As an MP I have not welcomed the strong strand of thinking on government and politics in the last two decades that more and more things need to be put beyond the reach of Parliament. Independence has been much in fashion. Monetary policy has to be under the control of experts at the Bank of England. Competition policy has to be under professional control. Environmental policy has to be given to an independent Agency. Financial regulation should no longer be under Ministerial surveillance. Much of this has also helped conceal a huge transfer of power to the EU at the same time, which also means unelected officials with greater sway. MPs pay and conditions must be settled by independent IPSA.
The arguments are deployed that in all these cases- and many others- that we need the experts to be in charge. Politicians, we are told are not up to the task of deciding these matters because they are so technical, or they should not be allowed to because politics could get in the way of honest or sensible judgement. A lot of my Parliamentary colleagues subscribe to that view. If you believe both those arguments then you should campaign for the abolition of Parliament. Juntas of professionally qualified people would surely be better at all important things. MPs are unlikely to have the skills and training – other than by chance – that running any great service or making any set of judgements needs.
I hold the opposite view. I think it is right that a group of non specialists, chosen by the people, should take the best advice the experts can provide, but should decide on commonsense grounds what to do and how to proceed. The MPs and Ministers can of course appoint the best talent to run public services, to hold tribunals and the rest, but the elected Parliament needs to responsible for how they get on, for the policy framework they work within, and for the most sensitive judgements. The advantage of elected officials is they can be thrown out if they get it wrong, and they can be held to account because they want to keep their jobs. There is no-one as accountable as a Minister or MP , always facing the reality that their tenure can come to an abrupt end if they cease to please.
The problem with collections of experts is they may act as monopolists. They may keep out dissenters and radicals from their profession. They can behave like the scientific establishment telling Galileo he was wrong that the earth went round the sun. They said then that the science was settled and all the other scientists agreed that the sun went round the earth. They can behave like the Bank of England on the eve of the bankruptcy of Northern Rock or RBS, telling us that it was better these banks went down than the Bank eased liquidity in the market creating moral hazard. There the elected official, the non expert, Mr Darling had to override the bank in 2008 and get them to loosen policy by cutting rates along with other countries before more damage was done.
So what will happen now, or in 2015, when IPSA intends to use its independence to put through an unpopular MP pay rise? The leaders of the three main parties rushed to establish an independent body to settle MPs pay in 2009. If you believe in independent experts then it should be left to them.If the leaders now think they are responsible still, and have a better understanding of the public mood, then they need to bring to the Commons proposals to end IPSA’s independence.
It is a good test case of how many people really believe important issues should be settled by unelected people. The case of IPSA has great symbolic importance, but the case of a host of other super powerful quangos rests on the same arguments as those for not meddling with IPSA’s verdicts. What will most MPs do? They will accept a pay rise if IPSA retains its independence and pays it in 2015. They will vote to end IPSA’s independence if their leaders decide that is necessary in the light of public disquiet. The debate seems to be now, th0ugh the decision will probably not be taken until after the next election, so it properly rests with the next Parliament or with an independent IPSA.