Monday, 8 August 2016

Parliament: auditor to the nation

After being retired for a year I can admit that much of my work as an MP could have been done by a trained Orang Utan,provided he was backed by a proper staff.He'd have to be an energetic beast to cope with all the attendances at factories,functions,schools and events constituencies demand these days .He'd need a team of social workers to play the local ombudsman role and deal with all the problems that come up and he'd be well advised  not scratch to himself too much or put too many bananas on his expenses but otherwise he could replace many of us.

 He'd not need be too bright to read out the pre- prepared questions the whips hand out and listen to the media ready  answers.As for tramping through lobbies to be counted, that's  more a job for sheep but he could do it and his more brutish mates could be whips, though they'd need to be able to count up to 300 ( or a diminishing number on the Labour side) As for occasional,or even regular chest beating and swinging through the trees to get media attention, that would come easily to playful primates.

Yet one role which is developing fast, demands a higher level of intelligence than any political primate and provides more satisfaction than Parliamentary hack work .It's accountability, a function growing in importance and effectiveness to the point of offers a more challenging role for MPs and a more useful function for a Parliament which otherwise has little power beyond heckling the government steamroller as it drives over them. 

The Public Accounts committee has shown the way.Backed by the National Audit office with its 700 staff this has long been the best committee It certainly gave me more satisfaction than any other part of the job and has always had a vital role in ferreting out fraud and failure .The evidence is normally fed to it by the NAO. but in the last Parliament its chair,Margeret Hodge made it  tougher and effective,taking it into areas of concern where it forced the pace not the NAO. It hauled in the multi nationals such as Google Amazon and Starbucks and brought their tax fiddles to public attention. 

It highlighted tax dodging via Luxembourg and Ireland and the scandalous softness of Dave Hartnett,head of HMRC to Vodaphone and Goldman Sachs forcing him into retirement. It brought out the cheating and failures of  government contractors like A4E,Serco and G4S and the folly of the huge NHS computerisation which was scrapped after wasting billions.The privatisation of so many services and bringing business methods and people into education and health increases the risk of fraud and a public service which brings Sir Phillip Rose in to advise on economies is hardly going to be safe in business hands.The PAC has highlighted cases such as King's Free School in Bradford which might otherwise have been hushed up.

The price of honesty is eternal vigilance and while the PAC has shown the way its efforts are being shared by other  committees driven by effective chairs . Tony Wright and the Public Administration committee  changed Parliament for the better,Treasury under Andrew Tyrie toughened up government's attempts to dilute banking reform,  Home Affairs under Keith Vaz. changed government policies and Frank Field's forensic skills with two combined committees  brought Green and  the pillaging of BHS to book. Committee  chairs have become as important as ministers All have ventilated concerns which would othwise have been smothered by  government's obfuscation,dilitariness ,indulgence and PR

This angered the civil servants who were grilled and the  ministers who were criticised .Attempts were made to rein committees in via members briefed by minsters and departments but most interference was resented and rejected .On the PAC it was  beaten off by the skill of the chair and the swing vote of Richard Bacon a tough and  informed Tory who views integrity as an almost religious imperative. Government stopped trying to pack the committees as Gordon Brown had flagrantly done by removing every Labour member with a taint of Keynes from the Treasury Committee to turn it into an adoring chorus.The election of chairs by the whole house gave them a degree of independence they'd not had before.

Not yet perfect the system is still developing.Some chairs are creeps. Some committees plough boring fields.Politics and caution can muzzle as  they did Parliament's Iraq enquiries and a Security Committee which never hears or sees evil.Politics can triumph as  when I chaired a sub committee of the Treasury committee which reported that joining the ERM would be damaging, only to have another committee under Giles Radice reverse that verdict and proclaim membership as the best thing since sliced Frankfurt sausage

But election makes chairs stronger and more independent.MPs are beginning to feel that committees give them real power an interesting job, and a chance to influence policy.It's the most exciting part of an otherwise dull job. Which creates the prospect of developing the committees as a combination of continuous accountability and mini Royal Comissions which don't take minutes and waste years like their ponderous big brothers.That would raise Parliament's role from a stage on which the party battle is fought  to the more useful one of accountability with committees as the nation's auditors.

 Britain needs Such a reform.Compared to the USA our so called constitution provides few means of redressing grievances, unearthing scandals and failures,exposing the abuses of corporate power or bringing professional or business reprobates to justice.Government and business have massive PR machines,to put a rosy gloss on disaster.Hordes of libel lawyers lie in wait for the incautious.HMRC is understaffed,whistleblowers get punished and professional and business regulation is chaps regulating, and regularly excusing, chaps. Regulatory capture the Americans call it but it's the norm here.Even reprobates can be  regulators.Private Eye does its best but neither it,nor our underpowered Ombudspersons can cope withe scale of abuse and emerging corruption.

Why not  give the job to the Parliamentary select committees? Properly backed by their own research staff ,their membership decided by an independent panel,not the whips, their chairs supplied from short lists decided by the speaker and elected by the house they can do the job and become a powerful check.That would make the system accountable,protect the people,restore respect for Parliament and give MPs something more useful to do than playing Punch and Judy.

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