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Meddling that matters: parliaments and corruption in defence

Written by Oliver Cover on Wednesday, 4 September 2013

It was once said that Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more of less idle people. In proportion as you give it power it will inquire into everything, settle everything, meddle in everything. But does this apply when talking parliaments and their curbing of corruption in defence and security?


It was once said that Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more of less idle people. In proportion as you give it power it will inquire into everything, settle everything, meddle in everything. But does this apply when talking parliaments and their curbing of corruption in defence and security?

Walter Bagehot, one of the brains behind the Economist in the 1800s, once said that Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more of less idle people. In proportion as you give it power it will inquire into everything, settle everything, meddle in everything.

Does this apply when talking parliaments and their curbing of corruption in defence and security? Not really. Idleness simply won’t do. Neither will executive action that marginalises parliamentarians. On the contrary, they should be more empowered in a range of functions that can make a difference to levels of corruption risk in the defence and security sector. They should be able to debate, oversee, and legislate.

Legislation helps stem corruption risk at source. Putting requirements for transparency of the defence budget and freedom of information into law gives citizens the ability to understand and question government actions. If these abilities are denied, the government is acting unlawfully and this becomes a red-flag for corruption risk. Legislation may prevent the shadows of secrecy—potentially rife in the sector—from darkening the areas in which corruption may breed. And laws can structure defence procurement, formalising procedures rather than letting them occur at whim.

In many countries, parliament is embodied with the chief oversight function compared to any other institution. But what is effective oversight? Bagehot’s quote helps provide an answer. To ‘inquire’. To ‘settle’. To ‘meddle’. In terms of corruption risk in defence and security these are no bad things:

  • To inquire means that legislators ask the right questions at the right times – probing why defence policy is the way it is. Who made the decisions? Do they have vested interests?
  • To settle means to help make the decisions. A parliament able to veto and sign-off on defence expenditure can prevent centralised powers acting solely in their own interests.
  • To meddle means to modify and pester. Legislators equipped with the power to close loopholes on legislation in which corruption may arise are more empowered parliamentarians. So are those free to order defence officials, and even officials from the intelligence services, into open or (less preferably) closed hearings to explain their actions. A meddling legislature is a headache to a corrupt actor wishing to operate far from the public gaze.

Finally, parliaments can debate. And debate on defence is meaningful. Recent debates in India on nuclear deals with the US almost brought down the government. In the UK, some parliamentary speeches after the 2003 war in Iraq helped shape public perceptions on the rights and wrongs of the decision to invade. And parliamentary discussions in main chambers and committees that expose or address corruption scandals put the issue where it needs to be: at the level of national debate.

Yet a report to be published in September 2013 by Transparency International’s defence team (TI-DSP), shows that many parliaments lack the power, resources or will to properly oversee their defence sectors. Either parliamentarians lack the political will to curb the risk themselves or, equally worryingly, they are emasculated by the executive – made poodle not watchdog. In the report, governments, parliamentarians, and civil society are all offered practical suggestions on how scandals can be prevented – and how legislative bark can be replaced with bite.

Ensuring legislative control of the defence sector is as strong as it can be is vitally important, where budgets are huge, and corruption is known to cost billions of dollars. Expectant electorate and taxpayers have every right to know that their votes and taxes are used effectively.

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Read 25098 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:47

Oliver Cover

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