Straw Flounders Before CPSL Committee

The Committee for Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, today had its last scheduled hearing (though they may recall some witnesses post-recess).

Secretary of State Jack Straw was up today, defending the hasty passage of the Parliamentary Standards Bill, which is due to become law next Tuesday if it passes the Commons in its newly amended form. Dr Elizabeth Vallance didn’t seem impressed with Straw’s description of the principles guiding the bill’s inception. She referred to "the difficult birth of this bill" during which she suggested the government "got bogged down in the detail." To Straw’s assertion that Parliament had been "extremely active" in forming the bill, she interjected, "As active as it can be in three days." She also cited as "pretty damning" the Lords’ report into the insufficient consultation conducted by the government before rushing the bill through Parliament.

Straw tried to justify the botched job, rather astonishingly referring to the Parliamentary Standards Bill as "emergency legislation." Last we checked, no one’s life was on the line due to MPs’ expenses, so it’s a mystery why the bill requires such cut-and-run treatment. Could it be, as Vallance later suggested, for purely political reasons – to make it look, in short, like MPs have "done something!" before they go on holiday? Ultimately, there is no excuse for messing up such constitutionally important legislation. The expenses scandal presents a real opportunity for reflection and reform. To have the government jamming through shoddy laws so that ministers can sleep better over the summer only confirms the public’s view that politicians don’t care about change. They just want to make their own lives easier.

Even more alarming, however, was the way Straw talked about transparency: The bill sets up a new 5-person committee (IPSA, or the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) that will be responsible for administering and overseeing the new expenses scheme. IPSA will in turn be answerable to the Speaker’s Committee (whose all-MP membership formerly included Sir Peter Viggers, of duckhouse fame). But it is unclear if interactions between IPSA and the Speaker’s Committee will be public knowledge: Vallance asked, for example, whether it would be made public if the Speaker’s Committee overrules IPSA. Straw was unable to answer for certain, past saying that he assumed it would be.

Assumption is not enough. Only when transparency is built into the foundations of parliamentary business can the institution regain public trust.


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