Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

Nope, I haven’t gone mad and started promoting parliamentary committees.

But I did get to wondering after Saturday’s blog, “I Am Disturbed“, about the thorny subject of ethics in the Houses of Parliament.

We probably first started to doubt the ethics of our politicians when the now famous expenses scandal excrement hit the air conditioning device.  That has been well documented and publicised so I won’t dwell on it further except to say that old habits seem to die hard with some people.

In Camoron and co’s reforms of the Legal System they have scrapped Legal Aid for several different things, but one that crept through quietly was Legal Aid in respect of challenging government decisions.  Our old friend Chris Grayling has changed the system to avoid the government having to defend itself continuously against ‘spurious’ challenges.

But wait! It gets worse! He has also introduced a £1,300 charge.

Under the new rules, people will have to pay both sides’ costs of preparing cases for a review until it is accepted by a court, when Legal Aid will start to pick up the bill.

Legal aid would then pick up the £1,000 to £1,300 cost of preparing legal papers retrospectively, as long as the case had been accepted by the court.

So although Legal Aid might still pick up the tab if you’re lucky, this will only be retrospective, making it impractical or impossible for normal folk to challenge government decisions in the courts.

Is it ethical to deliberately set out to make it harder to challenge a ‘democratic’ (ha) decision?

Under another plan foreign migrants are to be banned from obtaining legal aid for civil claims until they have lived in Britain for at least a year. Is this an ethical policy or is it a racist policy?

The latest round of NHS Reforms will directly or indirectly benefit current members of the House of Lords. There are those that would have you believe that they will benefit certain members of the Cabinet as well.

One fifth of Lords who voted on Health Bill had conflicted interests

Peers from every party were found to have private healthcare connections. According to Social Investigations’ research, one in four Conservative peers had links, compared to one in six Labour and one in 10 Liberal Democrats.

The Lords’ Register of Interests is updated regularly and exists to chart any potential conflict of interests. The Lords’ code of conduct also states that peers must ‘declare when speaking in the House, or communicating with ministers or public servants, any interest which is a relevant interest in the context of the debate or the matter under discussion.’

However, there is no procedure to stop Lords with conflicted interests from voting on bills. And there is no suggestion that any of the Lords who voted for the Bill did anything wrong.

But is it ethical?

The NHS is safe in our hands
The NHS is safe in our hands

Privatisation in its many guises.  This brings Ministers and Lords into close proximity with companies like our old friends G4S (but not G4S exclusively I must point out).

John Reid (now Lord Reid), former Home Secretary and Minister for Health, Defence and Transport, who went on the G4S payroll at £50,000 in 2008 when he was a backbench MP, is now a G4S director with a seat in the House of Lords.

“Is the Minister aware that the best protection against misuse or fraud on cyber issues is biometric protection?” asked Lord Reid during a January 2012 debate on electoral registration in the House of Lords, neglecting to mention that his employers G4S are big players in the biometrics market.

What else is this company up to? It’s a partner in the private finance initiative project that is GCHQ, the UK Government Communications Headquarters. It’s engaged in “total facilities management”in the NHS, looking forward to “strong pipeline” from the Department of Health. It’s at the heart of government plans to install smart meters in every single home in Britain, with Centrica, O2 mobile and others gathering data for the “G4S Data Bank”.  It’s a big player in the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) market. Its commanding position in “asylum markets” gets only stronger,

I don’t believe that Lord Reid is the only Peer in this position, I just use him as an example of the sort of thing that goes on. Neither am I saying that Lord Reid is doing anything wrong.

But is it ethical?

Finally (for now) – Pensions. Government are forever telling us that we must work longer, pay more in and draw less out. Final Salary Pension Schemes are rapidly being replaced with Career Average Pension Schemes. So it should come as no great surprise to your that our politicians are holding on to their Final Salary Pensions like there’s no tomorrow, and for some of them there might not be.

MPs should face “exactly the same changes” to their pensions as those imposed on public sector workers, David Cameron once said in 2011.  In opposition, the Tories and Lib Dems pledged to ditch the final salary pension scheme for new MPs and replace it with one linked to prices on the Stock Market. What’s more, while raising the retirement age for 2.6 million of the country’s working women by up to two years, MPs have still not accepted proposals made in summer 2011 for their pension age to rise from 65 to 68 while they await the outcome of the IPSA review into salaries and pensions (see below).

But is it ethical?

And then today we get this headline

MPs may get £10k pay rise: But they say: ‘It’s not snouts in the trough – if you pay peanuts you get monkeys’

IPSA believes MPs’ wages are well below those of equivalent professionals working in London such as accountants.According to some insiders, officials believe a pay rise as high as 25 per cent – taking  salaries to £82,172 – is needed to give MPs a fair deal.But it is thought they may recommend a figure closer to £10,000 to try to minimise the anticipated public outcry. Public Outcry?  Would there really be any? A Pay Rise of 25%? Why would there be a Public Outcry about that?

A senior MP said he feared they would be accused of  having their ‘snouts in the trough’ but argued: ‘Voters may not like it, but if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.’

So the establishment that already pays its coffee makes more than a Probationary PC is now considering an inflation-busting pay rise of 25% for itself?  But it’s OK it’s not #SnoutsInTheTrough, they say so. To sweeten the pill for the public they are likely to demand that MPs give up their guaranteed pensions and switch to a less generous scheme.
But is it ethical?
The Oxford Dictionary defines ethical;
  • relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these:ethical issues in nursing ethical standards
  • morally good or correct:can a profitable business ever be ethical?
  • avoiding activities or organizations that do harm to people or the environment:an expert on ethical investment switching to more ethical products adopt ethical shopping habits ethical holidays.

So I guess my question has become “Are these issues above morally good or correct?”

If your answer is NO then what the bloody hell is the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner doing about it?

The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards deals with the application of the Code of Conduct and related Rules that apply to Members of Parliament.

This includes the registration of financial interests held by MPs and the investigation of complaints about MPs who have allegedly breached the Code of Conduct or related Rules.

Key responsibilities

  • Overseeing the maintenance and monitoring the operation of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests
  • Providing advice on a confidential basis to individual Members and to the Select Committee on Standards about the interpretation of the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members
  • Monitoring the operation of the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules and, where appropriate, proposing possible modifications of it to the Committee on Standards
  • Preparing guidance and providing training for Members on matters of conduct, propriety and ethics
  • Receiving and investigating complaints about Members who are allegedly in breach of the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules, and reporting her findings to the Committee on Standards
  • The Commissioner also presents an annual report to the House of Commons on the work of her office

I understand that most, if not all, of the above relate to individuals, but who the hell monitors the ethics of Parliament as a whole? Or is it just that they can fob us off with absolutely anything they choose without fear of challenge or consequences? Because that’s exactly what it feels like.