28 May 2009

Do politicians ‘get’ transparency?

If the expenses scandal is about anything, it is about the public’s right to know what politicians do in their name and with their money.

Yet as the parties attempt to purge the transgressors, all the indications are that the same secrecy and attempted cover-up that led to the leaking of MPs’ expenses to the Telegraph, is now dominating the political parties’ actions as they attempt to rid themselves of the mistrust in which they are now mired.

Yesterday, at a time we do not know, in a place that was never formally identified, in a process never detailed, a “star chamber” of Labour stalwarts met in judgement over the (so far four) miscreant MPs – Margaret Moran, Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Ian Gibson. It seems none of the MPs turned up. We are not told if they are either allowed to be legally represented or if in the event they were.

The Labour Party has at least identified the panel investigating the MPs. Cath Speight is Chair of the NEC (the committee that notionally runs the party) – she’s a former union organiser (Amicus) from Wales but her identity and career, online at least, is subterranean.

Ann Black is known to me. She is a computer programmer at Oxford Brookes University (I served there as chancellor). She has a blogsite and tries to record Labour goings on it, but her latest entry is dated 2 April 2009.

Sir Jeremy Beecham is a big wheel in local Government, with a higher profile. I have retrieved these facts from the web.

Labour itself seems to have made no effort to profile the panel and there is no information whatever as to how it is carrying on its work, or where.

My presumption is that the Human Rights Act applies to these activities. To be candid this is a “hole-in-the-corner” process. Labour has promised “rapid and urgent action”. But are the rights of these very MPs themselves now being violated? Is the process itself in line with natural justice?

We know little more about how Tory MPs are being disciplined. Again we do not know when or where or under what rules any disciplinary committee may or may not be meeting.

The Conservative leader himself seems to have wielded the axe on occasion. Again we do not know whether legal representation has been involved, and whether what has been done conforms either with the human rights or the rules of natural justice.

In short we know very little detail about what these parties are up to on the matter of expenses, just as we knew little about what the MPs themselves were doing.

Even when it came to the House of Lords sitting in judgement over Labour peers caught in a bribery sting, we were never told when the inquiry panel met, never told what the process was. The outcome – two cleared, two guilty.

The former Lord Chancellor Lord Derry Irvine, and former spy mistress Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller were involved… but who else? Another hole-in-the-corner exercise?

And this is all supposed to be bringing transparency to bear on the expenses scandal. Don’t expect the restoration of trust in politicians if this is what they think transparency means.

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