In March 2019, IPSA hosted the world’s first conference for international parliamentary regulators. We brought together colleagues from 13 countries on five continents: Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Republic of Korea, Scotland, Wales, Zambia and the UK. We talked about the challenges of ‘Transparency and Trust’ in deciding how much money politicians need to do their jobs, both in terms of their salaries and their business costs.
IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, was created in the United Kingdom 10 years ago in the wake of the expenses scandal. But there have been similar difficulties in other countries, including in Australia where an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA) started operations in 2018. Legislatures in other countries were interested to learn from our experiences. At the conference, there were practical discussions about the systems we have in place to validate and audit claims for MPs’ costs. There were also conversations about the regulatory approach we adopt to balance our need to support MPs in doing their demanding jobs, with the need to provide assurance to the public that MPs are only making appropriate claims that are scrutinised on behalf of the taxpayer.
The conference included academic input led by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath. Professor Nick Dickinson of Exeter University contrasted the regulatory models in Australia and the UK, urging countries to consider accountability frameworks when designing new structures. Professor Sue Maguire of the University of Bath argued that increased transparency within parliament should extend beyond MPs’ costs to increase trust in representation more broadly, especially from under-represented groups. Dr Peter Allen, also from the University of Bath, explained that there is little evidence linking transparency and trust in democracy, and that, in a healthy democracy, one could argue that a certain amount of distrust is healthy. He nonetheless recognised the importance of educating people about politics and democracy, and that trust is harder to build if regulators and others providing information are not independent.
(Photo: Parliamentary regulators and experts discuss the importance of transparency, University of Bath, March 2019.)
We brought in political perspectives too. Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge considered transparency to be vital for building trust in the fairness and accountability of democracy. But she recognised that there also needs to be a greater understanding of what MPs do in order to help to raise trust in politicians, and that there is now a constant threat of misinformation from fake news. Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein argued that transparency does not necessarily lead to increased trust in politicians. Nonetheless, it contributed to building a sense of the fairness of the reciprocal relationship between the public and politicians so that people could trust MPs to be working in the public interest.
We were grateful for input from Westminster Foundation for Democracy too. Their Chief Executive, Anthony Smith spoke of the quality of democracy and the impact that unfairness and exclusion have on public trust in civic institutions. He argued that trust in politics is fundamental to the health of democracy and that, to win public trust, institutions must themselves be trustworthy. Duncan Hames from Transparency International UK championed transparency as a key mechanism to defy corruption, which is an abuse of power for private gain. It was therefore essential for information to be available and easily accessible to members of the public.
The conference as a whole led us to see the importance of transparency in democracy. Publishing less information about MPs’ salaries and business costs was likely to damage public trust, although there is always a risk of the media focusing on the small numbers of non-compliance, thereby damaging trust. Public bodies, including IPSA and IPEA, must demonstrate that we too are worthy of trust. This means publishing information in a way that can be understood and easily interpreted by the public. We recognised that there isn’t a single right way to carry out parliamentary regulation, and that the exact way of regulating politicians would depend on national cultural and historic factors relevant to each country. We agreed to work collaboratively with each other within our roles to support the accountability of democracy. Increasing trust is a marathon not a sprint, trust takes time to build, and politicians, academics, regulators and the media all have important roles to play in doing so.