It has been often said that the removal van that appears outside Number Teno Downing Street after some General Elections is the most visible sign of public control over the British democratic system. The symbolism that this attaches itself to is undoubtedly one of national rather than parliamentary sovereignty. Whether there ought to be more formal mechanisms of public scrutiny and recall is one that, however, goes largely unanswered.
The MPs expenses scandal was perhaps one of the most revolutionary discoveries of subversion within the British democratic system this side of the century. Invariably, it caused an almost unprecedented level of mistrust between MPs and the wider public. It still has implications upon how MPs are viewed in the mass media today.
The professionalisation of Britain’s political leaders over time has heightened the level of expectations placed upon MPs. It has also led to a more open society of public transparency and freedom of information. At the same time, public suspicion regarding the professional interests of MPs in contrast to their sense of public duty has exacerbated this even further. So much so that it has led some to call for tighter regulations over MPs conduct, as to avoid any ‘conflict of interest’ from arising in relation to their work as elected representatives of communities. This sense of public accountability is one that ought to be cherished, and has the potential to make our democratic political system even more inclusive. At the same time, it is equally as important that Parliament has a regular intake of new MPs, as this ensures that Parliament does not become entrenched in archaic practices on the basis that it is the ‘way that it has always been done.’
A modernising and forward-looking Parliament serves a double purpose. Firstly, that of projecting the British Parliament on the global stage as one that is progressive yet sure of its values. Second, and most crucially, that ordinary citizens and members of minority groups are not deterred from standing for elected office in Parliament, but instead are incorporated into the national decision-making process.
For many of these issues, the proof is very much in the eating of the pudding. The fact that Britain is the most diverse European Parliament in terms of its number of LGBT+ MPs and peers is undoubtedly a positive image of how far this agenda has progressed. Nonetheless, as only 32/650 MPs belong to the LGBT+ community, which is less than 10% of the total number of MPs, there remains much to be done.
As of yet, much of the pressure that has been leveraged upon MPs to perform according to the level of professionalisation expected of an individual in a role of similar responsibility is one which is largely culturally induced. The introduction of Nolan’s seven principles of public life, which include selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership, set out a list of values to which MPs are expected to conduct. That there are no legal repercussions of failing to conform in accordance with these principles, however, demonstrates the loose influence that they have over public conduct. One example which may inform the creation of such a scheme has its roots in yet another financial subversion, the banker’s expenses scandal.
In 2013, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards considered a range of options for implementing a sense of corporate responsibility within the banking sector as a whole. One of the recommendations that they put forward was legislating for a criminal negligence provision, which could threaten bankers with the risk of prosecution, should evidence be found that they have fallen short of their responsibilities. Whilst this received an unsurprisingly mixed reception, it also had the potential to lead on behavioural reform within the sector. One of the MPs who helped to draw up plans for this was Wyre Forest MP Mark Garnier. Garnier argued that the criminal negligence provision should be seen as a ‘deterrent’ that would apply pressure on the shoulders of financial leaders to ensure the ‘safety, security, and soundness’ of the institutions that they run.
In objection to this, it was argued that the move towards legalistic control over MPs conduct has potential to deter some of the most talented individuals from standing for election.
This, they argue would be catastrophic as it would alienate members of minority groups from the political process. The consequence of this, it was argued, was that it would alienate members of minority groups from the political process, and so fail to include the views of such groups in drafting legislation. There are ways in which this risk can be averted. If those public controls are spelled out as part of an MPs application process, they can reassure MPs on the scope and limitations of their role. This would deliver a universal code of conduct and would drive up standards at the same time. Whilst the need for MPs to have a flexible working pattern must not be overlooked, a more conscientious approach towards professional public conduct could have very positive implications. The outcome of such a transition would carry wth it the potential to reduce public mistrust, at the same time as laying the foundations for a more open, accountable, and inclusive, democratic political system.