Thursday, April 10, 2014

Trust issues

Last month, David Babbs of influential campaigning community 38 Degrees appeared before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, currently investigating what can be done to ensure citizens feel engaged with rather than divorced from the political process. Watching the video footage, I wasn't convinced that he'd made his points particularly well, coming across as a little vague, flustered and childish at times. However, one of the key issues under discussion was the broadly negative public perception of politicians, which Babbs rightly explained with reference to the issue of trust, pointing to broken electoral pledges and the extent of the expenses scandal (only to be harangued by more than one committee member accusing him of seeking to tar all MPs with the same brush). If only his appearance before the committee could have come a month later - he could have simply said: "Maria Miller - I rest my case"...

Miller has now finally resigned as Culture Secretary, belatedly doing the decent thing following intensive pressure from both the public and the media (the latter perhaps pursuing a bit of a personal vendetta, given Miller's implementation of some of the recommendations of the Leveson Report...). But the whole sorry affair just exemplifies exactly what Babbs was talking about.

First, of course, there was her improper expenses claim. Then, when it was exposed, the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards advised that she should reimburse the taxpayer to the tune of £45,000 and took the unusual step of criticising her "lack of cooperation" and attempts to "discredit" the investigation. And yet despite her arrogant and willfully obstructive behaviour, the Commons Standards Committee (comprised of MPs, naturally) subsequently showed extraordinary clemency in obliging her to pay back only £5,800. Miller's apology to Parliament - just 71 words uttered in 32 seconds - seemed remarkably unapologetic, but David Cameron stood by her until the clamour for her resignation grew so loud he had to have a little chat with her, after which she came to the decision to step down (entirely voluntarily, of course).

Cameron has been left to blather on about "good and honest MPs", while Ed Miliband has seized the opportunity to land some punches, savaging the PM's "terrible error of judgement" and stressing that the nation has been "absolutely appalled" by the Tories' response to the scandal - a response which worsened with the sacking of Boris Johnson lite Michael Fabricant for daring to suggest that Miller's resignation was overdue. Unfortunately for Miliband, though, the Commons Standards Committee is a cross-party group, so there's a broader responsibility for letting Miller get away lightly. For that reason, it's hardly surprising that Babbs and many thousands if not millions of others remain suspicious and mistrustful of politicians in general.

What can be done to rectify the situation, then? For a start, the make-up of the Commons Standards Committee should be changed. According to Labour MP John Mann, who sparked the inquiry into Miller's expenses in the first place, "self-regulation of MPs by MPs is now well and truly dead. The committee should only exist to look at how parliament can improve standards in public life. Instead the independent commissioner should make decisions on MPs with appeals to the independent advisers. And the electorate needs to be give the right of recall for serious offences". Ironic, really, that Miller helped to ensure that the media could no longer police itself but then benefited from MPs doing exactly the same thing...

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