Thursday, 29 October 2009

Political pariahs?

I've written this piece at the Public Finance blog about the saga of MPs expenses:

MPs could be forgiven for thinking that they have officially been declared enemies of the people. After the public lynching engendered by the Daily Telegraph’s weeks of revelations before the summer, they now have to ensure the tortuous combination of Sir Christopher Kelly’s hairshirt and Sir Thomas Legg’s restrospective thumbscrew.

Of course, some MPs have been abusing the system, and some have claimed very little. But most have just been doing what they were told by the officials at the Fees Office that they could – and often should – do. And it is a bit much to see the rough justice where some MPs – including David Cameron, who has happily used the saga to rid himself of a few troublesome backbenchers – are able to enjoy rich pickings from property speculation whilst the Prime Minister is rapped for spending more than an abritrary £2000 a year on flat cleaning and laundry.

The reported plans by Sir Christopher to phase out mortgage subsidies make sense, as do attempts to clamp down on needless first class travel. But stopping MPs employing spouses will not produce better or less expensive offices – they are the ones most likely to work longer and mix constituency and Westminster duties better – nor will the arbitrary 60 minute travel rule enhance the quality of debate, unless Parliament moves to a 6pm curfew. Having MPs rushing for the last train is hardly the stuff of decent democracy.

All these new rules may satisfy the forces of public opinion as they are mediated by the tabloids. But they could prove costly if they confirm the public’s view that all MPs are fiddling the system.

It would be far better to make things simple. Either give MPs a rail season ticket and a choice between staying at Westminster-owned serviced apartments or a hotel with which the Palace authorities have negotiated a good deal or increase their salaries and only pay them a decent allowance for running their office. And provided they are up to the job, and do the hours, let MPs employ their spouses if they get the work done.

All this nit-picking about railway timetables and internet subsidies is as damaging to democracy as the moats and duck ponds. Many good people on both sides of the House have had their careers destroyed because of mistakes or simply assuming that the Fees Office knew what they were talking about. Creating a whole host of complex new rules will not save taxpayers much money but could make the MP a permanent pariah, which even next year’s general election could do little to change.

A simple, transparent system, which everybody can understand, and which recognises the nature of the MP’s job, is the only way to restore faith in our democracy. Sadly, neither Sir Christopher nor Sir Thomas, born bureaucrats whose civil service instincts for micro-management inform their world view, seem to grasp that basic reality.

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