Zac Goldsmith is MP for Richmond Park
Everyone has an opinion about Maria Miller. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards thought she should repay £45,800. MPs on the House of Commons Committee on Standards think she should repay £5,800. A large majority of the public, if the polls are correct, believe she should be made to step down as a Minister. The radio phone-ins meanwhile have gone berserk.
Leaving aside questions about whether or not Maria Miller should stay in the Cabinet, events have triggered a broader debate about who should police MPs. Should MPs be allowed to police themselves? Should the Standards Committee be reformed? If so, how many lay people should it have; should they have the balance of power; should they be able to vote?
When it comes to the technicalities of financial wrongdoing, it probably makes sense for a specialised independent body to lay out the facts, and make recommendations.
But what seems to have slipped the net in recent debates is the fact that we already have an independent body, capable and uniquely qualified to pass judgment on MPs. It’s called the electorate. The only difficulty, for now, is that they don’t have the powers to do so.
I have no idea what sort of constituency MP Maria Miller is, but I am certain that, in a mature and functioning democracy, her constituents should be able to hold her to account at all times, and not just at the election. If events cause a majority of constituents to lose confidence in their MP, they should have the right to remove that MP. It is a right that shouldn’t be limited to issues of expenses. It should simply be a matter of confidence.
Readers will know that this is precisely what all the mainstream parties promised before the election, when the expenses scandal really took hold.
But when it came to delivering the promised Recall system, the job was given to Nick Clegg, and it became clear early on that his “biggest shake-up of our democracy in 178 years” wasn’t going to involve giving people more of it.
Instead, he wants to empower a Parliamentary Committee to decide if an MP qualifies for Recall — as it happens, the very same Parliamentary Committee that ruled this week on Maria Miller’s expenses. What’s more, Clegg’s criteria are so narrow that even if an MP were to take a 5-year holiday, they wouldn’t qualify for Recall.
The Committee on Standards itself has said it does not want these additional Recall powers. Its members, like the public, know from experience that MPs are not capable of fairly judging their colleagues. And they shouldn’t have to.
But voters can. Indeed no one is better placed to judge the effectiveness and suitability of an MP than the people they represent.
I have made the point to Nick Clegg many times, and his answer is always the same – we don’t want ‘kangaroo courts’. But when you consider that Recall simply involves empowering constituents to hold their MP to account, it is an extraordinarily offensive thing to say. It also reveals an intense fear of the electorate.
It’s an unjustified fear, as evidenced all around the world where Recall exists and where voters display a reassuring immunity to vexatious campaigns. I have argued about Recall with a handful of MPs who disapprove of my stance on the issue. Two of them recently altered their views when they became embroiled in, as it happens, unfair controversies of their own. They realised their constituents are far more inclined to hear the arguments and consider the facts than anyone in the press or on social media.
If anything good emerges from the Maria Miller affair, it will be a build up of pressure on the political establishment to honour its early promise, to trust the people, and to adapt our democracy to the modern age.
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