Mon, 11 December 2023

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Parliamentary processes are not tough enough to hold politicians to account


5 min read

As if we needed it, last week delivered a powerful reminder of why our politics requires a deep clean.

Appearing before MPs of the Privileges Committee to defend the indefensible – the occurrence of rule-breaking parties at Downing Street during the Covid lockdown – Boris Johnson bluffed, blustered and bludgeoned his way through. And while he is left to reflect and stew over the status of his political career, we – politicians and voters alike – have to reconcile ourselves to the damage his premiership caused to the reputation and standing of our democracy.

When faced with a continuing cycle of misdeeds and bad behaviour you have to look for systemic causes and structural solutions. It isn’t enough to blame bad apples

Although, of course, recent scandals and incidents of misbehaviour are not solely the fault of one man. There is a deeply-ingrained, cultural malaise at the heart of our politics. Ministers accused of bullying and intimidation remain in office. Figures forced to resign for breaching the Ministerial Code find themselves reinstated in a matter of days. Government contracts have been gifted to mates, throwing billions of pounds of good public money after bad. We are witnessing a crisis in principles, professionalism, and practice in politics. 

On Friday I hoped to address this problem with a bill aimed at cleaning up and straightening out our beleaguered political system. When faced with a continuing cycle of misdeeds and bad behaviour you have to look for systemic causes and structural solutions. It isn’t enough to blame bad apples – though those apples should of course be removed before they spoil the barrel. The problem, as I see it, is that our processes are simply not up to the job of actually holding political actors to account. Checks and balances have emerged piecemeal over the centuries that Parliament has been in existence, adding up to a confusing array of guidelines and policies which say a lot but do very little in reality. Gaps continue to exist in how ministers' and MPs' standards are regulated: for example the Prime Minister is still the arbiter of the Ministerial Code – and their own behaviour.

To address that, my Elected Representatives Bill would have done four main things.

Firstly, put the Ministerial Code on a statutory footing. We cannot continue to have a situation in which the code is agreed on in private and responsibility for enforcement left to the Prime Minister – an individual incentivised to keep ministers away from the scrutinising eyes of the public. My bill would have brought the code out into the daylight, allowed for an open discussion of its contents, and ensured that it could be effectively and independently enforced. 

Secondly, it would have allowed the independent commissioner on parliamentary standards to uphold the Nolan Principles of Public Life. These principles – honesty, accountability, and leadership – are nothing but warm words and token gestures when we lack anyway to embed or enforce them. By giving the parliamentary standards commissioner the right to investigate breaches of these principles by MPs we could ensure they are worth more than the vellum they are written on.

Next, my bill would have created a uniform code of conduct for councillors. These individuals often represent the public’s first point of contact with our political system and yet there is no mechanism through which to ensure they are all held to the highest possible standards. This can result in a postcode lottery of performance. To overcome this democratic deficit we need a uniform code that is nationally enforced.

Finally, my bill aimed at rejuvenating and reawakening the public’s involvement in our politics. At best, one could say that voters feel apathetic towards their representatives. At worst they are overtly hostile. We need to find new ways to reconnect the public with the system that is meant to serve them – something we will only achieve by demonstrating that their voice and views matter.

I would establish an Ethics Commission to work towards the continual improvement of our political system and charge it with establishing a network of citizen’s assemblies to furnish public ideas on the way to make politics work for them. According to a survey by Compassion in Politics, two in three people (69 per cent) believe they have a right to decide the codes of conduct politicians should abide by. I believe we ought to recognise that right.

Sadly, the government chose not to prioritise my bill for debate and so it could not pass through second reading. This is a great shame to me personally but also, I believe, to our democracy. I have grown tired of hearing government officials talk a good talk about improving standards and behaviour without taking the steps necessary to achieve it. My bill offered them an opportunity to make good on their promises. But I will not be deterred. This issue is of vital importance to the future wellbeing of our democracy and I will continue to find new routes and avenues to ensure these proposals are properly debated and, one day, adopted.


Debbie Abrahams, Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth

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