The acid eating away at our democracy

Peter Facey
5 February 2009
Peter Facey (Director, Unlock Democracy): I have a sad feeling of "here we go again" looking at the cash for amendments scandal and its aftermath. Here we have another scandal which involves money and our political system. In this case that the so-called Harry Potter Four agreed to take money to put down amendments to government legislation. This comes hotfooted after the loans for peerages scandal and the various party funding scandals (as a side note, if we carry on like this we are going to have to start recycling the names of the various scandals - or at least hire better script writers to make them up).

The disturbing thing about the latest episode is not that this four have potentially broken the rules, but what they could do within them. A company or organisation can hire a peer to advise them on parliamentary affairs, make introductions and lobby for them.  So long as they do not actually put down amendments, don't speak in debates on it and tell the authorities that they have been hired, it is fine. In effect they can be super-lobbyists for hire as long as they observe certain protocols.

Now call me naive but I thought that our legislators were supposed to be there to look after the interests of the public and not their clients. But Peers are not our paid employees in the same way as MPs they only receive expenses. We need to remember that one of the great anti-corruption reforms was to pay MPs a salary to enable more people to perform the role and reduce the likelihood that they could be brought.

After the immediate aftermath now comes the reform proposals - a tightening of the rules on what Peers can do and perhaps the ability to suspend and remove peers.  This is not full bodied reform but incremental reforms that will not fundamentally change the institutions. They are necessary and overdue but will not solve the problem or repair the damage that has been done.

We need to face the fact that at the heart of our democracy is an institution that is based on patronage and that throughout its history has been intimately connected to the powerful in society. The heady mix of patronage and money has become a corrosive acid at the heart of our political system and as long as they remain we will have new episodes and each time the faith of the public in politics and our institutions will be damaged.  Each time we repair the present system the acid simply finds a new weak spot.

There is no magic bullet to solve this problem, but it isn't as if Parliament hasn't talked endlessly in recent years about what needs to be done to restore faith in politics. We need to complete the reform of our political system: caps on political donations, introduce transparency in lobbying and replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber. These have all been recommended by Parliamentary committees and government inquiries in recent years; in the case of an elected second chamber, this is something the House of Commons itself voted for in 2007. 

They don’t happen not because they are unpopular with the electorate, but because they threaten those who already have power or influence. And until we tackle them the acid will continue to eat away at the heart of our democracy.
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