Sunday 15 February 2009
Alan Watkins: It's MPs who have questions to answer
Berating bankers fails to discharge the heavy responsibility the Commons bears for this financial crisis
The grandfather of Edward Gibbon was a director of the South Sea Company when it collapsed in 1720, bringing about the loss of large sums of money. The great historian's ancestor was forced to repay £96,000 by Parliament, a lot of money in those days, as it would be today by the standards of most people.
In his autobiography, Gibbon treated his grandfather fairly; some would say, generously. He wrote: "No sooner had the nation awakened from its golden dream than a popular and even a parliamentary clamour demanded their victims: but it was acknowledged on all sides that the South Sea directors, however guilty, could not be touched by any known laws of the land."
The House of Commons then acted by means of retrospective legislation. The prime minister of the time, Sir Robert Walpole – invariably described as our first prime minister – had dabbled in the South Sea Bubble himself but had got out before the crash, leaving him to supervise the persecution of the directors and to enjoy a further two decades of political power.
Somehow I do not foresee Mr Gordon Brown lasting as long as this. At Prime Minister's Questions, he has started to rant. The Labour backbenchers yell "More, more," as they have been taught to do by the Government whips, as if they were performing dogs, which is what they mostly are. They were going through the motions. The game is now up.
The most telling moment of Wednesday's half-hour occurred when Mrs Angela Watkinson, the Tory member for Upminster – who does not thrust herself forward much – asked the Prime Minister about one of his recent financial appointments. The person concerned, so Mrs Watkinson alleged, had been involved in certain irregularities in the United States.
At this stage no names were mentioned. Mr Brown confined himself to replying that the appointment was temporary merely. We were none the wiser. We were not even better informed. Within hours, we were told that Mr Glen Moreno was the person in question, that he was (or had been) a big noise in the Pearson publishing group, and that he had now left the government service.
This was the second financial adviser of the week to lose the Prime Minster's patronage. The first was the deputy chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Sir James Crosby. He had fallen foul of the Commons Treasury committee, which had examined the heads of the leading banks on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. It emerged that Sir James, by all accounts a favourite of Mr Brown, had given a lowlier financial adviser the sack when they had both been employed by Halifax Bank of Scotland. This subordinate had proffered cautious, even prudent advice which was not to Sir James's liking. The other explanation was that he and his colleague were the victims of a "personality clash" – a cant phrase, as it has been for some years now, in the law and practice of employment. So two advisers, Sir James and Mr Moreno, have taken their leave. There may be others. Who can tell? Who indeed!
Credit belongs to Mrs Watkinson, in the House of Commons, and, I suppose indirectly, to the chairman of the Treasury committee, Mr John McFall. It belongs to Mrs Watkinson for embarrassing and inconveniencing the Prime Minster. That is was opposition MPs are for. Indeed, it is
what all MPs are for, though only a few members on the Government side, such as Mr Robert Marshall-Andrews (who will be much missed after the election) avail themselves of this privilege with any degree of regularity.
About Mr McFall and his committee I have more reservations. In fact – by which I mean, as people usually do mean, in my opinion – the entire committee system, as it has been developed recently at Westminster, is open to question. The pioneer was Norman St John-Stevas as leader of the House under Margaret Thatcher. The foundations had been laid by a previous Commons leader, Richard Crossman, under Harold Wilson.
Lord St John (as he duly became) adopted a system of "shadowing" departments or areas of policy, though particular ministries came and went according to the political fashion of the moment. The older committees – Public Accounts, Estimates, Nationalised Industries – had built up a level of expertise among their members, who continued to overlap with the new system. The Nationalised Industries Committee, however, became defunct with the rise of privatisation in the 1980s and the succeeding decade.
The new committees were anxious to cut a dash, make a figure. They behaved like features editors, or even news editors, anxious to get on to the front page and to see other papers "follow up" their stories, in the argot of the trade.
Even before the explosion of specialist committees William (now Lord) Rodgers, as chairman of the trade and industry committee, had summoned before the committee representatives of British firms who were accused of paying low wages in South Africa. This had nothing to do with South Africa or, for that matter, with British industry. A group of industrialists, who had broken no law, and whose conduct might or might not be reprehensible, were summoned before a group of MPs to be harassed. Their qualifications were by no means self-evident any more than were those of the Treasury committee in recent weeks.
People are fond of proclaiming that the House of Commons is sovereign. It is nothing of the kind. The Queen in Parliament is sovereign, subject to the legal restrictions we have accepted through the European Communities Act 1972 and subsequent legislation.
Certainly a House of Commons resolution cannot affect the law of the land. There was a case about this before the First World War. It involved a journalist and eccentric Thomas Gibson Bowles. The Bank of England had deducted tax from his dividends following a Budget resolution. He objected; the courts upheld his claim, and the government passed the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act. It exists to this day, and enables the Inland Revenue to go into action as soon as the Chancellor has sat down after the Budget, or shortly afterwards.
The question arises about what the bankers would have done if they had refused to attend last week. More to the point, what would the Treasury committee have done? No doubt the attempt would have been made to imprison the bankers for contempt of Parliament, also known as breach of privilege. In the past 30 years or so, the attempt has been made by Parliament itself to tidy up the practice of breach of privilege, usually in favour of the citizen on the outside. The judges have responded like startled rabbits, saying in their courts of law: "Nothing to do with us, guv."
So there was the spectacle of a collection of formerly lionised bankers being insulted – not very well – by a collection of ignoramuses and party hacks. What was more objectionable to me was the previous week's sight of a group of financial journalists, together with Sir Simon Jenkins (who takes the world as his parish) being asked by the same people whether they had brought about the present financial crisis. The MPs should be asking themselves first.
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