Parliamentary pay and expenses are never far from the public eye these days. Neither the Commons voting on its own remuneration nor the setting up a supposedly independent pay review body has proven satisfactory from the point of view of the public. Nor did an earlier attempt at linking pay to that of a middle ranking civil servant avoid the difficulty of the initial setting of the peg by which MPs’ pay should be decided. .
As for expenses they have been a standing cause for Parliamentary shame ever since the Daily Telegraph exposed the gross abuses which were going on in 2009 when they purchased records of Parliamentary expenses which politicians had done their very best to keep secret (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5297606/MPs-expenses-Full-list-of-MPs-investigated-by-the-Telegraph.html).
MPs’ pay should be comfortable but no more than that, let us say three times the average national wage. That would take it up to around £80,000 at present. I think most people would accept that as reasonable if MPs were banned from taking other paid work and expenses abuse, both legal and illegal, was tightly controlled. It would give the backbench MP a salary akin to that of a doctor or a solicitor. In addition, they have a seriously generous pension by present day standards, subsidised food and drink within the Palace of Westminster and a substantial payment to tide them over should they lose their seat. There might be a case for removing or lessening such perks, but for the moment I would let them stay. The subsidised food is justified by the ending of any expense claims allowed for meals in London and the transition payment is reasonable if MPs are allowed no outside of politics employment whilst an MP. The pension is more vulnerable to attack because there is a case for saying MPs should not have a more generous pension regime than is the norm for British society.
We can be sure that there would be no shortage of takers at £80,000 pa even with the other conditions I have proposed. Indeed the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which has recently recommended an 11% rise, admits that the current £66, 000 is quite sufficient to entice many to be parliamentary candidates (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/10516391/No-evidence-MPs-66000-salary-deters-people-from-standing-for-Parliament-pay-watchdog-admits.html). The idea that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys should produce a hollow laugh from anyone who has paid attention to how MPs behave, whether in terms of being dishonest or lazy or simply incompetent. Our present remuneration system produces all too often MPs who act as though they see being an MP as merely a ticket to ride the gravy train and an ego trip. Few show any real independence of thought or action for very rarely does an MP, even a backbencher, step radically out of line on a party policy, even where, so often these days, the policies are self-evidently not in the national interest, for example, the continuing mass immigration in the UK and the ever increasing suppression of dissent against the ever tighter grasp of political correctness.
Their pay should be uprated up or down in accordance with the rise or fall of the average wage. That would provide both a simple and transparent system for the public to understand and give MPs a direct reminder once a year of how their stewardship of the country is going. It would also get rid of any squabbling over who makes the decision and remove, after the initial decision on the multiple of the average wage to be used, any further human decision making. Consequently, there would be an appearance of objectivity top any rise.
The job of an MP should be full time for two reasons. The first is a matter of practicality: the size of the average UK constituency is large (68, 000 – http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/elections-and-voting/constituencies/ ) and requires a good deal of time spent on it if people are to be represented properly . In addition, much of the present business of Parliament goes through with precious little scrutiny because MPs are so often absent – even the Commons committees routinely have MPs missing.
The second reason is fundamental to the office of MP: if they have outside interests there is a strong likelihood they will be compromised, because their extra-Parliamentary work will very often impinge on Parliamentary business. That is not just the obvious cases such as back benchers being sponsored by unions, being in receipt of non-executive directorships or receiving consultancy fees, but also that deriving from seemingly innocuous employment such as practising at the Bar or working as a doctor because these can readily give them vested interests. For example, a barrister would have a vested interest in changes to legal Aid; a doctor in the alteration of the terms of general practice. MPs are supposed to declare any interest but they can still vote. In principle, Ministers have to be not only honest in actuality, but show themselves to be like Caesar’s wife above suspicion. This they do by divesting themselves of directorships and placing any shares they may have in blind trusts. If it is thought necessary for ministers to have such, it should be doubly necessary for backbenchers because they would prima facie be much more in the way of temptation when it comes to satisfying their own selfish interests rather than those of the country because they have far less pay than a Minister.
The post-office legalised bribes that come in the form of sinecures on the boards of companies must also be stopped. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10516295/Whitehalls-revolving-door-speeds-up-ex-ministers-and-civil-servants-seeking-jobs-in-private-sector-doubles.html ).
It might be thought that after the revelation by the Daily Telegraph in 2009 of the grotesquely inappropriate things for which MPs were allowed to claim, caution if not morality would have greatly curbed the abuses. Sadly, it appears there is still some bizarre poking of Hon Members’ noses into the expenses trough, for example, the brawling Scottish MP Eric Joyce, who sits as an independent since losing the Labour whip, stung the taxpayer for £229 for a pair of designer glasses. (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/disgraced-mp-eric-joyce-stung-2896178).
The only expenses MPs should be allowed are for accommodation when they are in London and have constituencies a fair distance from the capital and the cost of travel between their constituencies. It is reasonable to expect them to meet their food costs whilst away from home, not least because of the subsidised meals they can get within the Place of Westminster.
Housing can be met one of two ways, build a furnished hostel to house MPs or simply put out contracts to London hoteliers for a bulk rate. Fully furnished accommodation with no need for MPs to buy any household goods.
As for travel, the government should negotiate a bulk contract for MPs and their families with the rail companies. The spouses and children could be restricted to a set number of trips a year. I doubt whether any MPs live far from a railway station. I would restrict them to railway travel if the taxpayer is paying. Those who live a genuinely long distance away, for example, in the far north of Scotland or Northern Ireland, could be covered by a bulk buy contract with one or more airlines.
If this seems somewhat Spartan rations, remember that MPs who have constituencies too far from Westminster to make a daily commute practical probably only spend Monday-Thursday nights in London. In addition, the Commons only sits for about 6 months of the year. Consequently, the argument that MPs need a flat or house in London to maintain family life is clearly untrue.
If such a regimen was introduced expenses fraud would vanish because an MP would have little opportunity for it. Their accommodation in London would be paid for by the government directly, there would be no household purchases needed because the accommodation would be furnished and travel expenses would be paid for by the government directly. MPs would have to claim nothing.
The other great abuse is the employment by MPs’ of their relatives or friends as staff. As this is public money being spent it is reasonable that these positions are put out to open competition. But even if that was done, the MP would still be likely to choose the relative or friend. That is a good reason to ban MPs from employing anyone close to them. A second reason to ban their employment is that a close relative or friend would be more likely on average to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour by an MP and MPs would be aware of this and moderate their criminal tendencies. The third reason is that some MPs at least have employed relatives and friends who have done precious little work. Someone unknown to the MP before employment is much more likely to do the work for which they are paid.
To help ensure that MPs are not illicitly enriching themselves, a full statement of assets including those held by close family members should be included in the Members Register of Interests. These should be checked against the actual material circumstances of each MP when they first become and MP, once a Parliament and when the MP leaves Parliament.
There is also a crying need for a proper investigation into the way Parliamentary expense administrators and the special HMRC unit dealing with MPs pay have failed to apply the HMRC’s “Wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred in the performance of the job” expenses test. It was clear from the Telegraph data published in 2009 that well over half of MPs had claims which comprehensively failed the test, yet very few were brought to book over it. Consequently, the Parliamentary administrators and the HMRC unit should be investigated for systematically failing to apply the test.
The House of Lords
The Lords is a mess. It is neither political fish nor fowl nor good red flesh. Trying to reform it is really a lost cause because most of the hereditary peers are gone (which removes the idea of independent members beholden to no one) and the vast majority of the regular attendees are placemen of the major political parties. It would be better if the House was abolished and replaced by an entirely new chamber with none of the placemen in it so there is a genuine change of political personnel. (Personally, I would favour a House of 1,000 members selected by lot from those who were willing to serve with a single term of eight years. They would act as a kind of jury to oversee the legislation of the Commons but would not initiate the legislation. The primacy of the Commons would not be challenged and political parties would not be able to control the house).
However, there is no prospect of any radical change in the foreseeable future so what should be done under present circumstances?
Peers do not get pay, but an attendance allowance and expenses, including London accommodation if they live far enough away. . They cheat by selling influence , claiming illegitimate expenses and by abusing the attendance allowance rules. The last they do by signing on for the day then leaving the Lords shortly afterwards having pocketed £300 from the taxpayer (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/video-tory-lord-hanningfield-exposed-2934895#ixzz2nj1KwOwp) It is doubtful whether this abuse of the attendance allowance is illegal because there are no clear duties for peers, but it is clearly an abuse and should be stopped. As for the selling of influence, that should be made a criminal offence. Expenses should be restricted to travel and overnight accommodation and could be included within whatever arrangements are made for MPs.
How could things be improved on the attendance allowance front? By paying a salary? That is not really a starter because most of the peers entitled to sit in the House – there are approaching 800 at present – do not wish to attend regularly. The so-called working peers – almost all placemen and women of the major parties – might be given a salary while the others continued with a more rigorously policed attendance allowance scheme but that would be a messy arrangement. The best option would be payment based on objective criteria such as participation in debates and voting rather than simply clocking in. This could be linked to definite duties such as I discuss in the next section.
Terms of service
Apart from abuses in drawing expenses, some MPs neglect their political duties, both at Westminster or in their constituency. For example, Gordon Brown is notorious for very rarely being in the Commons since his resignation as Prime Minister – he has even started describing himself as an ex-politician (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/gordon-brown/10415046/Gordon-Brown-Im-an-ex-politician.html). In addition there is no general public scrutiny of the performance of a constituency MP, the only real test of the latter being the opinion of their constituency party because the vast majority of constituents will never have cause to go to their MP seeking personal help.
MPs can get away with such neglect because there is no legal requirement for an MP to do anything either at Westminster or in his constituency. There is a Code of Conduct for MPs but observation of the Code is not a legal requirement. Complaints under the Code can be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Commissioner’s report on any investigation he or she may undertake may be considered by the Committee on Standards (until the beginning of 2012 the Committee on Standards and Privileges http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/standards-and-privileges-committee/). In principle, the House of Commons can also take action as a House if it so chooses.
Apart from the lack of legal teeth, here are two problems with this system: first, the penalties which are imposed are normally minor, for example, a reprimand and instruction to apologise to the House; second, even the relatively minor sanctions that the Committee for Standards can mete out are all too often not imposed.
MPs can be excluded from the House, sometimes for years, but these are rare punishments, especially where powerful and influential members are involved. Think of Peter Mandelson under Blair who was forced to resign a ministerial position not once but twice: the first time over his false declaration when applying for a mortgage and his acceptance of a very large loan accepted from a political colleague, the second after the Indian Hinduja brothers received British passports in questionable circumstances after Mandelson had taken a hand in the matter (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/3130348/The-scandals-that-brought-Peter-Mandelson-down-twice-before.html). Nor would the police investigate Mandelson for his false declaration when applying for a mortgage, despite this being an established fact – I made a complaint to the Met asking them to do so but the police refused to even register the complaint (http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/laws-are-for-little-people-the-mandelson-mortgage-fraud-cover-up/).
The Code of Conduct is a document which shares something with the 1936 Soviet Constitution. The latter was a wondrously cornucopia of democratic goodies; the Code of Conduct is splendidly ethical statement of how an MP should behave. Neither the Soviet Constitution nor the Code of Conduct had or has any connection with reality. Consider these extracts from the Code of Conduct:
Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.
Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.
In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.” (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmcode/1885/188502.htm#a1)
How far this is from reality is epitomised by the IPSA chairman claiming that the 11% pay rise for MPs is necessary otherwise they would return to large-scale abuse of expenses. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10512763/Increase-MPs-pay-or-risk-another-expenses-scandal-Ipsa-chairman-says.html).
The Code of Conduct needs to be enforced rigorously, but that would still leave MPs free to devote too little time to their political duties. Consequently, there needs to be a legal enforceable job description which requires MPs to do things such hold regular constituency surgeries, respond to constituents mail within a certain numbers of days and attend Westminster whenever Parliament is sitting unless they have a reasonable excuse for being absent such as attending to ministerial duties or undertaking official Parliamentary business away from Westminster.
What improvements in politicians’ behaviour would result?
The changes I propose, or something like them, would remove from Parliament those who are there to enrich themselves. The remuneration (including perks) would be sufficient to enable an MP to live decently but not extravagantly. Because MPs would have all the previously legal ways of enriching themselves through such things as absurdly lax expenses rules, employing relatives or spending large amounts of time on non-political work, only surreptitiously selling influence would be available to them. However, with proper oversight such as checking the actual material circumstances of an MP even that would become decidedly risky. Make selling influence a criminal offence with a hefty prison sentence and it would be most unattractive prospect.
If MPs come to the business knowing they cannot be a law unto themselves but will be subject to the type of constraints which the general population are held by in their work, that in itself will tend to produce politicians who are interested in formulating and implementing policy and serving their constituents rather than serving their own interests. What I propose would not be a panacea but a good beginning in the sorely needed attempt to change the ethical weather in Parliament. There is nothing more corrupting than seeing those with power being corrupt for it taints the whole of society by example.