At 10.30 last Thursday while we were voting or going about our usual business two veteran Politicians called Chris had a heated exchange in Parliament during the regular session on the subject ‘Business of the House of Commons’. The two MPs were Chris Bryant and Chris Grayling, Shadow Leader and Leader of the House respectively. Their exchange began with a rant by Chris Bryant which was actually quite amusing and is well worth clicking on the link to the online Hansard. Whilst the two men disagreed on nearly everything, they did find common ground on the need for people, called before Parliamentary Select Committees to attend and speak, the following is from Chris Bryants speech:
‘In recent years, some of the most destructively powerful people in the land have done their level best to avoid appearing before Select Committees of this House. The Maxwells, Rebekah Brooks, Rupert and James Murdoch, Philip Green, Matthew Elliott—they all initially refused to attend and had to be formally summonsed or persuaded to attend. Irene Rosenfeld, chief executive of Kraft Foods, point-blank refused to appear to discuss the takeover of Cadbury and got away with it. Surely that is not just a clear contempt of Parliament, but a contempt of the British public as well. Our constituents want us to hold the powerful to account, and we should not be shy of doing so. Some people think our powers are unclear, and witnesses are beginning to call our bluff, so we have to do something. In 2013, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recommended changes to Standing Orders to make it absolutely clear that Parliament can arrest, punish and fine offenders, saying that “if the problems we have identified…are not resolved…today’s Parliament should stand ready to legislate”. The Committee said that doing nothing was not an option, but that is exactly what the Government have done—absolutely nothing. So surely it is time for us to make it a criminal offence to fail to appear or refuse to appear without reasonable excuse before a Committee of this House.’
It is clearly vital in a democracy that Parliament has such powers and can as Chris Bryant suggests, hold the powerful to account. Yet it is just as important that the people to whom such power is entrusted are above reproach themselves. The day before this debate the Prime Minister was involved in a session that is supposed to be the point in each week when the Prime Minister answers questions put to him by other Parliamentarians, the transcript shows his refusal to answer questions and determination to ask them. One example out of many is:
Corbyn: …..The reality is that vulnerable people are being abandoned in this country. The Prime Minister has said that social care and support for the elderly were a priority for him. If that is the case, why has he cut £4.5 billion since 2010 from the adult social care budget, leaving 300,000 older people without the care and support they need to live in dignity?
Cameron: First, we are putting more money into social care and allowing councils to raise council tax to put that money in. I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman will have to do this one more time. He referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends. He needs to withdraw that remark. Let me give him another chance: are they your friends or are they not? Those organisations, in their constitutions, believe in persecuting and killing Jews. They are anti-Semitic and racist organisations, and he must stand up and say they are not his friends.
Another example is the exchange that took place the same afternoon when Heidi Alexander was attempting to hold the Government to account over the health reforms. the following comes from this regional ITV website
Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey got a telling off from the Speaker of the House of Commons this afternoon after being told to ‘put her mobile phone away or leave the Chamber.’ John Bercow told Therese Coffey and the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that they were being rude by using mobile phones when shadow secretary of state for health Heidi Alexander was talking. Dr Coffey ignored his warning, and proceedings had to momentarily be stopped so that he show his displeasure again. Put the device away, and if you don’t want to put it away – get out of the House. It is rude and discourteous to behave like that. As the report goes on, MPs are allowed to use mobile phones in the Commons but only without “impairing parliamentary decorum”.
These examples all from one day are for me just as much contempt of my Parliament and my democratic authority as refusing to attend a Parliamentary Committee. Politicians such as David Cameron, Therese Coffey and Jeremy Hunt have become too familiar with using the influence and power that is delegated to them to improve the nation, for the purposes of their own political and personal benefit.