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Holding political classes to account

THE notion that new MPs should undergo ethical training would have seemed absurd only a few years ago.

Surely the whole purpose of elections was to choose people of integrity to represent communities and govern the country? Sadly, since the expenses scandal rocked Westminster, that old view has seemed hopelessly naive. Over the space of a shocking few months in 2009 it emerged that MPs (not all but more than a few) were content to exploit lax rules to line their pockets.

A number ignored the rules entirely, broke the law of the land and were jailed. Many more resigned from senior positions, were disciplined by their party or decided to step down from parliament and avoid humiliation at the hands of the voters. The scandal shattered the public's faith in the political classes. Five years on, ethical training sounds the minimum that voters should expect.

MPs should not have too many grumbles. Yet that is exactly what the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Paul Bew, faced when the watchdog body considered how Parliament could be brought into line with other public bodies.

In a report yesterday he recommended that all new MPs should undergo ethical training, warning that it could not be left to chance that they understood their duty to be honest, open, accountable and selfless. At the same time, he recognised the issue was delicate, having been told by many parliamentarians that classes in how to behave would impugn their integrity and even their common sense. Despite the anger over the expenses scandal, the old mentality persists.

MPs are different from other public servants. They should campaign and ask awkward questions. If they are constrained by unelected watchdogs, their mandate is checked and democracy undermined. But they are not above taking part in the kind of induction sessions that take place in workplaces every day.

MPs still have a long way to go to rebuild the trust they squandered. In a separate intervention yesterday, parliament's sleaze watchdog, Standards Commissioner Kathryn Hudson, voiced grave concern that MPs have yet to approve new rules on their behaviour two years after they were proposed. Tighter regulations on lobbying and new powers allowing the standards commissioner to investigate private and personal behaviour that might bring the House of Commons into disrepute have been left in limbo because it is feared MPs would vote them down. A Recall Bill, promised in 2010, has finally emerged but provides only limited powers for voters to force a by-election if their MP is guilty of serious wrongdoing. Under the Government's plans, the process will be closely controlled by parliament.

The Scottish Parliament is not perfect but it has avoided much of the damage Westminster has inflicted on itself, thanks in part to its transparent expenses system and, perhaps, a closer relationship with the public. All politicians, however, should remember they are elected each and every day, not just once every four or five years. That way, trust would be assured.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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