In the wake of the Patrick Mercer scandal, and the parallel incidents in the House of Lords, Francis Maude and Nick Clegg’s announcements on both a lobbying register and MP recall will be welcomed in some quarters. I happen to think that if you really want to end corruption in parliament, bigger changes are required.
Let’s start with the lobbying register. The first thing that should set alarm bells ringing for those who think this will be a cure all for the “dark arts” is the fact that the people who are pushing for this hardest tend to be the big Public Affairs firms. This is because what is likely to happen is that smaller firms who may struggle under the new guidelines will go under, with a resulting upturn in business coming the big firms’ way. Also, the problem isn’t necessarily that lobbying is opaque; it’s much more to do with the fact that rules surrounding influencing parliamentarians are notoriously murky.
Also, we have one house of parliament in which members are unelected and cannot be removed. The Upper House is lobbying heaven, and comparing the Mercer scandal with the one in the Lords demonstrates perfectly why that is: while Mercer has effectively been kicked out of his party and is having to make assurances he will not stand at the next general election, what’s happening to the trio of peers accused of doing pretty much the same thing? Not really anything, because there is nothing that really can happen to them under the existing system. Once you get a peerage, it’s yours for life.
Even if you wanted to stop being a Lord, you’re not allowed to. There has been some threat of withdrawing the party whip from the peers in question, but in practice this is utterly meaningless. You can’t lose your peerage or any of its privileges, you can never be booted out, so ultimately there are no threats that can be thrown at you that are in any way meaningful.
As for recall of MPs, my big question is this: shouldn’t there be a set of illegal offences on the statues which if committed by an MP would mean they are automatically thrown out of office triggering a by-election? Think of the situation at hand – if we had recall laws on the books as we speak, should Mercer, if found guilty, be thrown out of office on principle, or would the people of Newark have to gather 10,000 signatures and make it happen?
If recall is about holding MPs who break the law to account and not partisan mudslinging, why can’t we just have it happen automatically and 10,000 signatures be damned? And the partisan mudslinging is the real danger when it comes to recall – one need only look at the example of what happened to Gray Davis in California to see how recall is often used in a way that does anything but increase the power of the people.
So if you want to end corruption in parliament, you do two things: reform the House of Lords, at the very least as far as being to expel members who break the law, and you make the laws around what parliamentarians can and cannot do clearer within the statues. But neither of those are going to happen in this parliament, so I guess we’ll get a lobbying register and some sort of watered down version of recall. Neither of which will really change a thing.