Friday, 15 May 2009

A way forward for politics, with an aside about political expenses

I wrote the first version of this post on Mono, a bulletin board, earlier this morning. I thought I'd share my vision for a way out of the the mire that politics is buried in. In doing so, I go quite a way beyond expenses. Parliament is in such a mess that the time may have come for such a root-and-branch overhaul of the system.

Firstly, one thing needs making it clear: MP's pay (for a backbencher) is farcically low. An MP has an unusual job - they have to work in both London and in a constituency that in many cases is hundreds of miles away. We also need good people doing it. Should a BBC presenter be on far more income than an MP? In return for this extra income, the system will be overhauled.

What the media have kept relatively quiet about so far is the role of the House of Commons authorities in all of this, especially the Fees Office. It is clear that the system has been run like an Old Boy's Club (or Working Man's Club), and the gatekeepers - the people who have to check these receipts - have been doing a terrible job. They need to go, now. As does Michael Martin. Hopefully they will all resign. They need to take a significant amount of blame for this mess. They had control of the brake, and have utterly failed to use it.

The last thing I want is for parliament to go back the way it was thirty years ago, dominated by rich people and union-sponsored candidates. I also do not want the current situation to continue, with candidates being parachuted in to safe seats. I want the person who represents me to be local; to represent the people of the area, not the party.

I do not propose a parliament that reflects society. I propose a parliament that reflects the *best* of society. I want men, women, black, white, Asian, gay, straight; I do not really care. All I want is for them to be good. I want engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses, soldiers, housewives. Yes, even lawyers. Being an MP has to be accessible to all of these people, and the rules should not prevent them from becoming MPs.

Note, I am not saying that the current crop of MPs are bad. Some are; many are good. The expenses system is a self-set trap that many have fallen into. However, few can deny the need to make MPs more accountable to both their constituents and the wider public.

So what do I propose?
  1. Increase pay substantially, but only if:
  2. The time each MP spends on parliamentary business (committees, in the house, in constituency etc) is published yearly. Make it a competition to see which ones are working hardest for us. Many people have to work on a timesheet system; so should they. These do not necessarily need to be published for security reasons, but the totals should be, and they should be independently checked.
  3. The Government buys a home suitable for a family in each constituency. MPs can live in it, or in their own house. They pay rent in the former, and get no help for the latter. See 'Housing' below for more information).
  4. Every PPC has to have lived in the constituency (or an adjacent one to take boundary changes into account) for at least five years before being selected. Ensure that MPs are local, and represent the locals. I reckon at least a quarter of current MPs would fail this test.
  5. Expenses are allowed, but only those directly related to work as a constituency MP (not party work). Tighten up the checking process. Make MPs explain what the expenses were used for; make the default answer 'no'. They are made public yearly, annotated by the MP so they can explain them. (See 'expenses' below).
  6. The abysmal House of Lords situation needs resolving one way or the other. It's an incredible that the current mess has been in place for ten years. I don't really care about which system is chosen, just that one is implemented. The current system is far worse than the old system based on inheritance.
  7. MP staff should be paid for by the state, up to a certain amount, yet they should be selected by the MP. Timesheets should be submitted for their work. I have no problem with an MP using their spouse as a secretary; in many ways it makes sense. However we need to see that they are doing the work they are being paid for.

  1. The same goes for MEPs (who make our MPs seem like naive innocents when it comes to making a buck). I don't care if European rules allow something; if the European rules are lax, we should ensure that our MEPs act according to stricter rules.
  2. Local councils and councillors should have their incomes and expenses tightened up and published in a similar manner. It is much simpler as the dual-home problems do not occur.
  3. Publicly-funded and owned media (BBC and Channel 4) should have salaries and expenses published for public-facing staff. They are as much public figures as MPs, and in many ways are more influential than a back-bench MP.
  4. Something needs doing about grace-and-favour homes. I am unsure about what this should be. I can see the need for them, and am also aware that someone might only be a minister for a few months, or ten years.

This requires a little extra thought. Being an MP is an unusual job; you have twin responsibilities in London and in a constituency. Add in other requirements, like stability for young families, and you get a set of dramatically conflicting requirements.

So, as mentioned above, there is a nice family home in each constituency. The MP can choose to live there, in which case they pay rent, or in their own house, in which case the state rents out the unused state-owned property.

The state also buys properties within easy commuting distance of Central London for out-of-London MPs. If an MP uses this, then they pay rent on it. Alternatively, they can rent a flat or house on the open market. Rents will be set by price according to the local rental market on a yearly basis.

If they rent both a constituency and a London home, then they only pay for each when they are in residence. This means that they can decamp to their constituencies for recess at no cost; a reasonable compromise. if the family stays in the constituency home whilst the MP lives in London, they pay rent on both.

MPs will be able to chop-and-change whether they live in the state-owned or private homes, but only if their circumstances change, e.g. marriage, divorce, children attending new school, etc. All such changes should be approved by a committee. The MP should always have a property in the constituency they represent, or a neighbouring one.

This proposed expenses system will have the following advantages:

1) The expenses of every MP would be known. There would be none of the rumour and innuendo that had been going on for years; e.g. the rumours about the Winterton's (who have not featured in the Telegraph yet). MPs will have to make sure that anything that goes on expenses can be reasonably justified, not the free-for-all that has been happening.

An example: I am an MP with a Central London constituency. I break my leg, and it is put into a cast. I usually walk/cycle/use public transport to get into parliament. Instead, I make claims for a taxi. That could be argued as being justified. What would not be is taking a taxi to a party function.

2) The rules behind the system would be known by the public, and the expenses claimed can be checked against them. Again, a 'reasonableness' rule should be in place.

3) Breaking of the rules should have stiff penalties; things that look like genuine mistakes: a suspension from parliament. Purposeful: trial for fraud. The rules will be clear enough to make such a court case less of a lottery.

4) The default answer for all expenses payment will be 'No', as it is in many companies. You will have to justify each and every one.

Media claims and innuendo can be justifiably followed up by: "We're open about our income, expenses, and the work we do for it. Why aren't you?"

I want MPs reflecting the best of society. I want good MPs making sensible, progressive laws. Not a bunch of lawyers, friends and family members parachuted into position. I want MPs who can balance a budget. I demand the truth, not spin.

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