Letter from Westminster 29.05.09

It is not a popular view in West­minster at the moment, but it is pos­sible that the maelstrom engulfing the House of Commons over ex-penses may leave some positives and a healthier political system.

At the very least we will have a system of expenses which is prop­erly audited and transparent. Even in my time in the Commons there have been numerous attempts to exempt the House from the Freedom of Information Act. These have been seen off each time and I think we can fairly say there will be no more.

Gordon Brown now says that the Commons must stop being a “gentlemen’s club” and he is right. If he thinks that this need is limited to the governance of expenses then he is wrong and fails to grasp the scale of challenge facing us.

The whole system has got to change. What is being revealed in The Daily Telegraph is merely a product of a system where parlia-ment can be sidelined by the govern-ment of the day and where all parties operate a “whipping system”.

The power of the whips (business managers) at Westminster is enor-mous. To “break the whip” and to do what in your conscience you believe to be right is, in this system, a mas-sive step for any MP to take. The consequences are severe.

The Liberal Democrats operate a much less rigid version of this but it is still the basically the same system so last year when I broke the whip to vote in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty I had to resign my front bench job.

No-one would question the need for party discipline but when disci-pline is given the rigidity it has in Westminster it becomes unhealthy. Ministers become lazy and com-placent. Why shouldn’t they? They do not have to bother engaging in debate. They can rely on the disci-pline of the whips to win the vote.

The best example I have seen re-cently was the debate on the Finance Bill discussing a Lib Dem amend-ment to reduce fuel duty in areas with high petrol and diesel prices.

The minister answering the de­bate was Angela Eagle. After all the arguments had been put she rose to reply to the debate. Reading from a prepared text, she ignored all the arguments and ques­tions put to her. A vote was called and Miss Eagle’s disgraceful performance was rewar­ded with a massive majority. As an exercise of holding the government to account it was a farce.

Always remember also that this situation is possible because we have a government with a large majority of seats, a majority they won on 36 per cent of the votes cast. That is an even bigger affront to democracy than the whip system.

At some time the flood waters of the expenses scandal will recede. When that happens we shall have to rebuild our democratic system and put in its place a system that is truly representative and accountable. The Daily Telegraph may not have started this process intending to make the case for electoral reform but make it they undoubtedly have.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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