How Do We Make Our Politicians More Accountable?

27/01/2017 11:08

The year 2015 was the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta (or Great Charter) which was a landmark in achieving accountability of rulers to those ruled. The Magna Carta introduced the first standards of accountability in government by forcing King John to accept the basic principle that taxes should not be raised without first consulting his (wealthy) subjects. In addition, representative councils had to be called to review the monarchy's expenditures. It will be noted that this model of accountability was one that only involved accountability to the elite and not the population at large.

As they say - the rest is history. In England, from this grew a form of constitutional monarchy in which parliament asserted increasingly greater powers. The development path was not particularly smooth because on the way we had the English civil war and the Glorious Revolution to name but two events.

So where does this take us regarding the accountability of the State in the present day. Firstly, I would like to suggest that there are two forms of accountability to consider here:

• The accountability of government (the Executive) to Parliament and to the electorate
• The accountability of Parliament itself to the electorate

Initially I would suggest we are now in an era that combines five major forces of change affecting such accountabilities:

1. Lack of trust - The first is the very low opinion and lack of trust in which the electorate holds politicians. Various parliamentary expense scandals (Lords and Commons), disgraced ministers hanging on to office and politicians generally ignoring the views of the electorate have had a corrosive effect. King John was a rotten king but recent behaviours by governments and politicians (while nowhere near as bad as John) have incensed many parts of the electorate. This is the case in the UK and many other countries and the impact must be that the public will no longer give politicians the benefit of the doubt that they might have done 30 years ago. The implications of this for accountability are significant
2. The rise of populism - possibly due, in part, to the trust issue discussed above, we have seen the rise, in many countries, of what is now termed populism. At one level this has involved declining support for traditional political parties/individuals and significant growth in support for other political parties/individuals who tend to campaign on issues such as anti-globalisation, anti-EU and anti-immigration. Three incidents of this have been: the result of the EU referendum, the rejection by the Italian electorate of the Government sponsored proposals to change the constitution and the election of Donald Trump as US President. All of these are seen as the rejection of the political elite and its views and values.

There are serious implications from these changes for accountability. One specific issue is the likelihood of there being a greater prevalence of coalition governments often in involving a number of small parties in government and the blurring of accountabilities.

3. Constitutional changes - We tend to think of the UK constitution as unchanging but things are happening. The close run referendum on Scottish independence is leading to ongoing and major "constitutional changes" manifested through further devolution of responsibilities and revenue raising powers to Scotland, Wales and NI. In addition, there are other changes such as greater independence for city regions in England, more elected mayors for local government and the potential creation of English Parliament etc. The implications of these changes for accountability need to be thought through.

4. Austerity - the continued pressure for more public services coupled with sluggish economic growth and financial austerity seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Governments will no longer be able to throw money at problems as they have done in the past and they must now maximise the benefits from use of public funds available and demonstrate to the electorate that they are doing this.

5. The media - The fifth and final force concerns the role of the media. Following the phone hacking scandal and other unacceptable media practices, it seems likely that trust in the media has also declined and this may have implications for the public perception of the media. The impact of the Leveson inquiry on the future behaviour of the media still seems unclear. However, whether we like it or not, many many citizens will get information about Government activities through the newspapers, TV and radio rather than reading Hansard or government publications and it remains to be seen whether recent events will impact on the credibility with which this information is received.

Against all of this background we have to consider the way in which we make organs of the State accountable (when they don't really want to be too accountable) and how we improve the accountability process.

Accountability of Government to the legislature and the electorate

With regard to the accountability of Government, there are a number of key issues to be considered:

• Scrutiny of policies and plans - the UK has quite a poor track record of public policy failure caused by failures of analysis. How do we open up the centre of government to public scrutiny about the way in which policy is formulated and the advice given by civil servants about policy options? How should this be done, what is the role of Select Committees, does their role need to change etc?
• Improved responsibility and accountability structures- we now have elected mayors and police commissioners in some parts of public services to offer the potential for direct democratic control over services at a local level. To what extent does this need to be extended? What will be the impact of this on the role of central government particularly in an age of populism?
• Improved reporting mechanisms - how should we provide better transparency about spending and performance in a manner which citizens can understand and without blinding them with too much detail? Government departments produce annual reports but can these always be believed or are they propaganda? Government departments also produce annual accounts that are audited but are these actually used by anyone and do they provide useful information? The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee is conducting an investigation into government accounting and in its preamble it makes the following comments about such accounts:

"It is not clear that they are of any use to Select Committees, or to the public, in holding the Government to account. Despite this, the Government spends considerable amounts of money in producing and auditing them. Yet the published accounts are used by Ministers more to promote the Government's own achievements, than to provide useful tables of figures and information. Numerous reviews over the last decade have identified poor management information and management accounts as a factor in poor decision making within Departments".

• Role of Audit - what should be the role of auditors in this environment? What should be the scope of their work? How independent should they be? Whom should they report to?

All of the above are serious issues that can contribute to improved accountability of government and need to be debated.

Accountability of Parliament to the electorate

The first thing to note is that in the UK, Parliament comprises the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The House of Lords is a peculiar British institution. About 90 of its members are hereditary peers and the others have been appointed by the Prime Minister of the day for a variety of reasons. The only reason for being ejected from the House of Lords is by committing an act of treason (ordinary criminal offences are OK) and I can't ever recall anyone resigning. They participate in the legislative process but it is difficult to see what accountability its members have to anyone other than the court of public opinion.

The Commons is different of course. We choose our MP by voting in a general election and, if we choose to do so, we can attempt to vote them out at the next election. This is also backed up by the plethora of information we can obtain about our MPs - which way they voted on certain issues, how often they attended the Commons, what expenses have they claimed. Isn't, this is the ultimate accountability which needs no improvement.

Well, not if you think that the only way you can make your MP accountable to you is to cast your vote every five years. In any case, if you live in a constituency that is a "safe seat" for one of the parties, you have no influence on who should be the candidate for the leading party who is likely to end up as your MP. Some changes have been proposed to improve the accountability of MPs to the electorate. These include:

• Holding primaries, as in the USA, where voters can have some say or express some preference on who should be the candidate rather than having someone imposed on them by party headquarters

• One MP suggested creating a recall mechanism, similar to that used in some US states, to enable constituents to vote on whether they remove their MP during the course of a Parliament.

Lastly, it is important to discuss the implications of the BREXIT process, which is ongoing and involves MPs, and the implications for accountability.

Government information on the choices facing the electorate in the EU referendum stated:

"The referendum on Thursday, 23rd June is your chance to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union. This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide".

Although the UK population voted, by a clear majority, for BREXIT, the Supreme Court recently made two key rulings:

• By a margin of eight to three, the Court upheld an earlier ruling which stated that it would be unlawful for the government to rely on executive powers (known as the royal prerogative) to implement the outcome of the EU referendum.

• The court unanimously ruled that devolved governments did not need to be consulted, and did not have a right to veto Article 50.

I am not a lawyer and, therefore, not qualified to comment on the legal aspects of this case. However, as human being with some common sense, such decisions seem, to me, bizarre. Firstly, as noted above, the electorate were clearly told that BREXIT was their decision and they voted for BREXIT. How can MPs do anything other than accede to that view without it seeming almost like a coup d'état. What choice do aggrieved voters have but to vote for a candidate from another party with whom they totally disagree on a range of issues.

Furthermore, the devolved governments seem to have been emasculated by this decision. They are being told that even though they are accountable for a wide range of public services, to millions of people, they can have no say in the most significant even that anyone alive today can remember and which will impact greatly on their electorate. Does Westminster need to consult them on anything?

We have come a long way from King John in the 13th century but the world and its institutions of government are hugely more complex. Moreoever, changes are still taking place. It seems to me that there is a urgent need to consider this whole issue of accountability of the state to get a framework fit for the 21st century rather than relying on piecemeal actions in response to the latest scandal.