MPs expenses – the cliches, the dodges and the uncomfortable truths.

With MPs expenses being one of the juiciest scandals in British politics for quite some time, I’m going to have a look at some of the most interesting – and irritating – politician and press cliches that have been doing the rounds.

1) “They’re in it for the money”. (Sarah Sands, on The Daily Politics).

Notwithstanding the exceedingly generous expenses system at Westminster, I highly doubt this. There’s often more money in Journalism (I’m sure Steven Fry isn’t the only one to have pointed out that a lot of journalists doing the commentary are being paid twices as much as MPs, and journalists also get expenses), definitely more money at the Bar, and in general even when you include the expenses system, MPs are paid a comfortable but not filthy rich income. This leads me on to number two:

2) “It’s a disgrace that MPs blame the system. They should have known what they were doing was wrong in the first place!”

True, but unfortunately what one has to remember is that when there’s a culture of something, it becomes very easily accepted. This runs deeper than MPs wanting to milk the system, it was an accepted part (well, the less scandalous claims, I’m unsure about moats and tudor beams personally) of how things worked at the House of Commons, and it was, according to some people, actively encouraged at times when MPs salaries were being kept down.

One thing that should be well known by now is that there are many, many morally dubious traditions in politics that are instinctively accepted as part of the wider game that you have to play. The war of spin, “whipped” votes, political bribery, punch and judy politics… MPs expenses has been a particularly controversial example because it involves taxpayers’ money. And it is wrong, but people should not take the view that this lot of MPs are particularly worse than the MPs of the 90s, or those of the 80s (of course, many are the same). A culture of secrecy and “turn a blind eye” has developed and though MPs should not use this to absolve themselves of responsibility, it should also be borne in mind by the public when judging them. Everyone knows politics to be a dirty game, after all.

3) “MPs are underpaid! We should have given them a decent salary, and they wouldn’t have felt they were entitled to fiddle the system!”

On the other hand, I do not buy this. I simply don’t. £63,000 p/a is between two and three times the average wage nationally, it’s probably not a luxurious wage, particularly if you’re living in London, but on the other hand it is far from impossible to live comfortablely on. Even if there was an austere system of expenses that could actually only be claimed for the necessities, I expect £63,000 would at least cover adequately the needs of an MP.

Many people have been saying that we need to pay MPs top-level salaries to attract an good quality of candidates to the job. I am afraid that I take this with a grain of salt: if MPs need a 6 figure salary to motivate them to do a good job, there is something very wrong in the way they see public service. Why should public service itself not be the motivation? I do not think this is idealistic. If people in politics need to be motivated by extravagant salaries, it does not say very much about their fitness for the job.

Really this “we need big salaries to attract good quality candidates”, when it comes to public service is a Thatcherite myth which has been allowed to develop that “paid well” some how equals “works well”, and that if someone earns a good wage he or she is somehow guaranteed quality. I would have thought that if the Banking crisis had done one thing, it would have dispelled this myth.

And if MPs are given this kind of renumeration, it leaves a very real danger of their being insulated of the problems of the vast majority of people. We have already seen that the House of Commons insulates itself from food inflation – a cheaper meal I challenge you to find in the whole of London. How are we to know that if they had not been hit by the effect full-on, they might have taken a more pro-active approach to addressing the problem?

This is completely different to the argument that we should pay MPs enough so that not merely those who can afford it go into politics. MPs deserve an adequate, comfortable wage. They do not deserve to get away with the idea that a 63,000 pa salary is a pittance.

However, having read a strong argument from the other side of this debate in the Times today, I do concede that there is something in it from the perspective of MPs powers – if an MP has little powers, and fails to make it on to the government benches, there certainly is a danger of their feeling the appeal of employment in the outside world irresistable. However, I would have thought this was more a debate concerning what powers and responsibilities we grant to our MPs rather than one of pay. There’s a sense in which being an MP should provide the major appeal of becoming one, and the fact that it doesn’t shows something wrong with our form of parliamentary democracy.

4) “We need an independent body. We need independent, independent, independent bodies. Did I tell you how much I like the word independent?”

This should be known as the ultimate “Question Time” dodge. MPs just love independent bodies when they get into trouble. They have a nice ring to them, anything which gets assigned to them invariably disappears down a black hole of press disinterest, and they serve to completely divert the public’s attention away until they blow up spectacularly – see, for example, the FSA. So politicians love them.

(Actually, they probably shouldn’t do, just look at what happened to the government when the FSA spectacularly failed to spot the biggest crash for quite some time coming… but as Sir Humphrey would say “politics is about surviving until next friday”!)

The truth is simply that if we can’t allow MPs to take responsibility for their own finances, politics is in a sad state of affairs. These people are responsible for the nation’s finances as a whole, after all, so taking away MPs right to determine the rate at which public servants are paid would be a step towards government by unelected bureaucrats. And we have quite enough of that already, thank you.

Of course, not many have thought about actually keeping MPs responsible for their expenses and instead making them release their records to be judged by come each election. Perhaps because this would actually involve giving the public power to hold MPs to account for their finances. It would cement the public as the financial as well as political employers of our MPs, and we can’t have that, can we?

5) “We should just add a couple of noughts to the end of their salaries, and scrap expenses completely” (otherwise known as the Alan Duncan option).

This seems to be a fairly popular one doing the rounds at the moment. Its simplicity certainly has appeal, as it would remove the administrative headaches some of the more ludicrous suggestions have. However, I find myself sceptical whether a public that was outraged at MPs using the Additional Costs Allowance as, well, an allowance (as opposed to an expense) in claiming for a second home whether or not they actually needed one; is going to be at all appeased by a system which grants MPs a hefty salary increase whether or not they have additional costs. It also seems a pretty sure way dramatically increasing the income inequality between MPs, as a London constituency would pay far better than anywhere else, particularly the remote constituencies, although as the latter tend to produce some of the safest seats, perhaps this would be fitting.

6) “The Editor of the Daily Telegraph should be knighted for services to this country”

What charming response can be summoned to this unabashful statement of naivety? …oh yes:

…rubbish.

The Telegraph is a newspaper. It is exposing the story in a way to maximise profits and minimise an application of context and an understanding of the wider picture. It is not evil incarnate, but it certainly is an example of business interests overriding almost everything else.

It is also hypocritical. Many of you may have noticed a message I sent out, rather hastily I must admit, claiming that the Telegraph had supressed a blog by Nadine Dorris critical of the way it was breaking the story. When one considers the Telegraph’s shock that the House of Commons should dare to try and supress the story, suddenly their actions of late taste a little sour.

This does, incidentally, expose a major flaw in our laws regarding freedom of speech – it’s okay for an MP if they’re speaking from the House of Commons, but not if they dare to speak on the internet. It’s also okay if you’re a Newspaper with plenty of financial resources, but not if you’re an MP. However generous the expenses system is, it clearly isn’t enough to insulate you from the Telegraph’s legal team.

MPs have behaved like headless chickens. I am extremely irritated by their slowness in reacting to this story, and the fact that they voted down any possible reforms until it was far too late. They’re still holding out in the vain hope that the Telegraph’s information might be incomplete rather than releasing the whole expenses records, untampered with, to finally kill the story’s momentum. This is wrong, and it is going to damage confidence in Parliament yet further. Yet there has been a whole load of nonsense doing the rounds as a result of it, much of it I have not had time to touch on, such as a good amount of the Times’ “Political Manifesto”, particularly ideas like reducing the number of MPs. I can actually see two very good, reasonably simple ideas, that have rarely been expressed by anyone – most likely because of the implications.

The first is to simply make everything FoI (Freedom of Information). This is what Cameron is going to do to Tory MPs, hopefully. It will allow the public to hold MPs to account for their use of public funds personally as well as for the nation as a whole. It would be an extention of our democratic duty.

Secondly, if you really want to kill all the administration as well as the scandal, give MPs two or three allowances, and make them allowances – not expenses. One of the to cover the extra cost of London living, including accomodation, enough to ensure a second home is possible if needed. One to cover travel. Possibly an additional small flat-rate one for anyone living outside commuting distance, to prevent commuters being too better off than other MPs. The travel allowance would be determined specific to constituency, removing the need for continued administration.

It is actually interesting how little different this latter one is to Brown’s idea. But the opposition, backbenchers and media preferred to pore scorn on the idea without thinking through the issues seriously, to kick a beleagured Prime Minister when he was down – though admittedly trying to exploit the expenses scandal for political capital. For the one thing we don’t want is a media that actually scrutinises the facts, rather than play a cheap game with the politicians of our nation whilst we, as usual, are left standing in the mud.

That leads me to one last point. I hadn’t considered before the fact that the media did, most likely, know about the expenses arrangements for ages before this scandal actually broke. It does make one reconsider some of the moralising that has been going on in the pages of power…

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