An end to patronage and the salvation of politics

Published by The Independent (2nd March, 2015)

As the fat cats emerged blinking in the spotlight, they were forced to confess corporate guilt over helping wealthy clients cream off money belonging to the state. Yes, we are ashamed and suffering ‘horrible’ reputational damage, said the HSBC chairman, while the chief executive admitted his own arrangements with payments through a Panamanian account might seem ‘unusual and rather strange’.

Rather strange? That was one way of putting it. But it was good to see this hapless pair squirm and wriggle last week as they were interrogated over their bank’s shameful behaviour. They were clearly uncomfortable as misdeeds from money-laundering to mis-selling of mortgages were catalogued by the Treasury Select Committee in the House of Commons. ‘It’s a terrible list,’ bleated Douglas Flint, the bank’s chairman.

Then later that day Revenue and Customs chiefs were grilled, committee members again looking far from impressed as they queried why more wealthy tax-dodgers had not ended up in the dock. Labour and Tory MPs alike pressed hard, rightly asking why floundering tax officials seemed to give preferential treatment to big businesses and rich individuals.

The sessions highlighted the high-profile role now played by Commons’ select committees, so crucial given the arrogance and lack of accountability of multinationals, quangos and some regulators. Last week also saw the Energy Committee publish a punchy report on price comparison websites, while a Culture, Media and Sport Committee analysis of the BBC’s future pointed out that the licence fee has limited shelf life in the emerging media age.

It is noticeable that over the course of this parliament many of the most dramatic moments in Westminster have come in select committees rather than in the chamber. Think back to the questioning of Rupert Murdoch over his newspapers’ activities; the ineptitude shown by the coke-snorting ex-chairman of Co-Operative Bank; the evasiveness of Amazon and Starbucks over dubious tax arrangements; or the revelation by a former senior officer that police forces fiddle crime figures.

This is a welcome change. Politicians rarely get much praise these days. Often they bring this on themselves, as with the latest scandal over cash-for-access involving two former foreign secretaries. Then there is the dreary tribalism of daily politics, with party hacks terrified of departing from pre-agreed lines, plus the childishly pathetic antics and planted queries on display in the weekly jousting that is Prime Minister’s Questions.

Yet select committees show what happens when the power of patronage is broken and, away from the public gaze, party lines dissipate. Yes, there is some showboating when there are high-profile witnesses and intense media interest, and party politics intrudes more as a general election appears over the horizon. But in the main these bodies do precisely what the public want politicians to do: work together in non-partisan style to hold powerful institutions to account on behalf of the electorate.

When Norman St John Stevas launched the concept of these committees as Leader of the House in 1979, he claimed to be embarking on the most important parliamentary reform of the century. The aim was to reclaim powers from the executive. But for many years they were largely ineffective, posts doled out by party whips as consolation prizes for failure to find preferment. As Tony Blair adopted a more presidential style of government, select committees finally started to find their voice.

The big change, however, came at the start of this government when the power to appoint committee members was stripped from whips, with elected chairmen awarded an annual stipend, opening up an alternative career path for more free-thinking MPs. This coincided with a strong intake of new members, who have shown welcome rebelliousness and resistance to robotic party dictates.

The result is that select committees are displaying increasing authority, courage and independence, especially when they have a strong chair. At the helm of the Public Accounts Committee, Labour’s Margaret Hodge has emerged as a political celebrity with her onslaughts on-tax dodgers, while the likes of Andrew Tyrie at Treasury and Rory Stewart at Defence have won cross-party admiration.

Former GP Sarah Wollaston told me that shortly before winning her Devon seat in 2010, a Tory whip asked what she would like to do if elected. Responding that she wanted to join the health select committee to use her expertise, she was told she must “prove” herself first. In other words, the post would be a reward for toeing the party line regardless of her qualifications. “It was my first indication that the system was not what I expected,” she said.

But after winning her seat, this fiercely independent figure  was chosen for the committee under the new arrangements. Now she is chairwoman, her experience often demonstrated in her handling of witnesses. Yet she is so disillusioned by Westminster’s games that she also told me she would have stood down in May had it not been for the evolution of these bodies. That would have been a loss on many levels.

Wollaston was also selected through an open primary. And there is a wider lesson here for Westminster at a time of public disillusionment, especially relevant as parties retreat into rigid election mode. Select committees show what happens when the anachronistic party system breaks down, when politicians are permitted to work as they would largely like and the electorate expects. They are far from perfect – but they offer a glimpse of how politics should operate in the modern age.

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