Why the convention of ministerial accountability to Parliament overrides any ill-feeling between two politicians
Chris Bryant MP has been a persistent thorn in the side of both David Cameron and News International over the years. Recall that it was Bryant that asked the question around payments to police back in 2003. There clearly is a huge amount of bad blood between Cameron and Bryant, and it boiled over at Prime Minister’s Questions. In response to a question about undisclosed emails, the Prime Minister responded:
Mr Speaker, before answering this question, I would like hon. Members to recall that the hon. Gentleman stood up in the House and read out a whole lot of Leveson information that was under embargo and that he was not meant to read out, much of which about me turned out to be untrue, and he has never apologised. Do you know what? Until he apologises, I am not going to answer his questions.
This raised a number of eyebrows, and led to a sharp follow-up from Jim McGovern MP
Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister comes to the Chamber at 12 noon each Wednesday to answer Prime Minister’s questions. Is it in order to for him to say that he refuses to answer a question?
Mr Speaker: It is entirely up to Ministers how they respond to the questions posed. I understand the concern and frustration that underlies the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but the responsibilities and powers of the Chair are not engaged on the matter. The House can make its own assessment, and everyone else can do so as well.
McGovern’s point would apply to any prime minister of any political party. While it may be entirely up to ministers how they respond to questions, to blatantly refuse to answer a question from an elected MP not only shows contempt for the MP but for every single person in that MP’s constituency. Our convention is that when a constituency returns an MP to represent them in Parliament, the MP represents everyone in that constituency, not just the people that voted for the winning candidate.
What precedent does this set for every other minister in Cameron’s Government? Do they now have carte blanche to say: “I don’t like that MP so I won’t answer his/her questions”? Some might say obviously not, but Cameron is in a position of leadership – not just of his own party but also of the country and the political establishment. He is in a place where he can set the tones and conventions of behaviour as to what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. The same was true with Gordon Brown – such awful behaviour is not restricted to one political party.
If Parliament cannot hold the Government to account, what is the point of Parliament? If ministers can get away with dismissing what might otherwise be awkward and difficult questions that go to the heart of how Whitehall functions and how ministers conduct themselves, doesn’t it show a contempt for Parliament – and the people?
I’d like to think one of the reasons societies establish conventions of manners is that it helps people get on. Good manners and politeness cost nothing. Yet time and again we see examples from the political class that set an extremely bad example to the rest of us. Does such behaviour reflect badly on the educational establishments that such individuals went through? You hear about poor teachers and bad schools being blamed for various problems in inner city UK, but can the same be said for expensive public schools and oxbridge when it comes to the behaviour of bankers, corporate bosses and politicians?
In a hierarchical organisation, there is an onus on those at the top to set good examples to everyone else. Respect has got to be more than just a slogan. In the workplace, I found that the managers and ministers that had the most respect for their staff were the ones that got the most out of them. Individuals were more likely to go that extra mile for those that treated them with dignity and respect than those that did not. Perhaps that doesn’t go down well with the macho mindset of those testosterone-fuelled silos within Westminster and Whitehall (or big business and The City), but then I can’t say I’ve ever been comfortable in aggressive workplaces.
As far as accountability to Parliament is concerned, what else can MPs do? So intertwined are the relationships between Parliament and Government – remember about a sixth of MPs are part of the Government that Parliament is supposed to scrutinise, that no motion of censure would ever get passed. It’s not like in a court where in certain cases someone can be compelled to disclose information. If a minister refuses to disclose information, they refuse to disclose information. End of. It’s a bit like the ministerial vetoes under Freedom of Information – which depressingly the Government are using more and more often, the latest example around the Prince of Wales. Prophetically, we have already seen what could happen if a royal becomes political:
In a nutshell, if politicians want to win back the respect of the people, they could start with treating each other with respect. That example starts from the top. Unfortunately the recent behaviour of both the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip does not fill me with confidence.