The scandal of MPs expenses – and the solution
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.
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...