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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Ethics in Government tales from a practitioner

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Meg was invited to make the key-note speech at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Her contribution is below.


When asked about western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi said he thought it would be a good idea. The usual reaction to ‘Ethics in government’ would probably be along the same lines, but I would have to differ.


I believe most people live their lives making ethical judgements and usually remain unconscious of the fact. People working in the political field do exactly the same. What can be different for politicians is the effect some of those decisions can have on others, perhaps profoundly changing lives for good or ill.


Despite returning to my old university this summer for a reunion, the thought of writing an academic paper with footnotes and abstracts didn’t appeal so I didn’t. Instead my contribution is a short journey through aspects of my political life, hopefully highlighting some of the dilemmas I faced, as a local councillor, a backbencher, and a Minister in government.


Setting the scene

I was brought up in a Labour family; my father having been a local councillor for 6 years when I was born and he continued to be so throughout my childhood. My mother was also very active in the local party. Growing up in a family active in politics I was used to hearing and joining in discussions about the issues of the moment.


I joined the Labour Party as soon as I could at 15. Like many young people I wanted to change the world; poverty at home and abroad concerned me. The inequalities that I witnessed between men and women made me a strong advocate for gender equality.


In the United Kingdom the Labour Party has been described as more Methodist than Marxist, which in my case is certainly true. The twin influences of a Methodist faith and a practical bent shaped me throughout my political life.


A Local Councillor

When living in Nottingham, a city of around 300,000 people, I was asked to put my name forward to stand as a local councillor and was subsequently elected for an inner city ward. During my four years as a councillor I spent 18 months in opposition and 2.5 years in the ruling group.


Following a by-election the Labour and Conservative groups had equal numbers of councillors, with the balance of power being held by a Communist. He supported Labour to be the ruling group, but individual issues could only be taken forward with his support. 


I spent a year as Chair of the Labour Group of Councillors. Given the equal balance of the main parties in the Council, we could not bring forward policies unless they had as a minimum the acquiescence of everyone in the Labour Group. This required ensuring everyone felt their view had been heard, and that the resulting policy was accepted even by those who hadn’t voted for it. We had to learn the discipline of convincing others in the Group through sound argument. In my view this led to better decisions and outcomes.


At a time when the Conservative Government were making significant cuts in funding of local authorities I was exposed to the thorny issue of ‘priorities’, choosing where to allocate significant city resources and which to leave on one side. My view was that the Council had to provide core services that people relied upon, while forgoing funding for other desirable issues. For example that meant resources for council housing, but cutting budgets to community organisations.


Different social and cultural norms

A personal dilemma arose when dealing with communities from other countries where social and cultural norms were different to those in mainstream UK. In my inner city ward engaging with the resident Pakistani community meant talking only to the men; the women did not get involved outside of the home and extended family. So while the Labour Party was able to recruit literally hundreds of men from the Pakistani community no women joined.


As a local councillor I was invited to various events and activities arranged by organisations within the community; no women from the Pakistani community were ever present. I found this uncomfortable, being at odds with my view of the equality of men and women. I chose not to raise it publicly because I wanted to respect other people’s cultural norms, but this tension remains for politicians and others when dealing with communities where the culture and expectations are so different.


An example of this tension was the question of women only swimming sessions. Muslim women would not go swimming if there were men present. The Council considered that encouraging Muslim women to take exercise was as important as encouraging everyone else, meaning it was not unreasonable to remove the barrier to participation. But this decision was not acceptable to some who believed that Muslim women should accept the norms of the society they lived in, and not get special treatment.


Elected to Parliament

I subsequently moved back to South Yorkshire, and worked in social work management. During 2000 I learnt that the Labour MP for the area of Sheffield where I grew up was to retire. I sought selection to be Labour’s candidate and was successful, being elected MP for Heeley constituency in 2001.


It’s the voters

In the American political drama West Wing, White House staff are contemplating what to do about an unfolding genocide in the fictional African country of Equatorial Kundu and whether the US should intervene. One staffer asks, “How does the President’s Catholicism distinguish between American lives and those of the people of Kundu?” The reply was that it isn’t the President’s Catholicism that makes the distinction, “it’s the voters”.


Generally voters are reluctant to see their armed forces go to fight in a far off country. This may be despite their concern about conflict appearing to be leading to genocide, or spreading famine and disease. The resources and discipline of the armed forces may realistically be the only option, but the public mood may be against intervention.


Those supporting the use of the military may argue that the politicians should show ‘leadership’, that is, ignore the voters. Or their argument may be ‘how can you stand by and ignore the killing of innocent people in XYZ country’. Of course, the opposition to intervention are also hard at work. Views, discussions, petitions are presented in the constituency and also at national level. Lobbying is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with charities and policy groups having strong teams working to influence decisions. 


Politicians should of course listen and take account of the various viewpoints, but they are often contradictory. There will be practical considerations that come into play, determining what is actually possible. For instance it could be too expensive. Governments have competing priorities and it might not be possible to switch money to fund intervention to the level required.


Sometimes politicians are criticised for taking the approach of “what works”. Now someone did once say that you’d be mad to try and implement policies that don’t work. But the criticism is portrayed in the context that you have chosen it because it’s without an ethical basis. But all policies have ethical dimensions as do the outcomes they are trying to achieve.


Taking decisions at this level is a result of a complex interplay of forces. It takes in the morality and ethics of the individual, how that morality is or isn’t expressed in the political party to which they belong, the views of the voters as they can be determined at the time, strength of various lobbying groups. It may not be an ideal way of making decisions involving war, death and destruction it was ever thus.


Minister for Women and Equality

After the 2005 General Election I was appointed Minister for Women and Equality. One of the first things I did was bring into force the Civil Partnerships Act which parliament had passed the previous year. This Act allows same sex couples to enter into a civil partnership with rights similar to civil marriage between heterosexual couples. There is also a legal process for dissolving civil partnerships akin to divorce.


My own view is that marriage should be allowed for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. However during the period of consultation before introducing the legislation into parliament it became clear that this would create a considerable amount of opposition, particularly amongst those active in religious organisations. Questions for a practical politician then become ‘If we give this everything we have can we get it through into law’, followed by ‘If we do how will it be received’ and ‘if we can’t how will this affect the rest of our business?’


The civil partnerships we ended up with can appear identical to heterosexual marriage; however there are important legal distinctions. A civil partnership is formed by the signing of a piece of paper. Marriage on the other hand is formed by the words, which are then confirmed by the signing of a document. Civil partnerships can take place only in places licensed for civil marriages and not in a place of worship. These small but important compromises allowed the legislation to pass with the support of all the main political parties.


In my view the compromises we reached were vindicated when on the introduction of the legislation every local newspaper across the country ran the story of the first civil partnerships in their area. Indeed, the introduction of civil partnerships was generally celebrated; media organisations complained to me that they found it hard to identify anyone against them other than the same one or two vicars who were being used by all the press.


The response to the legislation demonstrated that society was ready to accept legal recognition for homosexual partnerships. The compromise around terminology and formation was appropriate. What mattered was society’s recognition of the relationship between two people, and the issues of duties and responsibilities that accompany it. 


Discrimination against discrimination?

The Equality Act 2006, which I steered through parliament, required the introduction of regulations outlawing discrimination on the basis of someone’s sexuality in the provision of goods, facilities and services. One example was that of hotels and bed and breakfast establishments that refused accommodation to same sex couples. A number of Christian landlords/landladies objected strongly to the change in the law. They felt that as this offended their personal morality they should not be required to treat same sex couples in the same manner as heterosexual couples.


The Act went much further into the provision of public services. In particular it caused something of a furore around the matter of whether all adoption agencies had to offer their services to everyone, heterosexual and homosexual. 


In the UK most adoption services are provided by local councils, but there are also a number of charitable and voluntary organisations. Some Catholic adoption agencies had refused to assess homosexual couples as prospective adopters. A major debate ensued with equality campaigners insisting that as the law allowed for adoption by same sex couples then there should be no discrimination. Others argued that the religious views of individuals should be respected and that they should not be forced to consider as prospective adopters those with whose life style they did not agree. As both campaigns developed any prospect of a compromise receded.


At the heart of the argument was the question of just how far could and should the state go to ensure equality of treatment. Does the state have the moral authority to override landlords/landladies with a particular religious belief to insist that gay couples could stay in their bed and breakfast establishment? Should religious adoption agencies be forced against their will to assess homosexual couples as prospective adopters?


While the B&B issue did not stir up much controversy outside those immediately affected the adoption issue certainly did. It reached such a pitch that the Prime Minister became involved and in the end had to make clear that all adoption agencies would have to accept the implications of the new regulations. 


Foreign Office Minister

In 1997 following the election of the Labour Government, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, gave a speech which was interpreted as setting out an ethical foreign policy. His actual words were about the importance of having an ethical dimension to foreign policy. The current Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, recently said, “It is not in our character to have a foreign policy without a conscience; to be idle or uninterested while others starve or murder each other in their millions is not for us.”


In June 2007 I became a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My responsibilities included New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific, South East Asia, the Caribbean and Central America and the British Overseas Territories.


In my new job I soon came up against an ethical dilemma. Diego Garcia is a coral atoll and the largest island of the Chagos Archipelago, about 1,000 miles south of the southern coast of India. In the 1960s the Archipelago was leased to the United Kingdom, and in 1971 the UK and the United States entered an agreement under which the latter would set up a military base on Diego Garcia.


The United Kingdom undertook the depopulation of Diego Garcia, forcing the entire 2,000 inhabitants to islands located 1,200 miles away. In their place a joint British-American military base was established.


Some 30 years later some Chagossians demanded the right to return to their homeland. Their case came to the High Court in London and in November 2000 the High Court ruled in their favour, stipulating that they should be allowed to return to their homeland. However no-one did return.


In 2002 the Foreign Office commissioned a feasibility study to assess the possibility of resettling the islands. This study concluded that lasting resettlement would be precarious. The islands are vulnerable to rising sea levels. The industries that were formally part of the island economy no longer existed, and it was not clear that any employment could be established. The very remoteness of the islands would make it difficult for anybody settled there to support themselves. This could mean a substantial open-ended liability to the UK taxpayer.


Consequently, in June 2004 the UK Government effectively overruled the 2000 court decision by an Order in Council.  The Chagossians appealed this to the High Court. Following my arrival at the Foreign Office I had responsibility for the ongoing court case.


In my view the decisions taken in the 1960s and 1970s were indefensible. But that was over thirty years ago, I had to consider what the right decision was in 2007 and for the future. Was it as simple as letting the Chagossians return to their islands, and was there a case for them to be given financial support for ever?


A number of issues came into consideration. There is a lease agreement for Diego Garcia with the Americans. While in theory the outer islands could be settled, this would need a decision at a high pay grade than mine. It certainly would not be welcomed by the Americans.


The feasibility study had identified a large liability to the UK tax payer substantial money to resettle the islands and an ongoing subsidy to the inhabitants. I knew that three of our inhabited Overseas Territories already required ongoing budget support: Montserrat, St. Helena and Pitcairn the latter with a population of just 46 Pitcairners.


Many Chagossians now live in Britain following the granting of citizenship, and although some may wish to visit the islands it is clear that few would return permanently. It is questionable that any settlement could attract enough Chagossians to develop a viable society. We know that the island of St. Helena suffers significant social problems as many adults have to leave to find work.


Despite the terrible wrong that was done in the enforced removal of the late 1960s and early 1970s I could not justify an open ended financial commitment to fund an uncertain return. After a protracted law case, in October 2008 the Law Lords found in favour of the Government in a 3-2 verdict. This ended the legal process in the UK and dashed the islanders’ hopes of return.


MPs’ expenses

You will be aware that the issue of MPs’ expenses has had significant attention. Brief background to the issue and the history of MPs’ expenses in the UK may be helpful in understanding the context.


In the middle ages parliamentary constituencies were expected to provide an allowance to the men they sent to Westminster. At the close of each parliament the royal bureaucracy would issue documents ordering the local authorities to pay. In 1327 the amount was fixed at four shillings per day for counties and two shillings per day for boroughs, plus an allowance for travelling time. In the 16th century Great Yarmouth paid part in fish.


When wealthy men offered to take on the role without being paid the practice of allowances died out. By the 17th century the typical MP was a member of the local gentry, often with aristocratic connections, who lived off the rents from his land and had leisure time to spend on politics.


By the late 19th century the number of MPs without independent means or a profession rose and political parties raised money to pay salaries. For example in 1904 the Labour Representation Committee began to support its members with an annual salary of 200.


In 1911 Parliament voted an annual payment of 400 to MPs as an allowance. A small secretarial allowance was later introduced and gradually, as the expectations of MPs increased, allowances for the employment of staff and renting of constituency offices followed.


It used to be the case that most MPs lived in London, visiting their constituencies only occasionally. In more modern time the increase in MPs living in or near their constituencies brought with it the need to fund additional accommodation. Large numbers of MPs now live outside London, spending Mondays to Thursdays at Westminster. Personally I believe this is a good thing. Life outside of London is very different and one of the strengths of our democracy comes from a strong and visible constituency link.  


The Labour Government fulfilled a manifesto commitment and introduced a Freedom of Information Act, and with that came the publication of MPs’ expenses. Like other organisations parliament was required to list MPs’ expenses against categories and not in detail. A campaigner went to court for greater detail and ultimately the court decision led to the current situation.


Every receipt had to be scanned with personal details removed. These details were stolen and were bought by the Daily Telegraph and the revelations ran for several weeks. They revealed some surprising uses of expenses, some unreasonable and some that may be fraudulent. Other legitimate claims were reported out of context and were portrayed in a way that leads people to be suspicious.


A commission was established to propose a new regime of expenses. Unfortunately the report has a number of inconsistencies and will not put in place a new regime that will stand the test of time. Nevertheless there is strong pressure to accept the outcome so parliament can move on. A new independent body has been established to determine MPs’ expenses for the future, and may also decide on pay.


The issue of expenses has been damaging to the standing of politicians and to politics in general. The public are looking for a system that is more robust and also for their elected politicians to behave ethically. Improved systems are an important part of the answer, but as for everyone who receives public money, politicians have to demonstrate ethical behaviour. Party leaders have been tough on some of the miscreants as they responded to the popular mood, but in my view they did not sufficiently defend the majority of MPs who work hard and behaved properly.  


It is my view that the test for any new system of pay and allowances should include whether it enables people from all walks of life to stand for parliament. Being an MP should not be the preserve of the independently wealthy. It should also enable people to spend time both in London and in their constituencies.


Further it should enable those with caring responsibilities to take on the role. In Westminster fewer than 20% of the MPs are women. Progress has been made over the last ten years, but this needs to continue if we are to have a parliament that looks more like the population that we wish to represent.



At the beginning of my contribution I remarked that when I first joined the Labour Party I wanted to change the world. Well I still do. But I now know more about the realities of trying to do so. Answers to political and social problems are not as easily lumped into good and bad at age fifty as they were when I was 15.


That is particularly so as an elected politician. There are many different, and often contradictory, considerations to take into account when trying to determine policy that it’s a wonder decisions get made at all. Governments do not have a free hand to do what they like during their time in office. Many plans they have when they start soon disappear, it’s the ‘priorities’ that become important.  


For instance, the question I raised earlier of how to deal with differing cultural norms when to support and when to challenge. Accepting the cultural norms of new immigrants can sometimes serve to support their integration into the host society, but it can undermine a sense of identity and values of that society. Whatever you would like to do in righting past wrongs may just not be possible.


In representative democracies we cannot just ignore the views of voters, or at least not too often. Modern technology gives voters and politicians more ways to interact. Politicians have to adapt. We have to think through how we fulfil our responsibilities particularly with those issues which have far reaching consequences.  


For my own part I think that a truly successful politician is not one who achieves passing success changing legislation that is reversed by a subsequent government. It is someone who achieves change that sticks. I know we did this with civil partnerships. It’s less clear with other changes. Ideally, being in government is about making decisions for the long term, not just reacting to those with the loudest voices.  

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