Wednesday, 11 November 2009

MPs Need To Earn Our Money

A new take on the expenses scandal by Andrew Alexander in the Daily Mail this morning certainly interested me. Briefly, from what he says, the majority of MPs are basically under-worked idlers leading cushy daily lives at the taxpayers' expense - and that's before their profiting from the long-abused old system of extra remuneration, particularly in the area of mortgage interest relief and house flipping, is taken into account. Even their passing, as, Alexander points out, various overpaid knights of the realm are hired ostensibly to get tough on abuses, will not impact on the soft furnishings and long holidays that is an MP's current happy lot. The article itself has much more to say on these subjects than this, of course, and is rather more complex and nuanced than I've given it credit for in this little summary, so it is definitely worth reading it fairly closely.
The row over MPs' expenses has gone from scandals to shambles in a few months.

Perhaps Gordon Brown and David Cameron really believed they could exorcise the abuses by calling in outside grandees.

But recruiting three knights from the ranks of the Great and the Good has led only to dispute and confusion.

Sir Thomas Legg's examination of past expenses may have usefully highlighted some gross and even criminal irregularities.

But he has also formulated some odd, retrospective rules of his own, which almost make you feel sympathy for MPs.

We also have proposed new rules about expenses from Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life - some ideas sensible and some naive.

Our next knight, lawyer Sir Ian Kennedy, heads the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, charged with implementing the Kelly plan.

But he says that he has ideas of his own and will consult widely, even using Facebook - which is like looking for advice in a saloon bar.

Could the confusion get worse? Yes, it could.

A fourth knight has charged into the melee. Sir John Baker, formerly head of the Senior Salaries Review Board, thinks that matters could be sorted by increasing MPs' basic pay from £65,000 to £100,000.

Do not fall for this, the most dangerous idea of all based on the scarcely sane notion that full-time politicians would improve our lives. Sadly, this belief has considerable public appeal.

Having observed MPs closely for 40 years, let me underline the basic difficulty about salaries and expenses. It lies in backbenchers effectively having two part-time jobs.

The first is as local representatives, which requires them to live in their area or have a second home there.

The second part-time job is as a legislator at Westminster. This need not be onerous, but does require MPs making themselves available on a difficult timetable.

A second home is thus a reasonable expense in a job that in any case is always at the whim of voters. Unfortunately, the system has been discredited by abuses.

Properly policed and, above all, transparent this need not be so. We do not need Kelly's complicated plan for hotel costs or variations thereof.

Transparency is the key to containing expenses, not complex new rules. MPs know that abuses will lose them votes if publicised - as they now can be.

But once one has conceded the two homes difficulty, we should appreciate that the minimum requirements of MPs' two part-time jobs still do not add up to one full-time job.

Those who believe that Members are overworked as legislators need only tune in to the parliamentary TV channel to observe acres of unoccupied green leather.

Tackle MPs on this and they insist that they are busy at other things, not least dealing with their postbags.

But this can be conscientiously dispatched in two hours a day. Moreover, MPs these days have an office and personal staff that can deal routinely with many problems raised by constituents.

We might also remember when MPs plead overwork that Parliament sits for only two-thirds of the year and that the working week there can be brief.

They are obliged to turn up on Monday, though often not until late in the day. They may well be away before too late on Thursday.

Helpful whips and the use of pairing arrangements make the week anything but onerous.

Yet many MPs claim to lead exhaustingly busy lives.

Some zealots do. But Parkinson's law, about work expanding to fill the time allotted, applies in Parliament as elsewhere.

Put any group of politicians together and they can always busy themselves arguing, chatting and scheming - nothing wrong with that, but not something for which the taxpayer should be generous.

The notion that an ordinary backbencher's job is other than part-time is quite a recent invention.

Cynics will note that the rising call for full-time pay has precisely matched the devolution of legislation from Westminster to Brussels - less work, more pay!

Outside work is not just possible but also desirable if Members are not to get even further out of contact with the real world.

There are many activities in which MPs can earn extra income, for example, journalism, law, business, accountancy and authorship.

If an MP tells you he can't find work in any outside capacity, you have to wonder why he is fitted to be a legislator.

Unfortunately, there is a growing hostility to such work from Brown and Cameron - from Brown because the Tories get more of it and from Cameron because he thinks the public dislikes it.

However, both of them also have easier party management in mind. MPs with no trade or employment to fall back on if they lose their seats are simpler to control.

This unhealthy dependence is backed by Kelly, who proposes that Members should do outside work only within 'reasonable limits' and tell their voters about it at election time.

A more woolly-minded formula is impossible to imagine. It makes you wonder if we are really making any progress at all.

Fascinating stuff, but I disagree with at least one point. While it is certainly plausible for Brown's Labour shower, given, for instance, his political vulnerability to critics from within his own party, I'm not totally convinced that the 'easier party management' argument entirely explains David Cameron's acquiescence to the ban on MPs' contract work for a couple of reasons. First, most Tory MPs had already agreed to stop contract activities long before Legg published his extraordinary report and seem if not comfortable then certainly resigned to Cameron's new order; indeed, many fully accepted it appreciating that given the public outcry it needed to be done. The smart ones needed little convincing so the 'easier party management' outcome was incidental, at least for the Tories (not so for Labour, of course).

Second, it is highly unlikely that Cameron had an ulterior motive for bringing forward new rules for his party to obey. He was genuinely eager to clean up his party's act and so he took the lead early on in the scandal and did just that, unlike Brown who has characteristically dithered all the way through and now looks the feeble, rudderless, dishonest and discredited "leader" many of us have known him to be for some considerable time. However, it is certainly the case that, as Alexander intimates, thanks to that dithering and because he is just too damn tribal and arrogant to listen to the leader of the Opposition, the resulting reforms to the way MPs must conduct themselves in public life - and the amount of work they are burdened with (or not, as the case may be) - the subsequent parliamentary reforms have Brown and his useless ministerial clan's mucky fingerprints all over them. They are already starting to look like a typical, awful Brown fudge. If past experience is anything to go by, pretty soon they certainly will be a shambles as Alexander says - and a total, disastrous, Labour shambles to boot.

But this will simply be one more mess for the Tories to clear up after Brown's trainwreck government is finally booted out. When Cameron comes to tackling it, however, he needs to make absolutely sure that his reform package includes one, key sentence: "MPs must earn, and be seen to be earning, taxpayers' money". The impression that while the rest of us work as hard as we can in our struggle to make it through Brown's bust, our elected representatives remain pampered and lazy will not be removed by abolishing second homes for London MPs and the tearing up the John Lewis list. I also believe they should do what they have been elected to do, namely, serve as a Member of Parliament representing the constituency that elected them and not 'advising' private companies under any circumstances. The fact that we actually need these new rules to force them to do their jobs strikes me as a very convincing reason for why we desperately need a large influx of new and willing blood in parliament, too!

The main point for me, however, is that I believe Cameron does understand these arguments and frustrations. It's one of the reasons why intend to lend him my vote at the General Election - and you should too. If he gets it wrong, we can always send him the way of Brown, after all. That's what's so good about democracy.

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