The 10 scandals of Christmas

2017 has been riddled with scandals. We've taken a look back over the year and in the run up to Christmas we've picked the top 10 scandals of the year to highlight how politics shouldn't be done.

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Day 1# The Grenfell Tower tragedy: Politics disconnected from people leads to easily avoidable tragedies

While many of us are set to celebrate Christmas with our loved ones, the bereaved families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, face this holiday period without answers and in most cases without a permanent home. Six months on 4 out of 5 survivors lack a permanent home.  The slow and inadequate response to meeting even the most basic needs of survivors, shows the lack of empathy that our political system has towards the people that are in most need.

Since the tragedy, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) has time and again failed to show any empathy to the survivors. Early in the process, they attempted to ban the media and survivors of the fire from a council meeting, a decision which was ruled unlawful by the High Court. When the council couldn’t have their way, they cancelled the meeting.

Recently, the survivors issued a joint statement urging the government to create a more representative public inquiry, in which the voice of the victims could be heard by a panel with a “real understanding of the issues facing those affected”.

There are many reasons for survivors to believe that their concerns won’t be properly addressed if the inquiry is controlled by the same establishment that ignored residents’ concerns time and time again. Before the fire, The Grenfell Action Group, set up by residents, raised many complaints with the RBKC - and not just about fire safety in the tower. From calls to protect a local college, to concerns about disruption caused by improvement works, residents’ complaints fell on deaf ears.

Our democratic institutions are meant to be responsive to the needs of the people elected officials are put in place to represent, and when wealthy residents are rewarded with tax rebates and pats-on-the-back for not claiming support from the council while disadvantaged residents are ignored, it can only be concluded that this system is fundamentally broken.

How we elect our politicians - at both a local and national level - and how we hold them to account matters. The way Grenfell residents have been treated and how their concerns fell on deaf ears has shown us, amongst other things, that accessing politics and holding politicians to account is simply not possible for some people. That’s one of the reasons why we will carry on demanding that our broken first-past-the-post electoral system is replaced with proportional representation.

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Day 2# Running roughshod over the devolution settlements

December saw yet another round of failed discussion between the UK government and the devolved administrations. Throughout this year, Brexit has challenged the very foundations of our uncodified constitution, including the strained relationship between the UK government and the devolved nations and regions of the UK.

This has been most evident in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Clauses 10 and 11 enable ministers in Westminster to rewrite the referendum-endorsed devolution Acts and freeze existing competences of the devolved administrations. What this means in practice is that all power will return to Westminster from the EU - even in areas previously reserved for the devolved administrations. As drafted, the bill undermines the hard-won devolution settlements that have brought stability and peace to the UK’s people, and creates an uneasy relationship between the UK government and the devolved administrations whose First Ministers have qualified the bill as “naked power grab”.

They don’t seem to be the only ones to think so given that during the Committee Stage debate on the bill, Conservative MP David T. C. Davies, who chairs the Welsh Affairs Committee, told the Commons: “it is a power grab, of course it is a power grab, a wonderful power grab it is too. We are grabbing those powers from Brussels and bringing them back to London.”

Brexit has exposed that despite the various devolution Acts setting in law the relationship between Westminster and the devolved nations and regions, devolution remains the gift of Westminster and can be taken away. It will remain the case, until we have a codified constitution that enshrines in law the rights and principles of the devolved settlements.

Unlock Democracy believes the only long-term solution to this challenge is to citizen-led codified constitution to solve the challenges posed to devolution in the UK - and we will work in 2018 to achieve so.

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Day #3 A year of ministerial scandals shows the weaknesses of our archaic political system

The weaknesses of our archaic political system have been exposed after a series of scandals that rocked the government this year. From Michael Fallon to Priti Patel, these scandals made a mockery of the so called ministerial code of conduct. There are no clear rules, some people resign while others don’t, it just seems to be about what you can get away with.

Ex Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel resigned after a scandal erupted when BBC journalist exposed a series of undisclosed meetings that she had in Israel with Israeli politicians, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

She also visited Israeli military hospitals in the Golan Heights, which is against diplomatic protocol. British diplomats were not informed, and Patel was not accompanied by any civil servants, as as is usual. Instead, She was accompanied by a high profile Conservative Party campaigner and lobbyist Lord Stuart Polak, who organised the meetings. Patel then went on to claim in a press release that this trip was nothing more than “a family holiday paid for by myself,” despite later admitting she commissioned work on these trips.

While both of these ministers resigned, others caught up in scandals have held onto their jobs. There are no clear criteria for how ministers and MPs alike are being held to account for their behaviour. Constituents certainly can’t, with only a very limited right to recall.

Even if the code of conduct is improved, the power to trigger an investigation is still left in the hands of the Prime Minister.  Inevitably their vested interest will usually be in maintaining the facade of a strong and stable government - which is immediately undercut if they place their own ministers under investigation.

The actions of ministers have real world implications for the everyday lives for the people of the UK; the government and individual ministers need to be held to account. However, without clear rules in our political system, this has the potentiality of keep happening.

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Day #4 Money in politics: Tax-dodging peers

In 2017 money has continued to flow through our politics, influencing the process from start to finish: from decisions about what is going to be prioritised or excluded from manifestos, through to who gets the ear of a minister at fundraising dinners. Money speaks volumes, and buys those who can afford it a seat at the table.

In the last election, Lord Ashcroft, who has the dubious honour of being included in the Paradise Papers, donated half a million pounds to the Conservative party. In fact, in the 2017 General Election the Conservatives were the main beneficiary of the deep pockets of donors, receiving just under £11 million in donations over £7,500 from private individuals or companies. That compares with £4.5 million for Labour, and just £860,000 for the Liberal Democrats. That’s a huge 66% of reportable donations that have gone to the Conservatives.

Lord Ashcroft has long used his money to buy power and influence over UK politics. Since his donations started in 1980, he has encouraged policies that favoured his business interests such as the privatisation of the cleaning services in NHS hospitals and state-schools. His donations also propelled him to be the Deputy Chairman and treasurer of the Conservative Party, and ultimately granted him a peerage for life. This was given under the explicit promise of renouncing his non-dom status. However, the Paradise Papers suggest this he never followed through on this promise, and exposed that he hasn’t been paying his fair share in the UK.

A healthy democracy needs to free from the influence of dodgy donors whose deep pockets can purchase access and influence unaffordable to most voters. In 2018, Unlock Democracy will continue campaigning for reforms that will restrict donations and make sure our politics is free from dark money.

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Day #5 House of Lords: Yet another expenses scandal shows the need for reform

This year we saw yet another expenses scandal in the House of Lords. In October a investigation by the Mirror exposed that some peers had claimed more than £400k despite not contributing to debates or submitting questions.

At a time of public sector cuts and austerity, this left a bitter taste for many. Whilst this is problematic in and of itself, it also damages the reputation of Parliament and is also a sign of deeper, structural problems. As peers are unpaid there is no clear role description or clear expectations of what levels of attendance are acceptable. Some treat it simply as an honour and rarely attend Parliament, some peers only attend when relevant to their professional expertise, whereas others treat it as a full time role and participant in many debates and serve on committees.

Reforming the House of Lords is necessary to avoid new scandals arising. The House of Lords Speaker’s Committee has made some proposals this year which mainly relate to reducing the size of the Lords over time.

We’ve long called for the House of Lords to be made fit for the twenty-first century and could start with these reforms:

  1. A fully elected second chamber
  2. The abolition of all reserved places
  3. No seats for life

Let’s hope that 2018 brings reform, and we will keep campaigning for a House of Lords fit for the twenty-first century.

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Day #6: Who has a say in Brexit: the people or corporations?

At the moment there is still lingering uncertainty about what the post-Brexit future will hold. What our future relationship with the EU will look like, for example, is still up in the air. Despite there being uncertainty for most, corporations like Nissan and UBS have clearly been given private reassurances and sweetheart deals.

Concerns were raised back in August over claims that Nissan was offered a ‘sweetheart deal’ to keep production in the UK post-Brexit. The public is still none the wiser about what deal was done and whether taxpayers’ money was put on the bargaining table. Alarm bells rang again after the Financial Times reported that UBS had received “regulatory and political clarifications” that makes it “more and more unlikely” the bank would not move jobs from London after Brexit - no matter what the scenario.

Now, it’s positive that government and business work together to make sure workers have job security post-Brexit. But it shouldn’t just be business that the government listens to.  Freedom of Information requests have revealed that 70% of the meetings that UK Brexit ministers have are with representatives of businesses, increasing to a staggering 91% in the case of department of trade meetings.

When the government makes such deals, they inevitably impact the public in some way. That could be a financial impact on the public purse if, for example, commitments to subsidies are made, or regulations changed to reduce standards or workers’ rights. But there are a range of other concessions and deals that can be offered by government to coax a business into taking a particular direction - like keeping jobs in London post-Brexit, as with UBS.

At the same time that government tries to keep Parliament sidelined of the Brexit process it may be giving the opportunity to shape what the future of our country looks like to multi-national corporations that have cash to splash to gain the ear of government officials.

Unlock Democracy has long campaigned for having greater transparency on how lobbyists influence politics in our country and we won a proper lobbying register in Scotland in 2016. Our hope for 2018 is that Westminster follows in the same steps

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Day 7#: The revolving doors keep spinning: The case of Osborne’s seven jobs

In 2017 the revolving door kept spinning. Ex-Prime Minister David Cameron was appointed to lead a new investment initiative between the UK and China, after he lobbied for the fund to be setup, taking his first political role after leaving office. Cameron followed in the footsteps of serial moonlighter and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who currently is employed in seven different positions - and held many of these roles while still being an MP, which he only stood down from on the 19th April.

BlackRock is currently paying Osborne a staggering £650,000 a year for a one-day-a-week-job. BlackRock also employs the former Chief of Staff to George Osborne, Rupert Harrison. Blackrock is a global investment management corporation that may be benefiting from a number of pension and law changes that George Osborne put in place when he was in office. His other six roles include: being editor of the Evening Standard; two different roles at Stanford University; Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership lobby group; paid speaker at the Washington Speaker's Bureau; and a fellow of the McCain Institute think tank.

While Osborne’s case raises many issues, even more worrying is that far from being the exception, this is the norm. Between 2009 and 2015 sixty percent of ministers and public officials who left government to take up roles in the private sector revolved into jobs in the same field as their ministry.

Unlock Democracy has long worked to stop the revolving door from spinning. In 2018, we will keep doing so.

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Day #8 Dark money flowing through the referendum

As we reported on day 4 of our 10 scandals of Christmas series in 2017 dark money has continued to flow through politics, influencing the process from start to finish. We need limits on election expenses and transparency around donations to political parties so the electorate can hold to account political parties. We need to know they are working in the public interest, not just doing whatever private donors tell them to do.

However, a loophole in the law has allowed political donations in Northern Ireland to be shrouded in secrecy. Donors could dodge transparency provided that the party receiving their donation makes sure ‘they know the identity of the true source’ and ‘check that the source is permissible’.

This allowed the DUP to funnel almost half a million pounds (£425,000) to the Leave campaign without disclosing where it came from. The money was used to fund 4-pages of a pro-Leave advert in the Metro newspaper (which is not published in Northern Ireland). Part of that donation was also used to pay AggregateIQ, a Canadian data-analysis company which is heavily linked to the Leave campaign.

The government already passed a law years ago to close this loophole, but they never implemented the Northern Ireland section. In December this year they moved to finally close the loophole, but decided to not retrospectively publish donor data in Northern Ireland. So we may never get to the bottom of the dark money that flowed through Northern Ireland to fund the Leave campaign.

Outdated laws allow donors to funnel dark money through our political system and urgently need to be reformed. In 2018 Unlock Democracy will continue campaigning to restrict donations to political parties and make sure our politics is free from dark money.

 

Day #9 Impunity for overspending in elections

In April the Crown Prosecution Service announced it would not be pressing charges against the vast majority of candidates and election agents investigated in connection with the 2015 election expenses scandal. This failure to prosecute - despite both the Electoral Commission and Crown Prosecution Service finding the spending returns to be incomplete and inaccurate - shows that our electoral law is out of date. The low to non-existent fines for overspending or misdeclaring spending returns has become a price worth paying.

Just a month before that, in March, the Electoral Commission finished it’s investigation into the Conservative Party’s campaign expenses. It found  five offences relating to inaccurate election expenses returns of candidates and fined the party a total of £70,000. So logically it would follow that there was spending that should have been included in the candidate's return but it was not. But there is absolutely nothing the Electoral Commission can do about that because the Commission does not regulate candidate spending.

Evidence against candidates must meet a very high bar for criminal prosecution. It must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that candidates overspent on purpose. Otherwise, they get off scot-free. This approach means candidates can easily escape the consequences of fluffing their election expenses, giving others a green light to do so in future.

After the investigation the Tories paid a total of £70,000 for their wrongdoing, but this pales in comparison to the millions spent in the campaign. The problem is widespread, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats also being fined £20,000 each for breaking electoral law. The Electoral Commission itself has called for larger sanctions that are more proportionate to the huge sums spent and donated in campaigns.

The fact that political parties got away with a slap on the wrist for overspending in the 2015 general election proves that electoral law needs reform. The Electoral Commission needs to be equipped with resources to effectively crack-down on dodgy donations and overspending. British politics remains plagued by the public perception that big money can buy elections and much needed change must happen in 2018.

Day #10 No need to win an argument - MPs can just keep talking to block a policy change

Parliament should be the place in which all constituents of the UK have their voice heard, where laws are debated and important decisions are made on behalf of UK electorate. However, as we saw in November with the debate of lowering the age of vote to 16, sometimes some MPs do their best to stop key votes from being held.

This phenomenon is called ‘filibustering’ - when Members of Parliament talk as much as they can in a debate in order to delay a vote. The time for others to speak is therefore limited and a vote can end up being postponed indefinitely. In 2017 there have been three major times when some MPs have tried (successfully or unsuccessfully) to filibuster.

Apart from the debate on lowering voting age to 16, there have been two other (unsuccessful) attempts to filibuster a bill this year. In September, some Conservative MPs tried to stop a bill in order to be able to keep claiming hotels and cabs as expenses.  Earlier this year, Conservative MP Philip Davies, known for his attempts to filibuster laws that he does not agree with, attempted to filibuster a domestic violence bill by talking for 90 minutes.

The fact that MPs feel entitled to ‘talk out’ bills rather than debating the issues and working to improve the proposal is another sign of a broken political system. We need radical reform, grounded in a constitutional convention that creates a new political system designed by and for the people.

Unlock Democracy will keep campaigning for democratic reform in 2018, and if wanting a better democracy is on your wishlist for next year then why not become a member.