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Strengthen select committees and have MPs that can hold government to account17.11.2009 // by Guest
This is a guest post by Jessica Asato, acting director of Progress.
You wouldn't know it, but politicians are actually human beings. They shop, eat, sleep and have ambitions for their future, just like the rest of us do. One of the oddly fascinating things about looking at individual MP's expenses was seeing what they spent the money on.
Apart from the extreme cases of moats, duck houses and exorbitant massage chairs, most people spent money on things we'd usually find ordinary - soft furnishings, bath plugs, and dining room chairs.
On one level, the public was furious about expenses precisely because the money was going on things we might buy, or like to buy, in our everyday lives. On another, it was interesting to be reminded that MPs aren't so different from us after all.
So we shouldn't be so surprised when Members of Parliament want to have a political career when they are elected. After all, most of us want to have a good job, with some career progression within it.
But in politics a career invariably entails ‘climbing the greasy pole' or ‘brown-nosing', and the sorts of politicians the public seems to like are those who sacrifice themselves for a life on the backbenches as a maverick - destined to have very little influence on power, but pluckily defending their particular brand of politics when they get the chance in Prime Minister's Questions or on the Daily Politics.
This is perhaps because there is really only one career path in Parliament, and that's through ministerial office. This route rewards politicians who are loyal, can keep their mouth shut and who eschew risk-taking. This leads to a dull safety-first politics, aided and abetted by a 24/7 media which leaps on the first scent of dissent and brands it a split or a u-turn.
What we need is an alternative career path for politicians which rewards scrutiny, diligence and bravery in defending the public interest. One way to achieve this would be through strengthening select committees. A good start would be to give MPs a free and secret vote on who should chair select committees. (At the moment, appointments are whipped).
This would ensure that chairs are chosen for their ability to ask difficult questions rather than whether they agree with the government. It would also confer greater independence on the reports select committees produce, which are often instructive but mostly ignored. Increasing resources for staff would also help in this respect.
Other ways of beefing up select committees would include giving them the right to initiate bills (possibly linked to citizen-led initiatives, as proposed by the Conservatives) and the right to make major public appointments, linked to the opportunity to remove said appointments under certain circumstances.
Perhaps the heads of quangos and regulators should also be subject to confirmation hearings and civil servants and special advisers should be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny in select committees too.
If it is difficult for the public to see parliamentarians holding the government to account through the barracking of Prime Minister's Questions, at least by giving select committees more powers they might develop a respect for those MPs who usually work hard but do so unnoticed outside of the chamber.
American politicians build strong reputations because of their work on Congressional committees, and while it is unlikely the UK parliament will adopt full separation of powers, little steps towards greater executive accountability would be welcome.
It might also help to give politicians an alternative career path which simultaneously helps the health of our democracy. They are only human after all.
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