“Proper scrutiny” and the Panama Papers

Posted on 15/04/2016 by Jacqui McKinlay. Tags:

I run an organisation that promotes scrutiny. I’m also a communications professional by trade. It is therefore little surprise that the leaked Panama Papers have been high of my radar. It has been fascinating to see how often the words ‘scrutiny’ and ‘transparency’ feature in the reporting of the fall out. Whilst watching the media handling of the Prime Minister’s family finances has been like a car crash in slow motion.

I’ve been debating whether what we have been witnessing is  ‘Proper Scrutiny’ (my term), or not and decided a blog is a good place to share some free-flowing thoughts.

Firstly why it’s not been Proper Scrutiny: 

·         It’s not clear what the purpose of the scrutiny is – scrutiny should have clear end goal. Whether it’s helping organisations achieve their aims, contribute to policy development or challenging why certain decisions are made. I’m not sure what the end game is here. There are lots of checks, balances, rules, registers of interest already in place, do we really need more?

·         Is it all politically motivated? We are on the cusp of local elections, European referendum, Tory party leadership elections. There is a political agenda with a lot to be gained from discrediting individuals and parties.

·         Is it the ‘wrong kind’ of public interest?  I’m as nosey as the next person (ok nosier) – who doesn’t want to see where a rich person gets their money from and how much or little tax they pay? 

·         Could it have adverse consequences? We need good leaders and whilst there is an element of privacy sacrificed in exchange for power, there is, however, a risk that this level of intrusion will put even more people off from taking public office.

Why it is Proper Scrutiny:

·         This public scrutiny has been about fairness and therefore worthy of investigation.  Many feel that the same rules are not being applied and there has been advantage given due to privilege whether that is through wealth or power.

·         It is about trust. The essential ingredient in the relationship between the pubic and their elected representatives. People are quick to judge an individual’s leadership ability based on their personal integrity and how they conduct their personal affairs. It’s part of our expectation of elected leaders, rightly or wrongly.

·         We need a sense that we are all contributing our fair share. We’ll take difficult decisions if everyone is feeling the pain. With the recent memory of the proposed cuts to welfare and disability benefits and the google tax story, the Panama Papers suggest that a narrative of equitability requires a sceptical eye.

·         It could bring about changes in behaviour and attitude. Sharing personal finance/ tax information is much more prevalent for politicians in the US and parts of Europe. It may not actually tell very much but it could drive up standards.

So ultimately, if pushed, I would say it has been Proper Scrutiny – if undertaken in a messy, frenzied type of way. If the gain is greater openness, transparency and a more considered approach from business, organisations and individuals to match actions with words, and be fair and equitable, then it’s both proper and good.

About the Author: Jacqui McKinlay

Jacqui was Chief Executive of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny from 2015 until 2021.