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Yes, Westminster

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post
June 18, 2009
From: http://constituentassembly.blogspot.com/2009/06/yes-westminster-bipin-adhikari.html

"Although most British people do not think of any other form of government for their country, there are many who agree that the Westminster system that they have been practicing needs reform from within. While the reform process has been on for more than a decade, in a recent statement to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was compelled to expedite changes on a range of subjects including expenses of the members of parliament, freedom of information and modernisation of House procedures on a priority basis."

While Nepal's Constituent Assembly (CA) is considering whether it should endorse the parliamentary system that Nepal has been practicing for many years or go for a new system when it writes the country's new constitution, the need to reform parliament is also on the agenda of Westminster and Number 10, Downing Street, the office of the British prime minister.

Although most British people do not think of any other form of government for their country, there are many who agree that the Westminster system that they have been practicing needs reform from within. While the reform process has been on for more than a decade, in a recent statement to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was compelled to expedite changes on a range of subjects including expenses of the members of parliament, freedom of information and modernisation of House procedures on a priority basis.

The prime minister said his government planned to introduce legislation that could see a shift from self-regulation of the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament — and subsequently the House of Lords — to an independent and statutory regulation. A new Parliamentary Standards Authority would be given the power to regulate MPs' allowances and the House of Commons would be asked to agree on a code of conduct for MPs in order to increase their accountability.

Gordon Brown emphasized, "There will be consultation with all sides of the House to come forward with new proposals for dealing effectively with inappropriate behaviour, including potentially the options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct identified by the new independent regulator and the House itself." His proposal on the expenses of legislators came in addition to those already in place with cross-party agreement, such as the requirement for all spending to be receipted and incomes from second jobs to be fully accounted.

Apart from this, the British prime minister also assured, what his predecessor Tony Blair pronounced more or less as early as 1997, his determination to set out proposals for public debate on five major issues in the coming months: reform of the House of Lords to an elected House, introduction of a written constitution, devolution of power from Westminster, reform of the electoral system and increased public participation through electoral registration and greater engagement of young people, including a potential lowering of the voting age.

He also said, "Our proposals will also be informed by leading external figures, including academics and others who command public respect and have a recognised interest or expertise in the different elements of democratic reform."

These renewed assurances are coming up following the resignation of Michael Martin, speaker of the British House of Commons last month. Martin had to resign under growing public pressure against his inability to check the ongoing financial misconduct in the House. For the first time in history, the British people read in the Telegraph that their legislators claim reimbursement from the government for everything from cookies and pet food to installing chandeliers, cleaning of a moat and even mortgage payments. They were surprised that many lawmakers employ family members as staff, allowing them to charge numerous routine household expenses to British taxpayers.

These revelations also disclosed how legislators used public money to fix a tennis court, pay for an ornamental bird house or furnish lavish second homes. Some of these claims were said to be legally valid; but some, like claiming mortgage payments for mortgages that had already been paid off, could spark criminal charges. No doubt the House of Commons has faced an unprecedented public backlash, with voters especially incensed that public funds were squandered amid a deep recession that has sent the country's unemployment rate soaring.

It is rare in Britain for a speaker to resign. In fact, it is happening for the first time in three centuries. The last speaker to be forced from his position was Sir John Trevor who was found guilty of accepting a bribe in 1695. In a sharp break with British tradition, the speaker was asked to step down from the powerful post citing lack of leadership on his part. He was blamed for creating a climate in which such excesses were allowed. The press also alleged that Speaker Martin actively attempted to block Freedom of Information requests which would have exposed the unacceptable billings, charged to the public coffers, by members of Parliament and of the government.

Under British tradition, speakers usually choose when they retire, and are generally not subject to the whims of the electorate. Tradition dictates that major political parties don't field candidates in the speaker's constituency. They are usually treated with great respect, and criticizing them publicly is just not done. Unlike in the U.S., where the speaker of the House of Representatives, the counterpart of the British House of Commons, is often a partisan advocate for the majority party, the British speaker is supposed to be impartial and independent of government. U.K. tradition calls for the speakership to alternate from one party to the other whenever the post is open.

Even if the prime minister has shown his determination to bring the (sovereign) parliament within the legal regime, he is being pressured to call an election (due in mid-2010) as soon as possible, offering voters a chance to kick out lawmakers who have abused their expense accounts. He has rejected such a call, and has decided to respond to the pressure for reform through cross-party dialogue and legislative process. That reform will inevitably clean up the system of allowances, especially the second home perk under which MPs claimed for furnishings and gardening costs, and probably end the system of self-regulation by the Commons.

There are many activists, especially from the opposition benches, who think that a wider shakeup is needed. Compared with their colleagues in the United States Congress, British legislators have less power over the public purse, less power to create legislation, less power to investigate and just as much time to fill.

In recent years, some sort of populism has crept into British parliamentary discourse as well. There are some who want the power of the prime minister to dissolve the House of Commons to be regulated. Others have been championing the cause of a fixed term parliament (as in America and Germany) — doing away with the power of the prime minister to discipline the House. Some want it stipulated that no prime minister or minister can serve more than two terms. There are still others who want at least some percentage of all parliamentary legislation to be reserved for private members' bills.

Noble thoughts, indeed; but there is no guarantee that they will work. There are many parliamentary democracies, take India or Australia, for example, where such untoward incidents hardly happen because there is a centralized system of finance and auditing in place, thus giving no premium power to legislators. Even in Nepal, the constitution does not give (financial autonomy) to any constitutional body which relies on appropriation from the national treasury.

A clean-up of the British parliamentary system in this regard is long overdue; but reforms that do not go well with time-tested parliamentary parameters might not work just by wishful thinking. There is a risk for sure. It will also send a very negative message to other parliamentary democracies around the world, inviting deeper crises in the way institutions will be refashioned to solve problems. Britain, after all, is home to the mother of parliaments that traces its origins back at least 800 years.

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