A Shakespearian tragedy: Lord Puttnam on MP expenses and Michael Martin

Lord Puttnam agrees that MP expenses need extensive reform, but takes a sceptical view of the timing of the suggested Parliamentary Standards Authority.

“It was a good idea 100 years ago, it was a good idea 50 years ago and it’s a good idea now. However, it’s almost insanely late. I did a report to Parliament in 2005 and came to the conclusion that this was going to happen and we should start sorting it now. That was in the run-up to the 2005 election. Nothing happened.”

Although party leaders attempted to reinstate the public’s faith in Parliament with the agreement over reforms on Tuesday 19 May which included modifications like capping mortgage interest and rent payments as well as ensuring that all claims are published quarterly, Lord Puttnam still believes: “They are pretty un-comprehensionable at the moment. Anyone who claims to understand what’s going on and where this is going is mistaken.”

He went on to explain that: “I sit on the Information Committee and was discussing [recent events] with the Chairman, Lord Renton. I said this is like a slalom post with no gate on the end. We are careening down an ice path and no one knows where this could go.”

The Information Committee is currently investigating how the House of Lords can improve the public’s understanding of the House of Lord’s purpose.

It is also attempting to improve the people’s interaction with the House of Lords and Parliament. Lord Puttnam, a film producer and long-time Labour politician has extensive experience with the goings on of Parliament. As well as producing films such as Bugsy Malone and Chariots of Fire, he was appointed to the House of Lords in 1997 and chaired the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill in 2007.

Lord Puttnam agrees that Michael Martin was right in stepping down as Speaker; he explains that the role is not as straightforward as some would think.

“I got to know a lot more about that job when I was doing the report for Parliament. Sitting in that chair and saying “Order, order” is a tiny fraction of the job. It is a big executive job. You are basically the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Parliament with enormous powers to both promote and prevent things from happening.”

“From day one, he was not up to the job and my feeling is that he was put in [that position] because people were fond of him and felt he was easily manipulated. It suited both the officials in Parliament and quite a number of Labour MPs to be able to hassle him and feel they could control him.”

However, he explains that Martin is not without responsibility.” I would feel desperately sorry for him but there is also a vanity in this. He was vain enough to feel he could do the job. So, in a sense he’s a victim of vanity but also, I believe, a victim of the manipulation of others. It was a Shakespearean tragedy as opposed to an actual tragedy.”

“While I’d love to give you a yes or no answer [as to whether it was right], the really guilty people here are the people who promoted him to the roll in the first place.”

He believes that the Lords were right to suspend Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor after the Sunday Times revealed that they willing to alter laws in exchange for cash, but clarifies: “The way it was arrived at slightly flew in the face of natural justice – they were advised that they didn’t need to defend themselves and at that moment, they didn’t think they were going to have a problem. Then they did have a problem and needed to defend themselves. There was a certain uncomfortableness about it.”

However he continues, “The Lords were completely right to act as they did although it was extremely difficult. What happened yesterday was really rather remarkable. It was the Lords agreeing to give themselves the power to do what was right.”

“The Lords have no authority whatsoever to prevent both guys walking straight back in November after the next term starts. In an ideal world, both men would have quietly disappeared.”

While the media has always been an important check on government, Lord Puttnam ends with: “There are instances of entrapment. But at the moment we don’t happen to have a law of entrapment.”

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