“There is no people’s bill of rights and the parliament is weak and unable to hold the government to account.”
Prem Sikka is Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labor member of the House of Lords and Editor-in-Chief of Left Foot Forward
Whether it’s Brexit, buddy contracts, the homeless, poverty, starving schoolchildren, police corruption, illegal wars or the prorogation of parliament, the UK continues to tumble from one crisis to another.
There is no people’s bill of rights and the parliament is weak and unable to hold the government to account. Constitutional reforms are urgently needed and should be the centerpiece of the next general election campaign.
Reform is needed at all levels. The first past the post electoral system ensures that the political party without the support of the majority of the electorate enjoys a large majority in the House of Commons.
Large parliamentary majorities produce elected dictatorships and allow the government to flout parliament and the people. In today’s parliament, too often the consideration of major bills is restricted and ministers rarely provide meaningful answers to questions. We all remember how the Conservative government illegally prorogued Parliament in September 2019.
Ministers routinely violate ministerial codes that govern standards of ministerial behavior, award government contracts worth millions of pounds to their friends, and deny parliament and the public the information necessary to hold them to account. A weak parliament has been unable to hold the government to account.
Monetary interests have long shaped political power in the UK, although a few crumbs are sometimes thrown to the masses to appease them. Big business and wealthy elites fund political parties. Grateful parties keep laws they deem threatening off the political agenda, even though it costs billions in public money. Governments have dutifully bailed out the banks and provided £ 895 billion in quantitative easing to City speculators. Vital services such as gas, water, electricity, railways, buses, social services have been handed over to businesses and the National Health Service (NHS) is on the table. Rather than providing public services, the state has become the guarantor of corporate profits.
These are the rewards for the elites who delivered the 2007-08 bank crash, bank frauds and debacles to Carillion, BHS, Debenhams, London Capital and Finance, Patisseries Valerie, Silentnight and elsewhere. The same elites are adept at tax evasion and face little retaliation. It’s hard to remember the petitions or public marches that called for this huge transfer of wealth to such a small clique.
At the same time, people at work are struggling to make ends meet. In one of the richest countries, 14.5 million poor people, thousands of schoolchildren suffer from hunger, too many of them live in substandard housing and at 28% of average income, retirees receive the lowest state pension among industrialized countries. Some 1.5 million households are in a situation of water poverty, and another 3 million are on the brink of the precipice. The political system has abandoned too many people.
Despite an annual salary of £ 82,000 plus expenses, too many MPs are consultants to businesses and advocate for their payers. Business interests are also integrated into the House of Lords. It must be replaced by an elected chamber.
Without a written constitution, people’s lives and rights are threatened. The government has tried to prevent people from enforcing their employment rights through the courts by charging fees. The Supreme Court declared the ministerial edicts illegal.
Even lives are at risk. The Secret Sources of Human Intelligence (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 allows the government to pre-authorize certain state and non-state actors to commit criminal acts with full immunity. These include murder, torture, rape and everything in between, as such acts are deemed to advance the national security and economic interests of the UK. Innocent victims will have no recourse to the courts.
Protests are the cornerstone of the renewal of democracies. Rather than bringing governments closer to the people, the current government will criminalize protests. The 300-page police, crime, sentencing and courts bill currently under consideration in parliament would criminalize protests deemed noisy and disruptive. Isn’t that the purpose of the protests? How else can marginalized groups draw attention to their exclusion and grievances? Even one-person protests would be criminalized. Anyone who causes “serious inconvenience” or “serious inconvenience” faces a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Stung by the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that declared prorogation of parliament illegal, the government has now tabled the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. It will undermine the right of people to seek judicial reviews. It will put major government decisions out of the reach of the courts and also allow the government to extend the scope of this cantonment without returning to parliament. There is no doubt that the government will promote the bill by saying that such powers are necessary to prevent immigrants and asylum seekers from seeking judicial review of government decisions.
Constitutional reforms are urgently needed to prevent governments from flouting parliament and the people. None of this is possible without a written constitution and fundamental changes to the electoral system, the structure of parliament and the funding of political parties.
We must restrict the power of corporations and prevent legislators from being consultants to businesses. Citizens must be empowered and a charter of human rights is necessary. The ruling elites will not like the changes, but a new social settlement between parliament, government and people is long overdue.
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