1st July 2013
Remember the ‘good old days’ – I refer to 2009-10 – when transferring control of MPs’ pay and expenses from the Commons to an independent body, IPSA, was supposed to lance the boil of public outrage and usher in an era of smooth, rational and crisis-free regulation? Oh happy day!
As we begin the latest round of this sorry tale, perhaps some who supported the back-of-the-envelope ‘solution’ – of ceding parliamentary self-regulation as the perceived inevitable price of stemming the tsunami of the media/public frenzy over the expenses scandal that finally exploded in 2009 – will reflect a little. Not just on the practical need to reform a fundamentally flawed and unpopular system, but, as important, on the continuing harm it is doing to the Westminster Parliament’s reputation and standing with its public, and, thereby, its ability to operate effectively on their behalf.
Yet again, Parliament is seen to be on the sidelines when crucial issues affecting it are being discussed. As usual, the pundits’ first resort is not to ask ‘What can Parliament itself do to resolve this problem?’ but what can the PM and Government do about it! Just listen to Nick Robinson on BBC R4 this morning, for example. The culture of Executive dominance and initiative is so inbred that it does not seem to occur to the pundits – and sadly, not to many MPs themselves – that perhaps it is up to Parliament to try to reform itself (as part of an engagement with the public it serves), not to look always by default to Ministers for answers and action.
This is another ‘perfect storm’ of negativity for Parliament. Most of the blame, with (this time, self-imposed) none of the scope to defend itself. Many parliamentarians prefer this sort of political irresponsibility, leaving it to others to do their work for them. It’s what the Commons has been doing for decades. And this time, they have a cast-iron alibi, especially if and when they are ‘forced’ to take a large pay rise or whatever – ‘We cant do anything about it. IPSA has imposed it on us’.
As always, I doubt that the relevant internal authorities, from the Speaker, Chief Executive and HC Commission to the byzantine network of relevant committees within the Commons – such as the Speaker’s Committee on IPSA and the Members Expenses Committee – will have much of an input in all this, bar some reactive statements and maybe an ad hoc inquiry or two.
In written and oral evidence to the 2009 (Kelly) Committee on Standards in Public Life inquiry on the then system and its proposed reform, and in a couple of postings in late 2011 (here and here), I argued that what was needed was a modern form of parliamentary self-regulation, buttressed where necessary with appropriate external, independent elements, within a new culture of robust openness, transparency and public accountability. It was the ancient – and, in many respects, still flourishing – corrosive culture of privacy, entitlement and privilege that enabled the abuses to survive, and which made ‘old-style’ self-regulation both a political and practical no-no.
If out of this current mess, some form of genuine evidence-led and publicly inclusive review can propose a stable and acceptable system for regulating and operating the democratically crucial issue of effective and efficient parliamentary resourcing, then perhaps these 4 years of muddle will have been worthwhile.