Democrats to ensure that there was a proper coalition government in place, with the Liberal Democrats allowing Conservative ministers to set most of the Government agenda. But on constitutional reform, Nick Clegg is clearly in the driving seat and must be held to account for his failure to make progress.

For me, the first rule of politics is that you should say what you will do then do what you said you would. Of course there needs to be consultation – and deciding that having listened to the consultation you will change your proposals or even abandon them is a sign of strength not weakness. But just not doing your homework (either to ensure that your proposals can be implemented before you suggest them or to get the detail right once in government) is inexcusable.

So what did the three main parties say in their manifestos?

Labour Manifesto

MPs who are found responsible for financial misconduct will be subject to a right of recall if Parliament itself has failed to act against them. The House of Lords and the new Second Chamber will be brought under the aegis of IPSA.

We will create a Statutory Register of Lobbyists to ensure complete transparency in their activities. We will ban MPs from working for generic lobbying companies and require those who want to take up paid outside appointments to seek approval from an independent body to avoid jobs that conflict with their responsibilities to the public.

Liberal Democrat Manifesto

We would introduce a recall system so that constituents could force a by-election for any MP found responsible for serious wrongdoing. Curb the improper influence of lobbyists by introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, changing the Ministerial Code so that ministers and officials are forbidden from meeting MPs on issues where the MP is paid to lobby, requiring companies to declare how much they spend on lobbying in their annual reports, and introducing a statutory register of interests for parliamentary candidates based on the current Register of Members’ Interests.

Conservative Manifesto

At the moment, there is no way that local constituents can remove an MP found guilty of serious wrongdoing until there is a general election. That is why a Conservative government will introduce a power of ‘recall’ to allow electors to kick out MPs, a power that will be triggered by proven serious wrongdoing. And we will introduce a Parliamentary Privilege Act to make clear that privilege cannot be abused by MPs to evade justice.

The public are concerned about the influence of money on politics, whether it is from trade unions, individuals, or the lobbying industry. We will seek an agreement on a comprehensive package of reform that will encourage individual donations and include an across the-board cap on donations. This will mark the end of the big donor era and the problems it has sometimes entailed.

The Coalition Agreement signed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats included a commitment to legislate:

The parties will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP was found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.

The parties will tackle lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. We also agree to pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics.

The problem, as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan point out in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, is that Nick Clegg appears to be allergic to putting decisions in the hands of voters. His proposed legislation rightly received a mauling from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, but what next? The Committee published its report on 28th June 2012 but the Government’s response took four months. The Government’s mid-term review retained the commitment to legislate, but the commitment to “early legislation” had gone. The Queen’s Speech did not include the Bill, which was in itself difficult to explain as Lords Reform had been dropped so Clegg had an empty slot and time on his hands.

The terms of the legislation should be fairly straightforward:

Step 1: there must be clear wrong-doing by the MP concerned. I think it would be reasonable for this to be conviction of a criminal offence or to be found in breach of the code of conduct for MPs. While the Code itself should be agreed by MPs, the finding of a breach should be a quasi-judicial process with an independent element, similar to the standards regime in local government.

Step 2: it should be for constituents to decide whether the breach is serious enough to warrant recall, not parliament. It should be relatively straightforward to start a petition and for constituents to sign.

Step 3: if 10% of constituents sign a petition saying they want a by-election, there should be a by-election. If the MP wants to put themselves forward again, they can do so.

I don’t see how this regime would prevent someone who deliberately participated in civil disobedience from defending their actions to their constituents (an argument put forward against recall). Indeed if someone wanted to make a high profile political stand on an issue, what better way than to challenge constituents to support you – and if 10% of constituents actively oppose your law-breaking, to fight a by-election? David Davies chose to resign his seat to fight a by-election to make a political point. It is unusual but not unknown. I doubt introducing recall would lead to lots more MPs getting themselves arrested for public order offences…

In reality, many MPs facing recall will choose to resign. Chris Huhne wasn’t forced to step down as an MP as he was only sentenced to eight months in prison not a year. But he chose to stand down. Likewise Denis Macshane could have accepted a 12 month suspension from Parliament and resumed his duties at the end of the suspension. He didn’t. In both cases it was a personal choice – Recall would give constituents a real say in the matter.

Eric Joyce has continued as an MP despite criminal convictions. David Laws was found to have made false claims but did not face criminal prosecution, did not resign from Parliament and has even been brought back as a Minister. Is this right? I don’t think it is for me or a committee of the great and the good to decide but the people of Falkirk and Yeovil respectively whether they should continue as MPs.

Patrick Mercer said he was resigning the Tory whip immediately “to save my party embarrassment”, and would not stand again at the next general election. I don’t really see any circumstances in which it is appropriate to save his party’s blushes while continuing as an MP. Surely he is embarrassing his constituents by the same token and they might object to him drawing public money while keeping a low profile. But any process needs to allow an opportunity for him to put his case and for there to be a finding of a breach of the code of conduct or of the criminal law before a recall petition is launched. Of course the existence of such a process might well encourage him to step aside…

In other news, we are told that David Cameron and Nick Clegg have resolved to move ahead with a register of lobbyists. Again this was promised by all three main parties and was in the coalition agreement, but Ministers  (and Nick Clegg personally as he leads on this) has failed to make much progress. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee concluded on 10 July 2012 :

It has been extremely difficult to scrutinise the Government’s proposals for introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, as the consultation raises questions regarding the scope, breadth and resources needed if different definitions of lobbying were to be decided upon. Defining the activity of lobbying is fundamental to defining who is a lobbyist. The Government’s consultation paper fails to do so.

Industry organisations have come together to propose a definition of a lobbyist. Whether the Government intends to adopt this or has an alternative, we don’t know. And neither do they as Ministers haven’t responded to them in recent months. Apparently after three years of failing to make progress on the detail, overnight Nick Clegg and David Cameron have agreed to move forward – so long as “the package” restricts the ability of millions of people to influence politics through membership organisations (was it evil trade unionists who offered Patrick Mercer money to lobby on behalf of a military dictatorship? I missed that angle).

In contrast, millionaires will be free to continue to use their money to buy influence – ironic really as with this Government it would appear they don’t need to. Expect to see begging letters from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to the 130,000 millionaires who have just been given an average £100,000 each, suggesting that they may like to donate some of their winnings on fighting the next General Election.

What do you think?

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