Archive for the ‘The Expenses Scandal’ Category

Question Time – Europe and PR

Oh dear. I have a feeling this may be a long one.

1) Nigel Farage makes a good point highlighting the absurdity of having an attendance allowance for the European Parliament, despite MEPs having an allowance intended for their incurred constituency expenses (an allowance isn’t the same thing as an expenses system; it’s merely an additional lump sum that is justified on the basis of something, there is no legal requirement to use it for this purpose). He claims the attendance allowance makes it less profitable to be in your ‘constituency’ (the word is used loosely here, the regions are ludicrously big and an MEP does not personally represent a region, he shares the representation of it with 5 or 6 other MEPs), therefore explaining why your MEP is never visible in your constituency and so few people are aware of who their MEP is and angry about said fact.

All so good so far, but there’s really a deeper reason why this is. It’s a peculiarly British concern in many ways to complain that they don’t know who ‘their’ MEP is, because we’re used to the single-member system for Westminster. In many countries in the Continent, this wouldn’t be an issue, because people would be used to the fact that they don’t have ‘their’ own MEP, rather they have several. List PR makes people more used to not having a direct representative and thus not expecting to see any one particular face around the constituency on a regular basis. In other words, List PR dilutes the principle of direct representation, and it’s just that we in Britain haven’t got used to that due to retaining a single-member system in Westminster.

However, there is more. There are many different forms of “List PR” (some which manage to be worse, admittedly, such as ones where the whole country is a single region, but “our system is not as bad as Israel’s” isn’t really too comforting a reflection), many of which at least attempt to counteract the dilution of direct responsibility. If we had a sensible, accountable form of open list, where MPs on the list are allocated on the basis of the number of votes they receive individually, it would at least create a certain incentive to be on some kind of name association terms with one’s constituents. In other words, certain PR systems at least create an incentive for representatives to know and be known to their constituents, however vaguely that is.

Not so our one. The Labour government, having committed itself to reforming the voting system for the EU Parliament along the lines laid down by the Maastricht treaty (if I recall correctly), decided to do so by instituting the worst PR voting system it could think of, namely Closed-list. No good defence has been offered for this monstrosity, and no good arguments are yet forthcoming. It is as if Labour deliberately wanted to stick two fingers up at the EU’s wish that member states should use some form of PR (“some form of PR” is rather vague, it is unclear whether that would include systems which are sometimes called PR, but really aren’t, like STV) – if this was the Conservatives, I could believe that explanation, but with New Labour I’m more inclined to suspect that it was a deliberate attempt to retain complete party control over the candidate election process.

What closed-list does is, very simply, to result in their being virtually no incentive whatsoever for MEPs to know constituents. MEPs can remain nameless, faceless, shadowy figures of mystery for all it matters, because closed-list means that the entire electoral process for elections to the European Parliament is done on the basis of brand recognition. William Pitt the Younger would be turning in his grave.

2) Jo Swinson takes this to be an excellent opportunity to slam the “attendance allowance” that Brown intended to introduce in Westminster but was forced out of doing by his backbench MPs and the opposition MPs. However, there are a few problems with this:

a) Westminster is, actually, quite a bit closer than Brussels to anywhere in the UK. This may sound a bit facetious, but it is actually an important consideration when coupled with the next one:

b) MPs already get working hours which are expressly intended to grant them enough time to serve in their constituency as well as the House of Commons. This is at least partly the reason they get such long holidays and generous working weeks.

c) MPs have a system of expenses rather than allowances. If they’re not working in their constituency as often, the logic is that they can’t claim as much in travel costs and other possible constituency related expenses. Therefore the logic of having an “attendance allowance” to contribute towards accommodation whilst an MP is working in Westminster fits, as the same logic is applied to constituency work. (Admittedly, this is not the way the existing expenses system has been used, as we are now finding out, but the point still stands as a good one, particularly as recent reforms have slightly tightened up the expenses system).

Obviously, it’s lovely to jump on the bandwagon in slamming Brown’s attendance allowance, but yet again I couldn’t help noticing that people slammed it because it was in use in Brussels more than by looking at the context. Also, I couldn’t help noticing the absence of anyone mentioning that it happens to be used in the House of Lords, too.

3) Someone in the audience makes a further point which cements my impression that PR is not a useful direction to turn in as a result of the expenses scandal. According to them, they don’t know how they should vote because “no party has come out of this better, they’re all just as mixed up in it as eachother” (a paraphrase, not a direct quote). The question automatically becomes this, then: if we already have the attitude that we’re not voting on individuals’ records but parties’ ones, in a system where we directly elect the individual politician, then how will a change to an even more party driven system of democracy help, given that this scandal is about the actions of individuals not parties? It is an illogical response to this scandal to pretend that PR would have helped, and arguing so indicates more of ideological bias than balanced consideration.

Due to the influence of having watched this far, and considered the above questions, I have set up the Manifesto for EU Democracy (see previous post). If you feel like continuing the debate about constitutional reform further here and there, feel free.

[This post is archived from June 1st, 2009. The Question Time it refers to was broadcasted on Thursday 28th May.]

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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…

Third note.

[And continued…]

This week’s question time is a beauty. It’s turning into a politician’s cliche week, a public’s cliche week and no-one seems to be having a pleasant time. It’s difficult to feel sorry for MPs sometimes, but the level of heckling going on can’t have been pleasant. But then you get the most stereotypical dodge of “if what you’re saying is…” followed by something completely different to what the person in the audience was saying, you wonder whether you should feel sorry.

On a more deeper level, I think this has turned into a chance everyone has grabbed at to express the frustration at our politics that has been building up for some time. The voices of the 40% of people who feel no reason to vote any more. The feeling of unavoidable apathy that irritates so many people, the feeling that they can never be represented in politics. The “they’re all in it together” image that the scandal has conjured up has only served to confirm this, for many of these people and has led to this boiling over. I was wondering quite why MPs expenses has provoked so much anger with this set of politicians in particular – after all, it’s been going on since the 80s at least. I believe I understand more now – it’s because it’s confirmed an already-existing opinion, just as much as it is because people are disgusted by the revelations specifically.

What cannot help is the papers encouraging the impression that this is Yet Another Reason Not to Vote. It’s entirely the opposite – it’s more reason than ever why we need to get out there and not just vote, but participate in the election campaign process, let the candidates know how we feel and pressure them into knowing that they have to change things for our benefit, not just expenses, not just parliament’s divorce from the afllictions on the public, but our wider system of representation that leads to this divide being so acute to begin with.

Question Time 2.

[Following on from the previous note on the same Question Time]

I’m still only 10 minutes into Question Time, and I’m already writing my second note on it. According to Steve Easterbrook:

“I think what’s unfolded in front of us over the last couple of weeks quite frankly is a national disgrace”.

Of course, I’m quite sure that we’re all well aware of the life of moral luxury Mr. Easterbook must have been living in with his job as UK chief executive of McDonald’s!

I think what strikes me, quite frankly, is that someone who works in management of a company that took out the longest, most pointless, most discriminatory and most prejudicial libel case in British History need give us no lectures concerning national disgraces.

Question Time

[This is an archive of an note written about Question Time on Thursday, 14th May 2009]

Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, asks the question on question time:

“How do you find ways of holding MPs to account, when their own system seems to be so grey and so fluid that there doesn’t seem to be a way of getting them?”

Umm. Well, I’m well aware that there isn’t a way of actually prosecuting most MPs who have abused the system, but surely they are subject to the traditional means of holding them to account? Clue: it involves elections.

Another comment he makes:

“I think the challenge for the party leaders is how fast will they get to the point where they decide [that] what they have to do is put those MPs who have been found wanting in this regard up for reselection before the next general election, in order to clear them out and give the electorate the chance to elect decent MPs”.

Aside from highlighting the important point that too much power is wielded by the party machines over the public in terms of selecting candidates for each constituency, I find it hard to believe that the deputy editor of the Telegaph is wholly unaware of why the party leaders cannot put their “wanting” MPs up for reselection. One cannot govern or lead an opposition without a cabinet, and half the cabinet and shadow cabinet have already been found “wanting”!

Headless Chickens

I admit that I am not, occasionally, above the odd partisan (or anti-partisan) jibe. So when discussing the failure of the government’s plans for an attendance allowance with a good (…for a member of the Conservative party, of course) friend; goaded by his quick dismissal of the idea (qualified with, in fairness to him, an admission that he needed to know more about the idea to be sure), I predicted that come July the House would sincerely regret forcing Mr. Brown to back down, and not taking some form of action to reform their expenses before their records were released. My prediction was done in a good deal of haste and guesswork, an instinct that everyone had jumped on the bandwagon and hadn’t really had time to assess the idea on its merits, and that it would look good for MPs to have at least tried to reform their expenses before they were caught out thoroughly.

I now believe that the only way in which my prediction was wrong was in how long I claimed it would take. For the scandal broke early – which will maximise damage to MPs in the long-term, as the revelations are emerging gradually, not all at once. And now other people are beginning to recognise that Brown’s idea might have at least diverted attention away from the scandalous claims.

This week Norman Tebbit, of all people, was arguing that it was a mistake to block reform. Because regardless of the flaws in the details of the idea of an attendance allowance (and doubtless there are at least a few), what it would have achieved was the impression that the House of Commons had actually done something about the problem before they were caught with their trousers down en masse. Even if everyone did think it to be a poor attempt at reform, and that even they could have done better, no-one in all probability would have agreed on how they would have done it better, and that subsequent debate would have at least partially overshadowed the original scandal.

MPs could then have said that they at least acted quickly to stop the abuses whilst they waited for a more permanent solution. And flaws or not, the one thing an attendance allowance would have done is to have prevented a lot of potential abuse when it came to 2nd homes.

It should also be made clear that the attendance allowance is not just “as practised by the European Parliament”. The media delighted in saying this because hardly anyone likes the EU parliament, and many think it more corrupt than Westminster. An attendance allowance is, in fact, operated by the House of Lords as well – but this somehow slipped the media’s attention – possibly because it realised that some people have more respect for the Lords than the Commons, possibly due to the fact that it notices some of the poor quality of the legislation that passes out of the orifice of the lower house.

But the real question is why on earth MPs didn’t act long before Brown’s cynical efforts at stealing the limelight with his reforms. Over a year ago it was clear that this was a car crash in action. MPs could have slammed on the brakes then by getting down to reform, and employed huge damage limitation. Instead, they carried on with the childish delusion that they were somehow entitled to fiddle their expenses and brought the public’s wrath upon themselves.