In the absence of the Brown package for Parliamentary democratisation, I propose the Meacher package as a prototype for a fresh Labour start. Clearly it must begin with cleaning the Augean stables of the expenses scandal. The most serious misdemeanours exposed are (i) flipping the designations of homes for no other demonstrably plausible reason than the maximisation of financial gain, (ii) avoiding capital gains tax on the sale of a house or flat, often again by changing the designation from a second home to a main home, (iii) charging for a phantom mortgage, (iv) furnishings or other accoutrements on a scale far beyond the strictly necessary requirements of a second home for Parliamentary purposes. All those who fall into these categories should be dealt with quickly and very firmly, irrespective of rank, by the party Star Chambers, and where appropriate by the police and the courts. Curiously, however, neither the Telegraph nor anybody else has raised one further issue: if an interest-only mortgage is obtained for a second home and the State pays the interest for the duration of the mortgage, should not the whole of the capital gain (not just the 18% capital gains tax on the rise in its value) accrue back to the State? But parallel to this process of cleansing the current momentum should be used to push forward quickly the radical programme of restoring democracy and accountability to Parliament that the public is demanding. It should contain 16 points.
Beat this one! Francois Barrault, the head of BT’s Global Services division, was paid £O.55m in June last year because the company was so anxious to retain his services. Then 4 months later they paid him a further £1.6m, but this time in order to get him to leave. He received this enormous sum because under Belgian law (he is Belgian) he was entitled to a payment equal to his average bonus over the last 3 years. It gets worse. He shouldn’t have received bonuses at all because the Global Services division, so far from being a money-spinner, was actually a disaster zone which it is now going to cost BT £2bn to rectify. One response to this farcical saga is that clawback provisions should be written into all such contracts, another is that bonuses should be postponed till the end of the transaction when the true outcome can be evaluated. But this misses the point.
As the media and the public continue to pursue MPs with visceral hatred (and the bankers only slightly less so since they can’t be got hold of so easily), attention is drained away from recent extremely serious new evidence of direct UK involvement in killings and torture either as a result of UK corporate or government negligence or connivance. The cases reported are extremely disturbing, partly because they well be merely the tip of the iceberg, but mainly because the lack of public clamour about them indicates that the moral conscience of the nation has become badly weakened and calloused. It is reported that the Home Office has returned two asylum seekers to the Congo who on arrival were badly beaten and tortured for weeks on end and are now diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The obvious question arises how many others of the 10,000 asylum seekers from the Congo have already been sent back to ‘degrading and inhumane treatment’ or are likely to be sent back under current policies? There are also unanswered allegations that MI5 has been involved in deliberate torture sessions in at least 3 other countries under the so-called War against Terror programme. Does this show that the British Government’s repudiation of torture is merely a figleaf?
Wow! The 77 bus never comes along, and then suddenly there’s 4 of them. Suddenly we have more radical packages of reform of parliamentary procedure in 3 days than in the last 3 centuries. Yesterday Cameron’s, today Clegg’s – where’s Brown’s? Better upload quickly the constitutional proposals from their airing nearly 2 years ago in July 2007, since when they’ve been on the skids. Meanwhile the big idea of Jack Straw, the Cabinet’s constitutional guru, is to give more help to Pivate Members’ Bills – big deal, Jack, at least 1 0ut of 10, but when are we going to hear from the Government about measures that will decisively change the balance of power between Executive and Legislature, i.e. the real meat of Parliamentary reform? Tessa Jowell is proposing open primaries for the selection of Labour candidates, open to any constituent who has not already registered as a supporter for another political party. She calls this ‘porous boundaries’, but what is to stop them becoming so porous that it lets in opponents of the Labour Party who have never actually registered support for a rival party, but certainly do not support Labour values? At least Nick Clegg’s proposals get nearer to the heart of the matter in making a major shift of power in Westminster, though they still have flaws and omissions.
The announcement yesterday that RBS, 70% owned by the taxpayer, has just offered shares worth £5m as bonuses to 4 of its top bankers is really provocative, following on from the £700,000 a year pension which the Board recently offered to the ousted chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin. It’s true that critics have complained that the performance criteria for these awards are not sufficiently stretching, but that’s not really the main point. The real point is that a bank which lost nearly 95% of its value in the stockmarket because of the almost insane recklessness of its now disgraced chief executive doesn’t deserve to have bonuses paid at all when it has already cost the taxpayer no less than £45 billion to bail the bank out in the first place. The claim of Stephen Hester, the new chief executive, who is himself being paid £1.2 million a year, that the RBS has lost top staff as a result of the clampdown on bonuses is not an argument for the restoration of the discredited bonus culture, but rather an admission that the market cannot produce a fair system of rewards without wholly unjustified excesses. But there are deeper issues here too which are not being addressed.
When I first heard of David Cameron’s Open University speech today, it took my breath away. Having campaigned for years to bring about a genuine parliamentary democracy instead of the cover for No.10 autocracy that it is, I could scarcely believe that a Tpry leader was promulgating many of the radical reforms that I and others have been demanding for years, but to no avail. But then a cold shudder of reality hit me. Does he mean it? And even if he does, will he be able to deliver even half of what he’s proclaiming now? When last did a Prime Minister give up his own power? And are all these spine-tingling calls to arms a contrived rhetoric which taps cleverly into the longing post-expenses scandal for a new and decent politics, or are these real thought-through commitments which will survive the euphoria of electoral victory? If the latter, why have we heard nothing along these lines from him before in the last 3 years when he has been leader?
The most interesting point about Alan Johnson’s support today for a referendum on PR electoral reform is why he chose this time to announce it. It can hardly be to deal with the expenses scandal since electoral reform would not affect it. He says that the public is now ready for this change, but he does not indicate any evidence to justify that. He denies it was part of a leadership bid, and it surely wasn’t directly that, but it does highlight him as someone within the leadership who is concentrating attention on a positive agenda, and that can do him no harm. It would however be better if he focused on the Parliamentary agenda that really needs attention – remedying the abject weakness of the legislature in holding the Executive to account. There are several reforms here that could quickly be implemented.
Today’s news that the Home Office intends to ram through by statutory instrument a major and highly contentious curtailment of civil liberty by retaining the DNA profiles of innocent persons for up to 12 years, contrary to to an ECHR ruling, is not acceptable. The police currently hold on their database the profiles of 850,000 persons who have been arrested, but not charged or found guilty. Many of them feel they are being branded as criminals when they are not, and that retaining the profiles in these circumstances will simply discourage people from giving blood samples in future because they may be stigmatised as a result. There is therefore considerable public misgiving about this proposal as it is, but now to find a ‘safe’ route to push it through the Commons via a statutory instrument committee and thus avoid a vote of the whole House is both devious and cowardly. The Home Secretary should think again, not least when public anger is already at boiling point over MPs’ expenses.
Amidst all the juicy stories about MPs’ expenses which now command wall-to-wall coverage, there’s another issue which is of far greater importance for the people of this country, but which has been drowned out into invisibility. It was reported yesterday that M4 money stock is now flat. Admittedly, it’s not the sort of news to make the nerves start tingling or to set the heart racing. But it ought to be, and it should be on the front pages of the papers, not ignored or tucked away on p.35. What it means is that the latest check on corporate and household lending growth found that it is now almost zero. The implications are that, whatever bounce-back there may be in City shares on the Stock Exchange, there are no real green shoots where it really counts – in the economy. And what that means is that unemployment will continue to grow for a long way ahead, businesses will continue to collapse for lack of credit, and home insecurity and repossessions will continue to rise. Above all, what it means is that the Government should now urgently be recosidering whether their current policies to counter the recession are really working. They patently are not. And unlike Mrs. T’s claim, there is an alternative.
It was once said that there is more joy over one sinner who repents than over 99 just men. So we must surely welcome David Miliband’s latest offering at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies yesterday that The West must “show greater respect” for Muslims if it is to rebuild relations with the Islamic world. Pity of course that that wasn’t said 6 years ago before the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. Pity it wasn’t said 6 months ago before it became clear that Obama was likely to win the US Presidency. But the FCO knows its place – following in the wake of whatever twist or turn there might be in American policy, Bush one day and Obama the next, even though they’re advocating almost diametrically opposite policies. But this delayed opportunism really won’t wash if Britain is ever again to exert any real influence on the world scene, for four very good reasons.
New Labour never gives up on forcing the market on the NHS. But who, I wonder, was aware that last month was the date by which the Department of Health required Primarty Care Trusts (PCTs) across the country to split their commissioner and provider functions under separate governance structures, in order to make another giant step towards developing the market in the NHS? It is being done as quietly and secretly as possible because this latest plan revisits the highly contentious ‘Commissioning a Patient-led NHS’ proposals of 2005 which were introduced without consultation and triggered such anger across the health service that Patricia Hewitt was forced to back down. Since then the Government has said repeatedly that there will be no further reorganisations in the NHS. Yet what is being proposed now is that the delivery of school nursing, stroke rehabilitation or community mental health services is being put out to the private sector or new organisations like social enterprises. Yet again the Government, hardly in the strongest position politically, is picking a fight which can only increase its unpopularity.
In the light of calls now being made for the democratisation of Parliament, a cross-p[arty group of 33 senior Parliamentarians, drawn equally from the three main parties, have signed a letter to the PM calling for the election of chairs and members of Select Committees by Members of the whole House by secret ballot, in order to increase the independence of the House of Commons’ powers of scrutiny and to strengthen the Legislature by bypassing the patronage of the Whips. This is more than a symbolic change. The PLP Chief Whip recently decreed that nobody who had voted against the Government in the last year should be eligible to serve on a Select Committee, even though confining membership of these committees to loyalists would largely rob them of their whole purpose which is to hold the Government effectively to account. But the letter makes other demands too.
In all the maelstrom leading up to Michael Martin’s resignation, the real issue was not MPs’ expenses, horrendous though some of them were, but rather the very rationale for Parliament itself. What is it for? It’s one thing that MPs made greedy claims, for which they should now be held fully to account; it’s quite another as to whether they were performing any function for which they deserved payment at all. Their fundamental role is to hold the Government to account. It is a task which they have manifestly failed to achieve for several years now, even a decade or two. What is now needed is not only very tight control over a moderate level of expenses explicitly specified as strictly necessary for the job, but a major redrawing of the role to give real substance to the job in order to justify payment by the electorate/taxpayer in the first place. How should that be done?
Yesterday’s report that the MoD is still rebuffing the case for a public inquiry into the deaths of four young army recruits at Deepcut barracks in Surrey, all found dead with gunshot wounds, raises again the critical question of who should have the final power of enforcing an inquiry into a contested issue that has national implications. In the case of 3 of the deaths, the coroners recorded open verdicts, and in the 4th no inquest was held. In one of the cases an independent ballistic expert has asserted that it would have been impossible for the recruit to have killed himself. Army Board of Inquiry reports found Deepcut barracks was starved of resources, had low morale, allowed armed teenage recruits to spend many hours on guard duty unsupervised, and was so indisciplined that recruits broke rules by going out on patrol alone. All these findings might have relevance to the 4 deaths. In addition, the latest report states that an NCO took a ‘warm’ weapon (i.e. a gun just used) from another soldier, which had not been known before, and equally could be very relevant. So should the Government have the right to turn down the inquiry which all the parents want and for which there is a strong prima facie case?
The crisis over MPs’ expenses is concealing the other major disaster facing the Government before the summer if it doesn’t change course. Yesterday’s report that Royal Mail had doubled its annual profits to £321m raises again rather sharply whether it is really wise or necessary to part-privatise it, or whether that merely represents Mandelson’s obstinately clinging on to an increasingly discredited New Labour ideology. Rather than welcoming Royal Mail’s growing success within the public sector, he chose to draw attention to the huge increase in the pension deficit from £2.9bn to £6.8bn. But what he failed to note was that this results entirely from the irresponsibility of successive Governments (Tory from 1990-97 and then New Labour from 1997-2003) in taking employer contribution holidays away from the pension fund. Mandelson is now losing every argument over Royal Mail, and it’s no longer a rational discussion over what is the best policy. It is Mandelson digging in regardless of the arguments to save face and what is left of a crumbling New Labour privatisation programme. But for that he needs the Parliamentary numbers, and he doesn’t have them, as our campaign has shown.