Parliamentarians behaving badly? Hannah White at #ImagineBelfast on Tuesday 22 March

Lockdown parties, payments for lobbying, overseas jaunts. Hannah White reckons that MPs undermine their own credibility by acting as if the rules they set for others should not apply to them. The reputation of the House Commons is in decline. And to top if all, the Government frequently sidelines the legislature.

Held in Contempt: What’s wrong with the House of Commons? is title of Hannah White’s new book. It’s also the title of her talk at this year’s Imagine! festival on Tuesday 22 March at 1pm.

So what triggered Hannah to put pen to paper and document her thoughts and analysis and all of this?

“I guess it was really just frustration with the attitude on the part of MPs. I worked for a long time in the House of Commons and, since I left there, on the House of Commons, researching it. And I’m endlessly frustrated by the fact that public trust in our Parliament is dropping. It was low to start with; it’s dropping further”

Hannah argues that there is much behavioural and procedural change that could be taken, yet “MPs just throw their hands up and say, oh, there’s not much we can do about this is there?”

Is the rot confined to Parliament, the legislature, or does it also extend into Government and political leadership at a wider level?

“I think that the way in which Government treats Parliament is a key part of why the public doesn’t hold it in any great esteem. If you look back at the Brexit period, if you look at the Covid period, really it’s been a strategy of Government trying to sideline Parliament, to get their policies through and to treat Parliament as an inconvenience rather than a really important part of our democracy.”

Could this simply be a self-correcting pattern of ups and downs that repeat over decades as different parties and different leadership come in and out of power, or is it currently out of control?

“I fear that the House of Commons is in a downward spiral. You’re absolutely right to say, in terms of politics, we have different Governments. They have different strengths and different weaknesses, but this book really isn’t a party political piece.

“It’s really saying that the 650 MPs who get elected to the House of Commons should feel they have a responsibility to the institution, to uphold the institution, quite apart from their political aspirations, what they’re trying to achieve if they’re in government or anything else. And they should do that on behalf of the public because Parliament belongs to the public, not to the MPs who happen to have been elected to it at any given moment.”

What are some of the implications?

“One is that it’s essential to good Government to have Parliament working well and respected. If Government wants to ask us to do things, like they did in the coronavirus pandemic, it was really important that Government could say to the public, we need you to stay at home, we need you to follow these rules. If the institution, which makes those rules is held in contempt, then I don’t think that the public will say, well, you know, we should follow these rules.

“And I think we saw that with ‘party gate’ that, increasingly, people were saying, well, if the Prime Minister and the people making these rules weren’t following them, then why should we. It’s essential for good government. It’s essential for trust in Government.

“And then if we look more widely around the world right now. There are people in Ukraine who are standing in front of tanks to defend their democracy. And I think it’s pathetic, really, if we just think oh well, we’ve got these Houses of Parliament, we don’t care if they don’t work very well, we’ll just let them sink into a decline. We ought to be actively defending our democracy and making it the best it can be because that’s the system of government that we believe in and that we’ve chosen.”

Devolved legislatures and devolved governments exist outside of Westminster. Does Hannah see them picking up the worst behaviours from SW1A?

“In some ways the devolved legislatures have had an advantage that they can set themselves up in the last couple of decades. They can learn from the best practice and best experience, but there is a tendency to think some of the implicit assumptions about how things should be done come from Westminster, and those get replicated without enough thought.

“And some of the same problems do exist because some of the things that I talk about are things like the way in which elected members have a tendency to think of themselves as an exception to the rule too often, and not to think about the limits, to the extent to which they should be an exception. And that is the case across Parliaments of the UK and beyond.”

Speaking to Hannah two weeks before her Imagine! talk, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was ongoing and news had just broken that for the rest of his lifetime a former Speaker of the House of Commons would not be allowed to have a pass to get into Parliament.

“So I think it’s often a get out for elected politicians to say, well, you know, I shouldn’t have to follow these rules. I shouldn’t be held to account by systems and processes because it’s the public whose job it is to hold us to account.

“You mentioned John Bercow who’s today been found to be a serial bully and a serial liar by the processes that have been set up in the House of Commons to look at accusations of bullying and harassment.

“All those complaints against him have been upheld. His argument throughout has been, these rules shouldn’t apply to me. I was just doing my job as a Speaker. And, there were ways in which you have to behave, which put people’s noses out of joint.

“Actually, I think the report today is a real vindication of the argument that you need some independent processes – as were set up in the House of Commons – to say to elected members, it’s not just whether the public re-elect you or not, because in-between the elections, which can be four or five years apart, there need to be standards that should be upheld. And the public needs systems that will do that on their behalf.

Imagine Festival is really about members of the public being able to understand what’s going on around them and being able to take action? So what can we do as ordinary citizens to hold our leaders to account, or is it a matter of them, waking up one day and realising they need to improve their behaviour?

“You can’t put it all on the public to do it once every five years and the public may have other issues they want to vote on other than those sorts of behavioural issues. So I think it’s really important for the public to think about these issues. They shouldn’t be expected to do the day-to-day HR processes.”

You can hear more about what rotten and what’s ready for reform on Tuesday 22 March at 1pm. Register for a free online ticket on the festival website, where you’ll find other talks, walks, lectures, workshops, films, theatre performances and much more that’ll be happening between 21 and 27 March.

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