Wednesday 4 November 2009

Pooter Kelly is not the fount of all wisdom

I've just been wading through Sir Christopher Kelly's £339,000 examination of MPs' expenses. On most main recommendations, despite an often Pooterish pettiness, he is probably broadly right, and MPs need to bow to public opinion. But it is only when one starts to consider the detail that questions arise. That is why he should not be so arrogant as to assume that the new independent agency shouldn't look again at some of his ideas. It most certainly should.

Phasing out of mortgage subsidies is reasonable. MPs shouldn't make a profit from their London accommodation. And, a £1250 a month cap on rent works if an agency does negotiate some deals, and just about covers the costs of a furnished flat South of the river, provided, as Kelly proposes, council tax and utilities bills are treated as extra. The £120+VAT nightly cap on London hotel bills is also probably manageable. It would at least meet John Mann's Travelodge test.

But this doesn't stop some petty-minded silliness creeping in. Instead of providing an agency cleaner, perhaps supporting a fortnightly two-hour cleaning of a flat, costing around £500 a year, MPs are imperiously informed that
the difficulties of maintaining a clean home while working long hours are not unique to MPs. Should MPs wish to maintain the services of cleaners the Committee does not think it unreasonable to expect them to meet these costs out of their salaries, as others do.
Yet these are not their main homes, and 'others' do not generally maintain two homes, certainly not on a salary half that of many senior civil servants. Presumably those opting for hotels should deduct a sum to cover cleaning costs in their rooms? No less petty is the abolition of subsistence allowances for MPs renting rather than staying in hotels.

Kelly is right to scrap second homes for outer London MPs and those on the fringes, but with the welcome proviso that accommodation is covered for late night sittings. But here the obsession with detail becomes confused. There is a recognition that getting home in 60 minutes is about more than the train journey. The independent regulator will apparently draw up 'a definitive list of constituencies covered'. Does this mean that MPs who live elsewhere in a rural constituency - or who replace someone on the 'definitive list' should move close to the railway station to meet the regulator's requirements?

Fair enough to get MPs to publish what they spend on travel. But, it doesn't always follow that a first class rail ticket is absurdly expensive. A Sunday evening first class ticket from Bath booked in advance is far cheaper than a 2nd class open return on a Monday morning, for example. So I fail to see the point of publishing the class of ticket, apart from playing to the gallery.

There is also a curious disincentive on MPs to stand down at a general election, rather than fighting and losing their seat. An MP who is defeated can get nine months pay after two terms, but one who doesn't stand again after twenty years only gets two months. There is no good reason why someone the electors have rejected fares so much better.

And, on the bigger picture, I really don't see how he can support MPs having unlimited outside employment, but not see that employing spouses properly approved by the Commons authorities can provide better value to the taxpayer as well as better support to MPs. After all, the report itself says:
Despite the publicity that a small number of cases have received, the Committee has no evidence of abuse occurring on a significant scale through the employment of family members. On the contrary, the Committee has heard evidence that many MPs’ family members work hard and offergood value for money for taxpayers, including testimony from those who have expressed reservations about allowing the practice to continue.

Kelly also gives no reason for sacking existing employee spouses apart from satisfying the mob (expressed a little more politely). Yet when it comes to paid employment outside parliament, Kelly moves from the Pooterish to the broad brush pragmatic. No rules apply here beyond the need for a declaration on an improved website.

In the Committee’s view, this is largely an issue of balance. A limited amount of time spent writing newspaper articles or other paid journalism, for example, need not be incompatible with being a fully effective MP. Nor is it unreasonable for MPs with professional qualifications to wish to maintain some element of expertise, or for others to take the view that limited direct experience of a particular issue is a good way of building up expertise which will benefit their contribution in Parliament. But if any of these activities are pursued to excess they are bound to have an impact on the MP’s effectiveness in performing their main role. The Committee takes the view that outside paid employment should not be banned, provided it is kept within fairly limited bounds and there is transparency.

Fairly limited bounds? And what are they? Surely Kelly has a view? Not really -unless you are a Northern Ireland MP, of course. But this does run against the grain of a report mindboggling in its attention to detail, yet somehow completely oblivious to the lives of MPs and the true cost of doing their job, and composed in a manner that only a lifelong civil servant could. As Steve Richards argued in a forceful piece yesterday, it is ironic that civil servants invited to review politicians are themselves so lacking in accountability:

Kelly will explain his thinking at a press conference tomorrow and presumably in interviews. That will be the limit of his accountability in changing drastically not only the way MPs are paid, but in the ways they function. MPs are loathed but at least they are accountable around the clock, unlike current senior civil servants and former officials who wield immense power. If an MP throws a grenade into any saga they will be on the Today programme at ten past eight to explain what they were up to and a non-appearance would be pilloried: "We asked X to appear, but they refused to do so". Yet others who wield power without responsibility are revered even if they cause mayhem. Legg is nowhere to be seen. Kelly will return to the darkness. MPs sweat in the public eye. The more they explain the more they are loathed.

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