A more accountable system of government

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's post-election Cabinet reshuffle is now complete - and what a collection of "cronies" has been advanced. The whole process of forming a government, with its interplay between the Commons and the Lords, between private advisers and ministers of the crown, highlights the deficiencies of our informal democracy as it has evolved into the 21st century. It is important to clarify, however, where those deficiencies lie.

Tony Blair's post-election Cabinet reshuffle is now complete - and what a collection of "cronies" has been advanced. The whole process of forming a government, with its interplay between the Commons and the Lords, between private advisers and ministers of the crown, highlights the deficiencies of our informal democracy as it has evolved into the 21st century. It is important to clarify, however, where those deficiencies lie.

The House of Lords should not be a resting-place for Downing Street loyalists whose chief qualification is to have failed as ministers or lost their seats. It should be a vigorous check on the power of the Commons, a forum for more considered discussion than highly pressured MPs customarily have time for. It should, we believe, be at least partially elected.

Not all the criticism of Mr Blair's new government, however, is justified. There is patronage which is encouraged, even necessitated, by the inadequacies of our system, and the quite unwarranted granting of personal favours. The two need to be kept distinct.

While the heaviest critical fire has been concentrated on Mr Blair's elevation of his policy adviser, Andrew Adonis, simultaneously to the Lords and to a ministerial post at the Department for Education, this dual appointment belongs more properly in the first category. As a wide-ranging education specialist, Mr Adonis is well qualified to be a junior schools minister. His views may not be universally shared in the Labour Party, but Mr Blair clearly rates his expertise and wants him in an executive position: that is his prerogative.

A problem arises because, in our political system, a minister must also be a member of the legislature. In many countries, MPs are disqualified from ministerial office; our system works differently. The peerage is not ideal, but it offers one way around an inflexible system. It also has the advantage, in Mr Adonis's case, of making publicly accountable someone who was hitherto operating in the obscurity of special adviserdom. It is now up to him to show what he can do.

Mr Adonis deserves the benefit of the doubt. But by no means all the new appointments stand up to scrutiny. The ministerial post at Defence for Lord Drayson is a quite unjustified advance for a generous Labour Party donor who was once awarded a multimillion pound government contract without having to tender for it. Beverley Hughes, who resigned after admitting that she had unwittingly misled the Commons, could reasonably have been left on the back benches. Misleading the House, knowingly or not, is a betrayal of trust. It is not a trivial matter.

The most disgraceful return, however, is that of David Blunkett after just a few months in the wilderness - a wilderness, it should be noted, in which he continued to benefit from a grace-and-favour residence and ministerial Jaguar. True, he was not found personally to have fast-tracked a visa in which he had an interest. But his office was found to have been involved and no interest had been declared. As home secretary, Mr Blunkett was responsible. That Mr Blair detected no stain on Mr Blunkett's integrity that would bar him from high office suggests the same weakness of judgement that permitted Peter Mandelson's double rehabilitation. Our democracy gives prime ministers great discretionary power and relies upon them to exercise it wisely. The way Mr Blair has handled key decisions suggests more statutory checks and balances would not come amiss.

Our campaign for democracy is not just about a fairer electoral system, it is about a more accountable system of government altogether. The many letters we have received so far shows that this is an aspiration that is widely shared.

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