John Kampfner: This is no way to hold the powerful to account

Chairs of committees need to be far more assertive at the start of sessions

Share

It wasn't just the use of the first names. It was the smirk, that look of disdain that was most disquieting about Bob Diamond's appearance before MPs last week. The outgoing chief executive of Barclays had – for all the attempts of the broadcast media to hype the occasion in advance – nothing to fear. He knew he was not among equals.

I couldn't help laughing when TV correspondents predicted "tough questioning". Political journalists have been doing that for as long as I can remember and, unless my memory fails me, I have yet to see a single occasion when a parliamentary figure has made a single outsider squirm.

Over the past two decades prime ministers, on taking office, have announced that they want to give parliament more powers. The select committee system – so powerful in other countries – was the obvious route. Tony Blair promised to appear before the liaison committee twice a year, a group made up of chairs of all the various committees. And so he did. Each time he ran rings around them, with his jacket perched on the back of his chair and his schmaltzy smile. No matter how big the crisis of the moment, these supposedly experienced MPs never laid a finger on him.

On specific policy analysis they similarly struggle. Iraq? The Foreign Affairs Committee produced a lamentable performance in July 2003, letting the Government off the hook while berating the scientist Dr David Kelly, who later took his own life. Last summer's Culture, Media and Sport hearing on phone hacking – covered portentously by US networks – served only to give the impression that old Rupert wasn't so bad after all, particularly when he was hit by that shaving foam pie.

Then there are the inquiries that do not make prime-time coverage. Anoraks can follow them on the BBC's parliamentary channel. Sometimes, when the House of Lords is involved they can produce sensible, even original, findings. The joint committee on libel reform in 2011, chaired by Lord Mawhinney, was one such instance.

Other times, such as the joint committee on privacy hearings earlier this year, the lack of understanding of complex issues is embarrassing to behold. When I sat in front of the MPs and peers being questioned on the issue, I had to struggle to keep a straight face as the platitudes on internet policy reined forth. It came as no surprise that the final report managed in some important parts to be both belligerent and weak.

The culmination of these failures was the hapless questioning of Diamond and the fixing of the Libor inter-bank rate. With the exception of the Conservative former treasury adviser, David Ruffley, the banker was able to fob off his questioners by waffling and selective memory lapses. This tactic is now standard practice among witnesses. It is not hard to puncture it, but time and again they failed.

Given that the most important witnesses pay thousands to PR companies to prepare them for such events, it is surely not beyond the wit of MPs to get up on the issues and to role play in advance. What is required in these instances is sharp and informed interruptions, making it clear that nobody is taken in by selective forgetfulness. Instead, MPs seek to hide their failings through pomposity and grandstanding.

Some of the problems can be solved easily and immediately. The chairs of committees need to be far more assertive at the start of sessions, making it clear what tone of evidence they will accept and what they won't. The members should be warned to put party political allegiances to one side – easier said than done.

If the Coalition is serious about improving the credibility of Parliament, it should produce further reforms in the workings of committees. They should be given legal powers to subpoena, along the lines of the US Congress. Witnesses should be required, as has been the case at the Leveson Inquiry, to give evidence under oath.

The Leveson experience has been useful in demonstrating the relative merits and failings of both parliamentary and judicial inquiries. Even though the witnesses have been forced by law to attend and to swear to give the truth and the whole truth, some of them have either lied or been economical with the verite. The questioning by the presiding QC, Robert Jay, has been varied. At some points he has been forensic; at others, he and Leveson, seem to have been either star struck or credulous. It was frustrating to see Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell – two of the architects of the fractured relationship between politics and media – being given such a sycophantic free ride.

The important issue in getting to the bottom of the banking scandal is not who asks the questions but how? Lawyers are equally capable of being bamboozled, reinforcing a view that the establishment is keen to protect its own.

The failure of Parliament to get to grips with the many recent crises involving the misuse of money and power is exacerbating the original crimes and misdeeds of those involved. Politics has been seen, time and again, to be an ass. From spooks with their dodgy dossiers, to media moguls and their purchase of public policy through threats and inducements, to casino bankers, they have all got away with it.

The people supposedly representing voters, our members of Parliament, have publicly and contemptuously been swatted away. The nature of the power relationship has been laid bare for all to see. As a result, the already low credibility of our democracy has been further undermined.

After the expenses scandal, it is a stretch to imagine that politicians are capable of distinguishing between right and wrong on financial transactions. They are hardly equipped, as a group, to arbitrate on issues of probity. But in the end we have nobody else, unless we believe that all important issues must be sent to the courts.

Morality is one thing, expertise is quite another. The unpalatable truth is that those who have been running our big corporations and banks have got away with it, because they knew that they were always one step ahead of the politicians. My suspicion is that, once a few heads have rolled, they will return to their old ways. They know where the true power – and brainpower – lies.

John Kampfner is author of 'Blair's Wars' and 'Freedom For Sale'

twitter@johnkampfner, jkampfner.net

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition