We often, particularly around this time each year, pride ourselves here in the UK on our having given birth to modern democracy in the context of the nation state and have even earned the epithet “Mother of Parliaments.” But that does not mean that our parliamentary system has not on occasions been rocked by scandals and sought to reform itself with a view to achieving greater democratic accountability. For example, in 2009 following the MP’s expenses scandal, IPSA (the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) was set up to monitor MP’s expense claims and to make recommendations on remuneration levels for MPs.
More recently there have been calls for further reforms, in particular objections to it still being too difficult to remove MPs or government ministers other than through the ballot box in the former case or through dismissal by the Prime Minister in the latter case (or by a party leadership challenge in the case of the PM). It is widely being proposed that what is needed is the appointment of an unelected csar to set up and oversee a new committee of appointees who would have the power to sanction ministers and MPs who are deemed in their opinion of to have behaved inappropriately or in a manner inconsistent with the new culture of respect which the committee would be tasked to police. What could be wrong with that?
Well, very little if you judge by the apparent enthusiasm with which the proposal has been met by most MPs and government ministers who are falling over themselves, from the PM down, to endorse the proposal. Nonetheless, the idea has been met with some disquiet in some parts of the media, in particular amongst more conservative commentators. Should we really be granting powers greater than those of the electorate and even the Prime Minister potentially to terminate the appointment and even the careers of elected politicians on the basis of a bureaucratic judgement following a review conducted outwith the scope of any judicial process?
It is argued in particular that taking the process out of party political control so that Parliament itself cannot influence or overturn decisions is necessary because political parties will have an interest in protecting their reputations and may look to turn a blind eye (or a deaf ear) to allegations of impropriety by their own party members. It is further argued that the operation of the proposed new body cannot be part of a judicial process since much if not most of the behaviour which it is sought to control would probably either not be illegal or else not justiciable. It is also claimed that the intention of such legislation would not only be to open up the possibility of removing offenders but also to “change the culture,” by which is presumably meant that all MPs would have to be constantly policing themselves with a view to avoiding such actions or words as might subsequently be deemed by a complainant to constitute inappropriate behaviour or harassment. Further, if one wishes to understand the difference between inappropriate behaviour and harassment, it has been suggested that one incident of the former can constitute the latter, so the answer would appear to be “not much.”
You will necessarily come to your own view on whether the appointing of an unaccountable body to sit in judgement on our parliamentarians on the basis of a charter it will have sole power to interpret is a proportionate measure to reduce the incidence of “inappropriate behaviour”. You may recall a similar attempt was made to put such a body in power over newspapers, which attempt was staunchly resisted and ultimately derailed by the newspaper industry. Our parliamentarians at present look a lot less inclined to resist. Will they submit and allow the sovereignty of parliament to be watered down in this way? It will certainly be interesting to watch where this all goes in the weeks ahead…