Banking inquiry: one step forward, two steps back

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is a strange beast. It’s main good point is that a barrister will be able to question witnesses to make up for the lacklustre ability of many MPs! But this brings me to my next point: the government seems to be wary about giving MPs the power to use barristers to question witnesses. I mean, they could easily have created a joint committee and given it that power, but instead they name it a “parliamentary commission”. I mean, those don’t exist. This is an entirely new concept. The Public Administration committee in 2008 wanted to create parliamentary commissions of inquiry, but they would actually have involved outside experts sitting on the commission and is quite different. This is designed to stop precedents building up about Select Committees using QCs to question, to pick an example entirely at random, ministers.

Another, minor, point trotted out in its favour is that it can sit regardless of the fact the House is adjourned (IE during the Summer). Unfortunately, that’s also true of Select Committees. Alongside that, Select Committees can already take evidence on oath, and have done to the chagrine of the civil service. So the added barrister examining witnesses is good, but in terms of powers it’s otherwise identical to a joint committee.

Where it’s distinctly worse than a joint committee is in membership. By using this new mechanism, they avoid the Wright Reforms which empowered MPs to elect committee members. Instead, we have party leaders choosing members of this commission, leading to some rather aggrieved MPs.

Parliaments around the world have Commissions of Inquiry. We have Select Committees. Select Committees need beefing up but they have evolved to enhance their resources and independence, and are actually quite well-disposed compared with their foreign equivalents (US Congress excepted). They choose their own inquiries without having to ask a whipped majority of parliament, have a stable and increasingly specialised membership, have high quality specialist advisors, good funding, and members are elected by their parties not selected by the whips. Instead, this parliamentary commission is much more a creature of the executive.

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