Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
As the Hutton report highlighted, the most critical political issue of the day is this: how to find a way of holding the government to account. Finding out what government has done in our name, and holding it effectively to account for those actions, is no straightforward matter. But, counter-intuitive though it may seem, the truth is that in Britain we have as good a solution to the problem of government accountability as democracy has yet discovered. The scandal is that we lack the will to use it.
That solution is not, of course, to turn to the judges. Most judges remain terrifyingly pro-executive, as Hutton amply demonstrated. All government has to do is whisper the mantra “national security” in the judicial ear and judges will, to a man, roll over. Since 11 September 2001, for example, the government has falsely claimed that now is a time of “public emergency threatening the life of the nation”; it has unlawfully decided that it is laudable to indefinitely detain without trial those whom the home secretary believes to have links with international terrorism (a term that is more broadly defined than ever before). When this was challenged in court the judges simply rolled over.
They should not be blamed for this. Hutton did his job: it is the job of the judiciary to support the state; it is not the job of the judges to hold the government to account in respect of politically sensitive actions or decisions taken in the interests of national security. Criticising judges for being pro-establishment is like disapproving of footballers who play to win. It is lofty, but prissy and ultimately pointless.
Holding the government to account is the job of Parliament. If, post-Hutton, we are alarmed at the way Downing Street manipulated intelligence to suit its political agenda, the responsibility for putting this right lies in Parliament’s hands. If, post-Hutton, we are disturbed by the government’s bullying of broadcasters, the solution lies with Parliament. If, post-Hutton, we are fearful of how badly the intelligence services appear to have misunderstood Iraq’s military capabilities, then, again, the solution lies not with any judge but Parliament.
Britain’s constitutional arrangements are unusual in this respect. Few other European states endow their parliamentary assemblies with the powers available to Westminster. It is the absence of such powers in the EU that allows the European Commission to get away with its monumental budgetary mismanagement (and, indeed, corruption).
In most European states parliamentary assemblies have only one task: to enact legislation. In Britain, this is not the case. One way – the most televisual way – Parliament holds the government to account is through prime minister’s question time. While question time has long since become little more than a Punch and Judy show, it does remain hugely potent as a symbol. It is a weekly reminder of the most elemental rule of the British constitution: that the prime minister and his government may remain in office only for as long as they continue to enjoy majority support in the House of Commons. The minute that the government loses such support is the very minute it must resign from office, as Jim Callaghan’s model behaviour exemplified in 1979.
Despite the high profile given to it by the media, Parliament’s record should not be judged by reference to the rituals of question time. Parliament is a far more effective scrutineer of government than question time would suggest. Its best work is undertaken well away from the media’s glare, away even from the floor of the House of Commons. Unglamorous and largely unreported they might be, but the House of Commons select committees are the best method we have of holding our government to account.
The committee’s powers are considerable. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons provide that committees may examine any aspect of government “expenditure, administration or policy”. They decide for themselves the issues that they should investigate. The government cannot tell select committees what they can and cannot inquire into. In support of their work they have the power to call for any persons, papers or records; ministers may be compelled to appear before them. These are real powers, enshrined in constitutional law; they are not mere conventions. No one should underestimate the extent to which these powers allow Parliament to scrutinise the government.
Certainly, the Blair government does not underestimate these powers, as was demonstrated by its whips” clumsy (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to influence the membership of the committees in the aftermath of Labour’s 2001 election victory. To its great credit, the Parliamentary Labour Party did not let the whips get away with this, and the committee chairs whom the government had sought to oust were reinstated.
The widespread expectation that the scale of Labour’s majorities since 1997 would weaken the ability of Parliament to subject the government to scrutiny has not been met. Indeed, there are significant ways in which the government is held to account more effectively than has ever been the case before. A new practice has developed, for example, whereby the prime minister must subject himself every six months to interrogation by the House of Commons liaison committee.
For all the plusses, however, two caveats need to be entered. One is an issue of substance; the other of personnel. As to the first, the one major area that Parliament still cannot effectively scrutinise is the intelligence community. National security and secret intelligence remain off limits. There is a committee, called the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), that John Major established in 1994. But while parliamentarians serve on it, the ISC is not a committee of Parliament and does not possess the same powers as are enjoyed by the committees of the Commons. Unless and until Parliament’s scrutiny is allowed to penetrate the murky world of national security, the intelligence community and the government it ostensibly serves will continue to avoid accountability.
The second caveat is that whatever the issue, whether it is national security, public services or economic policy, Parliament’s scrutiny can be only as effective as the Members of Parliament make it. The 6m question is whether we have sufficient numbers of MPs that are up to the job. Clearly, some are. Tony Wright and Gwyneth Dunwoody, to name but two, have proved themselves to be fearless at leading the select committees they currently chair (public administration and transport, respectively). But how many Labour MPs consider that their job is to subject the government to searching scrutiny, rather than blindly supporting it in times of trouble? And how many Labour ministers accept that the job of the party’s MPs is to hold the government to account, not merely to follow obediently through whichever lobby the government instructs them to pass?
There is a dark side to this government’s relations with Parliament. While the amount of Parliamentary scrutiny may be said to have improved under Blair, the quality of that scrutiny has been threatened as never before. The ability of individual constituencies to select candidates that may dare to express disloyalty to the government is more constrained than ever before. The people who become MPs tend not to do so because they aspire to a career on the select committee corridor, but because they want to become ministers; and we all know that the only way to become a minister is to please the whips, and through them, the prime minister. The party machine is a beast that, if we are not watchful, has the power to destroy our system of Parliamentary accountability. Reconstructing the aims and the organisation of our political parties so that they learn to cherish, rather than to expel, their most critical members, is an essential task if Britain’s heritage of Parliamentary accountability is to survive. If we fail, we will have no one to hold the government to account save for the dismal likes of Lords Hutton and Butler. Is that really what the Labour Party wants?Adam Tomkins is professor of public law at the University of Glasgow
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency