Denis MacShane: This bill is going to reduce us all in the Commons to poodles

The party leaders have crossed a Rubicon in giving up vital powers
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The Independent Online

At long last the public and the press will have the parliament and politicians of their dreams. Party leaders, Whitehall, and the secret controllers of money and media power can rest content that the transformation of the Commons into a Crufts of poodles has taken a giant step forward.

In a new bill which was rushed through the Commons last week, the relationship between voters and their elected representative has been fundamentally altered. For centuries, free citizens have elected someone to make laws and speak on their behalf. Britain shaped the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy and of freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights exactly 320 years ago. Once elected an MP could not be removed until the next election save for high crimes and misdemeanours. If he crossed the floor he stayed an MP. If he or she was vilified by the press there was no mechanism to oust him. He or she was elected by the people not by party cliques or press campaigns.

The MP could be an intellectual who wrote books and articles to advance causes. The MP could drive his party leadership wild with anger as Tony Benn did and Winston Churchill did when the Tory leadership tried to de-select him as an MP in early 1939 – in fury at his condemnation of the Conservative policy of the day. Churchill spent little time in his constituency.

Now the Commons has a new supervisory body which is a British version of the Council of Guardians – a concept instituted in Iran and other nations where the raw democracy is considered too messy.

This new body has the innocuous name of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Its members shall consist of a retired judge, a former MP and other representatives of the great and the good that Whitehall keeps careful track on. When first its creation was proposed the idea was that some external body would oversee MPs' pay and allowances. In fact, the new rules strictly reducing what can be claimed, and the requirement that all moneys MPs claim is published transparently, has already brought the fiddles and diddles to a dead stop. No GP, no civil servant, no BBC journalist, no police officer or local government executive has to meet anything like the transparency requirements that now fall upon MPs.

But as Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all sought to outbid each other in proclaiming their virtue and demanding more and more condign sanctions and controls over MPs they crossed a Rubicon in surrendering vital democratic powers. Oliver Cromwell did not abolish parliament. He handed the real authority to so-called "Commissioners". It is no accident that the new bill sets up an office of "Commissioner of Parliamentary Standards" with powers to carry out investigations into MPs on the basis of complaints from the public. The Commissioner will have the power to institute criminal proceedings and send an MP to prison if the MP does not report all that he or she is doing.

Under the new rules, MPs who write books have to report how many hours they worked researching, thinking and writing them. The same goes for written articles and so the shadow Education Secretary, Michael Gove, a fine journalist and author, has to justify his £50,000 yearly honorarium from The Times by claiming he only takes an hour a week to write his column.

Under these provisions it is unlikely that any MP will ever write a book again. They will have to record the hundreds of hours spent on book writing and their constituents will say: "What, all that time on a book when he or she could have been dealing with child tax credits!" And if the poor MP pretends that this work can be knocked off in a few minutes, an hour per £1,000, our new Commissioner can call for an investigation and remove them from Parliament.

The same rules apply to QCs like the late John Smith who could not have been an MP, let alone Labour leader under these provisions. For party bosses this is a perfect mechanism to reduce MPs to being poodles living in permanent fear of the new "Council of Guardians" and its Commissioner.

The editors and pontificators who have wallowed in the pleasure of seeing MPs squirm in shame as the expenses scandal unfolded should take a step back. If the result of this scandal is the serious, permanent weakening of parliamentary democracy, who actually benefits? If MPs cannot write books, how can they write laws?

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was a minister at the Foreign Office from 1997-2005