Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sleaze: Time to stop the dancing round the handbags

Sleaze has been firmly off the agenda at Prime Minister’s Questions for the last two weeks. “If you mention Hain, I’ll mention Osbourne…If You mention Conway, I’ll drag up Hain, Alexander etc” has led to a sort of stalemate situation. ...The parliamentary equivalent of dancing round the handbags or “don’t mention the war”. The three party "beasts" have bitten so many chunks out of each other than there is now an uneasy truce.

In one way this is quite wrong. The Conway scenario should have been aired at PMQs. However, there will be a debate on Derek Conway, led, oddly, by Harriet Harman, herself not exactly in the clear where “sleaze” allegations are concerned.

In another way, this “score draw” situation may hopefully at last lead to some meaningful reform. I hope so. It is a cliché to say that reform is overdue and that the parties ought to get together and agree ways forward. But now is the time.

The “Sleaze” allegations have all glued together into one amorphous mass in the public’s eye, leading to that old moan: “They’re all in it for themselves – they’re all as bad as each other”.

However, if you separate out the various strands of “sleaze” you are left with disarmingly simple solutions to reduce (but never, of course, eliminate sleaze). All it needs is the will to implement. Hopefully, the slugfest we have seen recently will, at last, lead to implementation of reform rather than continued schadenfreude enjoyed by one side or the other – usually for a short period.

...Taking each main type of “sleaze” from the last few years in turn:

Cash for honours

Simple solution. Make the Second Chamber wholly elected, for starters. Goodness knows why on earth Labour haven’t done it already. The late Robin Cook spent a year as leader of the House trying to achieve an elected second chamber. He wrote half of a book about it (the unexciting half, as it happens).

Dodgy donations

Sits alongside number 1 in terms of both symptoms and solution. We need an elected second chamber but also a radically reduced limit on political party spending. It is utterly ridiculous that you have to scrimp and save on paperclips locally during a general election to meet the very low spending allowance, while massive spending (and for what? Some ludicrous posters and adverts which cancel each other out) is allowed at national level, and these two levels merge so that, for example, the national spending limit can be used to put up massive posters in target constituencies and even advertise in local newspapers.

I don’t have an appetite for publicly funded political parties. I don’t think the public has either. But it is crazy that the parties can spend so much, especially when they are obviously spending beyond their means in that they have to take donations from unsavory sources (LibDems included) and often run up huge overdrafts in order keep up with the spending “arms race”.

The proxy donations problem has got to be solved by making it an offence to give or receive money from another source in order to donate it to a political party.

Expenses/allowances alleged abuse

The whole House of Commons expense and allowance regime needs to be reformed. It is not rocket science. If the House of Commons simply adhered to standard policies and practices which have been enshrined in normal companies for many decades, a whole host of problems would be solved at a stroke.

For example, in companies (except for family businesses without public shareholders) it is unheard of for someone to manage or employ their spouse or partner or family member. It is a complete “no no”. No one should have the power to set the wages or supervise the work of a family member or partner in a public limited company. I have known people moving departments as soon as a relationship has started, to avoid impropriety. That said, by putting the control of "pay and rations", performance metric-setting and annual appraisal under the Speaker's office or under the Whip for each party, there could be a way of properly separating the daily task management, of family members working for MPs, from elements of management which, when conjoined, could lead to impropriety.

It is frustrating that these simple solutions have not been implemented yet. I can only hope this situation is rectified with great urgency.

Going off at a tangent, the Conway revelations are just breathtaking. Obviously a police investigation is about to start. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that.

And they’ve got to come up with an offence yet. You can’t blame an employee if their boss didn’t demand any or much work from them. You can't blame a boss for not demanding any or much work from an employee if they didn’t profit personally from the situation (i.e if the employee did all the benefiting). So, in the alleged hypothetical situation who has done the fraud? Or is it conspiracy? In which case there would have to be evidence of conspiracy, which would be very difficult to prove.

Unity at Ministry of Truth has done a very thorough job of cataloguing the Freddie Conway alleged “workload”. Obviously, for any case to stick, it would, presumably, have to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt that no or hardly any work had been done. This would be difficult. It’s difficult proving the absence of someone when there is insistence that something (i.e work, in this case) existed. The onus of proof is with the prosecution. However, as Unity has revealed, the Conways have set up one defence that might be relatively straight forward to disprove, if it is not true. They said that little Freddie (despite allegedly not sending a single email and allegedly not doing a single piece of word processing and allegedly not even knowing the name of his father’s secretary) did his research work in Newcastle University Library where he prepared newspaper cuttings and sent them to his father.

Derek Conway doesn’t get a lot of press. He doesn’t feature on Iain Dale’s “media tarts” list often. Cutting up his press coverage would take about two minutes every week. I suppose you could argue that Freddie also cut up articles about relevant matters. Really taxing work, that. I bet he needed a stiff rum afterwards (but "none of that Lamb's shite", of course)

However, I would have thought it is actually possible to check how much time dear Freddie spent in the library through swipe card records, CCTV or witnesses. However, goodness knows whether he was in there doing his normal University work or parliamentary work. The whole thing is bizarre but I somehow would not put much money on a successful prosecution. We shall see.

One thing that did surprise me is how the Conway offspring left their Facebook and Bebo profiles up and running until as late as Tuesday. They must be mad. Surely they had enough warning of all this, didn't they ? And how about that Christmas family photo when they knew all this was brewing (it’s been going through the parliamentary committee for months).

It is all quite astonishing.

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