12 May 2009

MPs' expenses and Britain's reputation overseas

Big Ben clock tower and the Houses of Parliament is seen behind a statue of Winston Churchill in central London - Reuters“Good governance is based on three things – capability, responsiveness and accountability,” the Department for International Development (DfID) declares on its website.

The government department which funds anti-corruption programmes in developing countries goes on to say that it uses this assessment, as well as “promoting good governance and transparency, and fighting corruption – to make choices about the way in which we give UK aid”.

So what, I wondered, would DfID’s response be to the expenses scandal embroiling the Mother of Parliaments?

The British government is seemingly squeamish about using the “c” word – corruption. “Bad governance” is the preferred euphemism. But surely it helps if the nation promoting good governance is clearly seen to practise, um, good governance? Regardless of whether MPs’ claims were “within the rules”, politicians from across the House now acknowledge the system needs an almighty clean-up.

The phone of the Head of DfID’s anti-corruption team rang and rang and then went to voicemail.

“It’s not one for us,” said the lady in the press office, when I asked her to put me in touch.

“What, my question’s too… nebulous?”

“Yes, that’s the word,” she said. “We deal more with policy issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office might be able to help you as they deal with our reputation overseas.”

The FCO press office response to that – and my question – will just have to stay off the record.

The campaign group Transparency International proved more forthcoming. TI fights what it calls “the devastating impact of corruption around the world” – and “the rot” in the mother of parliaments has drawn its ire.

Recent revelations about irregularities in MPs’ expense claims grievously undermine the legitimacy of Parliament,” TI claims.

Its director for external affairs, Robert Barrington, went further. “For the international anti-corruption movement, it is undermining our moral authority,” he said, reminding me that the expenses debacle comes on the back of the cash-for-peerages and the BAE slush fund scandals.

“These things do have international resonance. People are looking at Britain in a different way.”

Britain is ranked 16= on Transparency’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index – down from number 12 the previous year.

Not too bad out of 180. “It’s a pretty blunt instrument, Robert Barrington says, “but, yes, I would expect the expenses row to be reflected in the next ranking.” It’s due out in September, he says. “There’s no evidence that Britain’s standing on any of these issues has improved.”