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MPs expenses, parliamentary reform

MPs Expenses: what is to be done.

 “It’s a revolutionary moment”, said the former standards commissioner, Alistair Graham. “This is like the storming of the Bastille, only the prisoners aren’t being let out”.  The historical comparison was perhaps a little over the top, but everyone seems to accept that British politics will never be the same.  The question is, what comes next?
   Westminster certainly can’t be allowed to return to the bad old ways.  At least there is a political consensus on the need for change.  Mind you, we said that about the banks and the bonus culture, and at the slightest hint of an economic recovery, the bankers have gone right back to the trough. How can we prevent the MPs scandal ever happening again? 
  Well, first of all by demanding complete transparency. One of the most common excuses given by shamefaced MPs dragged before the cameras to explain why they claimed for expensive flat-screen TVs, moat-cleaning and flipped houses is that the system was deficient.   It wasn’t their fault; the rules were wrong.  Trouble is, they only discovered how wrong the rules were after they had been exposed by the Daily Telegraph.  Clearly, if they had known that their expenses claims were going to be made public, many MPs clearly wouldn’t have made them.  As Lord Nolan put it, during the last great sleaze scandal in 1995, “daylight is the best disinfectant”. 
   Transparency has to be policed of course, and the precondition for disinfecting parliament is for the Speaker to take a moral lead/  The last Speaker, Michael Martin,  long regarded himself as the keeper of the perks, even before becoming Speaker.  I discovered this in the 1990s when I was a lobby hack in Westminster and wrote a column about MPs expenses, describing some of the practices that everyone knew went on.  Michael Martin accused me of defaming the parliamentary group of MPs and had me reported to the deputy sergeant at arms.  As Speaker he likened himself to a trades unionist defending pay and conditions – this is completely inappropriate, as are the methods used to silence dissent.  The new Speaker, John Bercow, came in promising to change, but the jury is still out on whether he actually has.  His attempts to limit the Legg inquiry and prevent the parliamentary auditor from taking on board wrongly claimed mortgages does not inspire confidence. According to the Daily Telegraph, Bercow himself made substantial capital gains through “flipping” not one but two properties – declaring them as his “main residence” for tax purposes, but designating them as “second homes” for parliamentary expenses. .

   As the former standards commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, discovered when she tried to investigate allegations about Scottish MPs, the Speaker is the apex of a system designed to protect MPs from scrutiny.  She resigned in disgust.   Speaker Martin doggedly refused to allow MPs expenses to be made public under freedom of information.  Indeed, he spent tens of thousands of pounds of public money in legal fees trying to prevent the public learning how their money was being spent. The Speaker’s role will have to change, from shop steward to moral guardian.  Mr Bercow must spend his time not defending disreputable practices, but saving MPs from themselves by telling them how the world sees them. 
   Needless to say the expenses rules have to be changed.  MPs, like MSPs in Scotland,  – entitled to claim legitimate expenses.   But this does not give them the right to make substantial capital gains on properties paid for by taxpayers.  In my view the flipping scandal is of far greater importance than all the ridiculous manure and trouser press claims.  One MP, Greg Barker, made £320,000 profit out of buying and selling a second home in London financed by his allowance.  That is as close to public theft as it is possible to get without actually robbing the Bank of England.   This culture of property speculation made every MP a stakeholder in the greatest property bubble in economic history.  If MPs had been required to pay their own way, and buy their own houses, they would have been rather less relaxed about the house price spiral that has crucified their constituents and left a generation unable to afford a home.  
  Which takes us onto MPs pay.  The former minister, Michael Portillo, said grandly on BBC recently that there is no way he could be persuaded back into politics “because it would mean trying to live on £63,000 a year”.  His point was that no one could reasonably be expected to survive on such a pittance.  We have heard variants of this argument all week from MPs and apologists  It reveals an astonishing detachment from reality.   Only MPs who have been cosseted and pampered at public expense for years, and have lost touch with their constituents, could believe that £63000,  plus legitimate expenses, is not enough to live on. It is more than three times average earnings. 96% of the British population live on less than £63,000 a year.  If last week was the Bastille, just wait until MPs demand a 40% pay increase – which is what many think they are worth.  The tumbrils will be trundling down Whitehall, a guillotine erected in Parliament Square, and MPs’ heads impaled on railings on Westminster Bridge.  Just don’t go there. 
   A lot of people, like the comedian Michael Fry,  still say that we are getting this out of proportion and that most MPs are perfectly straight and hard working public servants.  But that is only partially true.  Anyone who has seen parliament evolve in the last twenty five years knows that the character of MPs has changed.  They have become less principled, less independently-minded, more career-oriented.  Even Labour MPs became preoccupied with reward, complaining that they would be making much more in the private sector – sometimes correctly, as in the case of Tony Blair who walked out of Downing Street and into a sinecure at JP Morgan for a reported £2m a year.   Peter Mandelson summed it up when he said that Labour was now “completely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes”.  Or rather didn’t as was the case with MPs and their second homes. 
   We need fewer MPs – now that we have devolution, we don’t need 650 in Westminster and a third could  go tomorrow without anyone noticing.  The remainder need to show more independence.  What is the point of parliament when it voted for the Iraq against MPs own consciences; which allowed the biggest property bubble in history to grow unchecked.  We need a new kind of MP – one who wants to enter parliament out of principle –  to change society, not change houses.  I just don’t believe that there aren’t people like that in Britain anymore. Hopefully, when this discredited and disgraced Labour government falls from office they will find their voice. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


3 thoughts on “MPs Expenses: what is to be done.

  1. Poor Old Iain he wants Gods elected to Parliament and we have only ordinary Men and Women.Men decide far more problems by hate, love, lust, rage, sorrow, joy, hope, fear, illusion, or some other inward emotion, than by reality, authority, any legal standard, judicial precedent, or statute- cicero

    Posted by Mr. Mxyzptlk | October 31, 2009, 9:58 am
  2. There's the role for Mr Speaker Iain, just as highlighted by Mr Mxyzptik, a voice that reminds our MP's they are not gods. Rather they are greedy, thieving, disreputable oiks and some of them should be in the jail. I'd like that job and promise I could manage iy on £63000 per annum.

    Posted by Dramfineday | October 31, 2009, 10:58 pm
  3. I wonder if they will set up a pannel of experts to find out how much an MP with only legitimate expenses should earn, only to sack them when they tell the truth?It will be a brave man who proposes a pay rise for them at any time in the near future. They are a laughing stock the world over are the duck house MPs, and in the country that pays their wages, and their expenses, they are loathed.The trouble is that the system allows them to be career politians. They can be there for life because of the FPTP system and there are so many jobs dependent on the good will of the whips that they become company men.The whole point is that in doing that they also become worth very little. Anyone can vote the way they are told and ask planted questions. It's not hard, and it doesn't involve much in the way of brains. Much of the constituency work is done by paid assistants in any case. They really aren't worth three times the average wage as it is. Why should we pay them more?You're right that there are far too many of them. They tell us nearly all our legislation is made in Europe and the rest probably originates in the Celtic parliaments. Around 350 MPs is easily enough. And while we are on the subject, if the USA can manage with an upper house of 100, I'm pretty sure little UK could manage with 50, so let's get rid of the surplus.It's clear the main stream press have no intention of letting this go and of course the whining MPs and Lords are keeping it in the news by moaning about the restrictions being placed on them.This time we must learn that they are people who cannot be trusted. Nolan didn't go nearly far enough. They must be treated like ordinary public employees. Everything must be accounted for to the penny.

    Posted by tris | November 1, 2009, 12:44 am

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