Thursday, April 09, 2009

The scandal of MPs expenses – and the solution

It is really all quite simple. Cranmer is bemused that the issue has become such a hot potato and the proposed solutions such a rabid dog’s breakfast. When the Home Secretary’s 88p bath plug becomes more of an issue than this Labour government’s saddling of the taxpayer with £1000,000,000,000s of ‘toxic debt’, we are in the realms of such hyperbolic disproportion that there is a danger of political imbalance and democratic instability.

The Jacqui Smith affair has opened the floodgates of media revelations and the sluice gates of dirt digging. The United Kingdom is not known for its revolutions, but its political class is now widely perceived as being every bit as aloof and contemptuous of the people as those élites throughout history who have variously been deposed, imprisoned, tortured or executed. If today (God forbid) the nation were to descend into another civil war, Parliament would find it very difficult to amass its Roundheads, for there is no obvious Cromwell. Indeed, even Cranmer – a true Whig and dedicated parliamentarian – might find himself on the side of the Cavaliers, defending the sovereignty and honouring the divine anointing of Her Majesty.

When ‘Let them eat cake’ was uttered during a period of famine by a callous and increasingly unpopular monarch, it is said to have precipitated the French Revolution. ‘Let them pay for my bathplug and my husband’s porn’ is not quite as catchy, but it exemplifies precisely the same sort of disdain during a recession which risks provoking anger and stirring the commoners to revolutionary action.

Parliament is despised and politicians have lost all respect. The people are losing their faith in democracy, and there is no-one to restore it. And it is not simply over expenses, though that issue is bad enough. But now we have the stories of ‘Empty seats in Parliament’, whereby absenteeism from select committees appears to be as endemic as absenteeism from the Commons chamber. Apparently MPs ‘routinely skip’ important meetings, even claiming their personal animosity for their committee’s chairman as a valid justification. Well, Cranmer is not particularly enamoured by the Speaker of the House of Commons, but he would never use that as an excuse for not being where his constituents put him and his party expects him to be.

And Mr Fawkes has news of a new ‘scam’ breaking, for it also appears that ‘MPs are renting out buy-to-let properties that they own, to members of their own staff, to whom they authorise payments out of parliamentary expenses. Laundering their expenses via their staff back into their own pockets.'

A Rachman Parliament indeed.

MPs are able to conveniently employ their family members, bill their second-home mortgages to the taxpayer, bill their expenses to the taxpayer, bill their ‘John Lewis List’ to the taxpayer, and, with stamp duty, they are even able to bill their taxes to the taxpayer.

And then there are rumoured to be some ‘career-ending receipts’ due to be published in the 2005-2008 list of parliamentary expenses: ‘The word is that the MPs discredited by disclosure will be spread across both parties. The Tories will find their own sleaze in the headline again.’

One awaits the exposure of the avaricious and unrestrained with despondency and foreboding.

Is it any wonder that politicians are now more despised than lawyers, more loathed than estate agents and more distrusted that a second-hand car salesmen?

Of course, not all politicians are like Peter Mandelson, but the important thing is that they are perceived as being so. And in politics, perception is all. It is not what they say or what they do that is important, but what they are portrayed as having said and what they are perceived to have done. In politics, the virtual is more significant than the reality; the feeling more important than the fact.

It is time to stop pussyfooting around with emulating New Labour policies and remind ourselves of Conservative principles.

If honourable and right honourable members are not able to behave with honour, they must be removed. There is no room in politics for those who cannot be trusted not to defraud the taxpayer with their expense claims. Indeed, if they cannot act with probity in their own affairs, why should they be trusted with running the nation? If a promise or a pledge is broken, why should their word be trusted on any matter?

If moral authority is to be regained, if Parliament is to reassert its legitimacy, the expenses system needs to be reformed. That should be a relatively straightforward process: proper audited declarations; close the final-salary pension scheme; refund one return journey to one’s constituency each week; overnight stays in London the equivalent of a private-sector subsistence allowance (minus mini-bar); restrictions on ‘luxury’ expenditure; abolish the absurd and much-abused ‘communications allowance’; and all staff should be employed by the House of Commons and appointed only after a rigorous, fair and transparent selection process.

But Cranmer is sorry to say that David Cameron is quite wrong to insist that under his premiership any minister with a grace-and-favour home would not be able to claim a second-home allowance. Mr Cameron said: "If elected, I will make sure no Conservative Minister with a grace-and-favour residence in London would be allowed to make a claim for a second home - and that would, of course, include me."

Politics is a fragile and ephemeral pursuit, and not all are blessed with ‘safe seats’ in Witney from which they may spend decades drinking chilled white wine over endless summer barbeques whilst amassing a power-base and plotting their ascent up the greasy pole. MPs are elected for a period of about four years, but, since the pole is indeed greasy, there is no guarantee that they might hold any higher office for any significant period of time at all. One may well be appointed Home Secretary one day, at which point Mr Cameron will insist that all of one’s possessions and family move into the grace-and-favour residence. The children would be uprooted from their school, the cat disorientated, and, with the immediate loss of the second-home subsidy, one’s London abode would need to be sold.

But a few months later, one finds oneself sacked - the victim of a capricious re-shuffle or a passive victim of ‘events’ - at which point Prime Minister Cameron insists that the grace-and-favour home be immediately bequeathed to one’s successor, and one is left house-hunting again whilst staying in a B&B, the children’s schooling once again interrupted, and the cat left spinning.

The solution?

As Alexander would say: ‘simples’.

Why not inflict upon the politicians that very mechanism by which they judge the performance of education specialists and health service providers? If league tables are deemed to be utterly indispensable to 'stake-holders' and sufficient to be able to distinguish a failing school from a successful one, or a hospital which kills its patients from one which heals them, why not present the electorate with a series of league tables for their MPs?

And why should the publication of such tables not then lead to a form of performance related pay?

There are embryonic forms of political league tables which could be built upon, for example They Work for You which gives the history of each MPs voting record. Of course, Cranmer is not suggesting that there should be financial inducements for slavishly obeying the Whip; he is simply offering a template of a form of tabular assessment by which the performance of MPs might be gauged.

A table is also now produced in respect of MPs expenses, such that one might gain a greater understanding of which of those are ‘good value for money’. And while the media rounds on John Prescott for claiming £141,000 in expenses for being ‘the laziest MP in the past year’, they might just consider the £500,000 claimed by Sinn Fein MPs who have never set foot in the House of Chamber to speak a word on behalf of their constituents.

League tables would show how many votes an MP attended, how often they spoke in a debate, how many committees they sit upon and whether or not they turn up, how many written questions they tabled, etc., etc. In addition, one’s constituency case load could easily be incorporated into such tables, with a ‘constituent’s voice’ feedback mechanism: it is one thing responding perfunctorily to a hundred letters each week, but quite another to doggedly pursue matters to a satisfactory conclusion for the aggrieved.

There is already information on MPs’ external income – the ‘Register of Members’ Interests’, and this could easily be tabulated in order to show that one has earned £170,000 for private speaking engagements, £50,000 for book-writing and £2,500 for hosting ‘Have I Got News For You’.

And if it transpires that such tables reveal that one is never in the Chamber, never attends committee, never tables questions, and has a low satisfaction rating from one’s constituents while one’s ‘private interests’ have boosted one’s external income to very handsome proportions, it is time for one’s constituency association to convene a deselection panel and place the MP in ‘special measures’ – not to humiliate, you understand; but to effectively monitor and assess in order to help bring about the necessary raising of standards.

'Ofpol' may not be such a bad idea.

Perhaps it could operate under Royal patronage...


Anonymous mckenzie said...

Not quite the revolution, which I also would find myself on the side of Cavaliers, defending the sovereignty and honouring the divine anointing of Her Majesty.

I watched Elizabeth again last night on Film Four, terrific. Walsingham is my hero. He would sort these buggers out.

9 April 2009 at 10:34  
Blogger polly peachum said...

Loved your Jacqui Smith/Ancien Regime analogy - the aristos called Versailles 'ce pays-ci', emphasising its cultural separation from the rest of France. Today, most of Parliament seems to think the same way.

In the moral micro-climate of Westminster, extracting the maximum benefit for yourself from the tax-payers' pockets is totally acceptable; try it when you're on the dole in Cardiff, say, and it's quite a different story.

9 April 2009 at 11:24  
Blogger The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Your Grace, we already have league tables for MPs. They are simple, robust and unlike the meaningless school and university tables, actually incur severe penalties when the MP is judged to have fallen short.

Every five years, their performance is assessed, and if it is inadequate, corrupt, incompetent or involves behaviour unbecoming of their office, then they can be sacked by the people they serve, their constituents. This process is called "a general election".

9 April 2009 at 11:57  
Blogger ultramontane grumpy old catholic said...

Your Grace

Perhaps your communicants could put their thinking caps on and come up some suitable DVDs for Labour MPs or their spouses to watch: ( a la I'm Sorry I haven't a clue)

What about:
'Hot Blair Babes'
'Emily's lust'
'Love Labour's Lust'
'The kiss of the whip'
'Nude Labour'

Less steamy but still appropriate:

'Jacqui come home'

etc etc

9 April 2009 at 13:36  
Anonymous mckenzie said...

I have a better idea. why not just pay them a salary with no allowances. Its like having a job, we get paid and that's it. Usually, we have to factor-in things like traveling and commuting, housing and schooling. Go to your boss and suggest allowances for these things and you will delight you co-workers who will have something to laugh about for the rest of the day.

Even when you make a claim for jobseekers these days, you have to sign an agreement which states that you are prepared to travel at least one hour in order to get to work, even if it pays the sad arse minimum wage, which could be less than a fiver if you are under 21.

There is no justification for the things that our politicians are claiming for. They used to be people we could look up to, some at least. These days its just a band wagon. There are very few of them that can be distinguished from the rest. There is no new, sincere and forward-looking rhetoric coming from any of them. Vince Cable can occasionally show signs of independent and original thought, but nothing that would furrow your brows for longer than three seconds.

They appear to be wrapped up in their own world, always on the defense of their own machinery. There is hardly anything which can be grasped by the nation as being representative of our concerns, anxieties, hopes, ambitions and general family welfare. Its just rules, rules and more rules, all written for our best interests, but with no consultation or explanation.

Is it any wonder that many people feel like caged, or farmed animals? This is exactly how it feels to be an ordinary citizen in Britain today: Trapped, caged, fed and watered but penned in by an electric fence of legislation and tax. And on the other side of the fence, we watch our keepers stuff their faces like obese pigs. They throw us some scrapings now and again and tell us that we are the lucky ones, our farm is doing dandy compared to the other farms.

It has to stop. It will stop. Let's hope it will end in tears though, and not rivers of blood.

9 April 2009 at 13:46  
Anonymous Maturecheese said...

Your Grace,

The argument you put forward for a change in the way MP's expenses are paid is a very good one. The problem with your argument however is the fact that it is the MP's themselves that have to make the changes to the expenses gravy train and alas, this is highly unlikely.

9 April 2009 at 14:45  
Anonymous Nelson said...

Some very good ideas Your Grace. when recalling the civil war I recall that Cromwell had similar problems with the greedy members of the house giving themselves pay rises, expenses and longer times between elections, this of course led to Cromwells clearing of the house and the establishing of the protectorate.
It seems true that history repeats itself, but this time there's no Cromwell to sort them out.
Orwell saw the same problem and it looks as if it's got worse, and will continue until we have a government that has at least some dignity and morality, the current crowd are so squalid in their scams and larceny that We would be better off to sack them all. The problem with that is they would all scuttle off to Brussels and be a damn sight worse there than here. I have no solutions, only prayer, perhaps the Almighty can sort them out.

9 April 2009 at 15:21  
Anonymous not a machine said...

i find it amusing that accountability is begining to return to our democracy ,

shadrak, meschac and abendigo

except in this version they combust in the furnace and everyone is amazed , that it was all spin after all

9 April 2009 at 15:42  
Blogger Microcosm said...

Its true your Grace, the nation is being led a merry dance with tittle tattle issues, in an attempt to keep our minds from the very grave matters that should have us stringing up politicians from lamposts.

The non protectionist agenda must be the most worrying game today, when various sources are telling us to plant food in our window boxes to stave off hunger, food from abroad is becoming very expensive and food grown in Britain is being sold abroad.

My goodness I do hope your communicants are ready for what is coming. Sod the parlimentarians, save your families.

9 April 2009 at 16:09  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Expanding on Microcosm has just said.

Some Gulf states are seeking vast tracts of farmland in Africa and Asia to feed their swelling populations. Proponents describe such moves as sound economic planning that might also offer an opportunity to bring modern technology to failing agricultural regions, others see it as a 'neo-colonial' food grab.

Shrinking water resources, growing populations and a shortage of arable land is forcing the Gulf states and other Arab countries to spend millions of dollars to acquire hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland abroad to ensure long-term food security.

Saudi Arabia has outlined its plans to develop large-scale overseas agricultural projects to secure food supplies, revealing that Riyadh is in discussions with Ukraine, Pakistan, Sudan, Turkey and Egypt.

Abdullah Al Obaid, the deputy agriculture minister, told the Financial Times the government was planning to set up projects of at least 100,000 hectares in several countries to grow crops such as wheat, corn, rice, soyabeans and alfalfa, a feed for livestock.

From Middle East Magazine Feb 2009. (Cant link to it because it needs subscription, but can be just made out).

9 April 2009 at 16:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

INTERVIEW-Foreign land grabs for food could fuel unrest.

ROME, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Big purchases of African land by richer countries in a drive for food security could fuel unrest if the rights of local farmers are not taken into consideration, a land rights campaigner warned on Wednesday.
Source: Reuters
By Silvia Aloisi

9 April 2009 at 16:34  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"to conveniently employ", your grace? A split infinitive, no less.No mention of that at your seat of learning? Not so at Ushaw,that Roman Catholic seminary described by that gay anti-catholic historian Starkey as set among "the bleak moor land outside Durham". And talking of "gay anti-catholic historians" did you know that, on Jonathon Freedlands "In Our Time", your biographer compared Edmund Campion to an Islamic Jihadist. Never mind split infinitives, would you, as someone around at the time, go along with that?

9 April 2009 at 18:12  
Anonymous Simples said...

The solution's much simpler than that! Next time some grotty london borough is selling off a tower block, the taxpayer buys it and does it out in a range of flexible accommodation - some family flats, some flats for singles/couples and a few B&B style stopover rooms - maintained by an independant organisation (sorry, offshore tax-dodging committee of Tony's friends). Those who need/want to relocate to the capital on becoming elected can do so, and bring the family. If you have a g&f home and you get booted out, there's a 'cushion' in the form of guaranteed accommodation. If you only need to pop down by yourself for a few days, you book a B&B room. There doesn't need to be one flat/room for each MP - not all of them bother to be in the capital. In the unlikely event every MP wants to be in London one night, the local 2* hotels can be used as spare capacity. There could even be a dining hall for entertaining visiting dignitaries.

And may I suggest we call this accommodation 'London Tower', so visiting americans think we keep our MPs in the other place?

9 April 2009 at 18:20  
Blogger ZZMike said...

Members of the elite ruling class taking special privileges and nailing the rate-payers for sink stoppers and racy videos?

Who could ever have imagined such a thing.

Rich countries buying up African land for crops is a story that has somehow escaped the notice of our news agencies (in the US). Such a move on our part would, of course, be greeted by worldwide howls of "imperialism".

9 April 2009 at 19:52  
Blogger William Cobbett said...

Annual Parliaments. End diredct taxation. End Poll Taxes such as the BBC. Return education to the Church of England, privatise all secondary and terciary education, leave the EU, smash regional government, return to the 1832 Reform Act. Criminalize Trade Unions, sodomy, adultery, fornication. Reintroduce the death penalty, and corporal punuishment. Remove alien people from all government posts, return the Test Act to the statute books. Replace paper money with gold silver and copper , antichrist metric with Imperial measure(Just Weights), abolish divorce, usury.

That's how all this present divine punishment stops. Leviticus 26.

12 April 2009 at 03:39  

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