Almost a week doesn’t pass in recent times in which some kind of scandal isn’t brought up regarding the expenses of Members of Parliament.
We’ve had McNulty-gate, involving Employment Minister Tony McNulty and his claiming of £60,000 in expenses for his parents’ house. Today, courtesy of the Sunday Express, we have been told that Jacqui Smith’s husband quite literally is a w*nker (the Home Secretary ‘mistakenly’ claimed expenses for her husband to watch porn). If that isn’t enough, Mrs Smith is also being investigated for claiming over £100,000 for a secondary home. Next week also sees the publication of the full expenses claimed by MPs in 2007/08, which will no doubt provide further embarrassment for some.
How many houses, Mr McNulty?
Now, before I delve into my thoughts on this, I would like to make you aware of two other sources of information published by Parliament regarding MPs privileges.
The House of Commons Information Office publishes a factsheet on parliamentary pay, pensions and allowances. It gives an easy to follow and detailed account on what an MP can be paid and renumerated, as well as past figures.
For those of you willing to delve into a myriad of figures and big numbers, the House of Commons Members’ Resource Accounts provides a block figure for the total amount used for MPs salaries, expenses, allowances and other stuff since 2001. In the 2007-08 Accounts, this chart gives a nice simple breakdown on the total figures spent on MPs salary, renumeration and the like.
Remember, this is all publicly available so you’re not getting let in on some big secret. Have a browse through them all. Go on, knock yourself out.
Ok? Let us continue…
Now, there have been a fair few arguments about ‘what is to be done’ about the issues of MPs expenses. Public servants claiming hundreds of thousands of pounds in expenses on top of a salary of almost £70,000, at a time when pursestrings have been tightened across the country and our national deficit is higher than countries like Hungary and Pakistan (who have already been aided by the IMF) is clearly not on. Considering the furore they showed over the ‘Fred the Shred’ bonus scandal, it could be seen as somewhat hypocritical that MPs are allowed to claim such vast sums of money on top of a healthy salary, for things such as second homes and family travel.
Something, clearly, must be done if politicians wish to regain any respect among, and connection with, the public they represent.
Carl Mortishead of The Times has gone to the extreme of the change spectrum, arguing that MPs pay should be abolished and instead their political exploits should be financed by their previous employers after they are elected. He hopes this will render the idea of politics as a career defunct. Removing the career ladder from politics is something I would like. However, I have a slightly different view about how he proposed to do this. Let’s look at what he says:
During their time in Parliament, the MPs’ previous employer would be required to give financial support. Large companies should easily be able to afford this burden. Smaller businesses might receive financial assistance from the taxpayer up to the level of the average British wage.
Excuse the language, but ARE YOU F*CKING KIDDING ME? You want private businesses to fund the exploits of Members of Parliament, who lest we forget should serve the public and constituents interest? This would not so much open the door for private companies to lobby MPs for law change, but more rip the door off and roll out a red carpet for them, with a sandwich board out front stating ‘MPs for sale: pay well and that amendment you want will go through’. Lord knows the people at The Times should know more about this, considering the Sunday version of their paper broke the ‘Peers-for-sale’ scandal two months ago.
Alan Duncan, the current Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, let slip this ditty when questioned on the MPs expenses row (From Paul Waugh’s blog):
“The one that causes all the trouble is this so-called second home allowance. One day, one can’t do it now because it would look like an increase in an MP’s salary, one day I think we are going to have to get rid of this allowance and probably roll it into salary and say people can look after their own housing and accommodation and not have a special allowance for it.”
Hmm. I agree to an extent that MPs should cater for their own accommodation within their salaries, but try squaring an increase in MPs salary in the midst of a recession. Nah, not likely, and not something I particularly agree with. You’re getting paid almost £70k a year, plus other expenses on top of that. Is it not enough?
In the case of Tony McNulty, as a Minister he is paid £104,000 a year, and his wife twice that as head of Ofsted. How he can have the cheek to claim under allowances for a second home he doesn’t even live in, and despite his monetary wealth, is beyond me.
But that is the point. The current system in place allows MPs to claim wontonly for excesses such as this. If you were offered the chance to claim several thousands of pounds in expenses, would you turn it down? Doubtful. Whether it is morally wrong is irrelevant, as MPs who are given the chance to claim will, in most cases, do just that.
So why isn’t an alternative system in place, that doesn’t allow Members of Parliament to gorge themselves in such fancies? Well, a starting point would be that expenses are not governed from the outside, but by the House of Commons itself. The House of Commons Commission consists of six MPs who are responsible for the management of the House and the provision of services to its Members. It makes the financial estimates they deem fit for the House of Commons each year.
A different Committee, the Members’ Estimate Committee, has a much more specified remit, in that it considers matters regarding MPs pay and allowances for the House. I say a different committee, it in fact comprises of the same six Members of the House of Commons Commission. To be fair to them, they published a review in June last year which recommended a much more transparent system regarding allowances, even recommending a ‘financial health check for Members‘ – effectively an auditing process conducted by an outside, professional company which would scrutinise the records and claims made for each MP per parliament. It would take a while to post the other points, but in the main they all sound quite right in terms of public transparency and scrutiny of records.
So, what do you think the Members of the House did when asked to debate on these recommendations, which would make them more susceptible to public scrutiny, and in some cases, reduce the allowances they can claim?
They passed an amended version of the motion which effectively rejected the main recommendations of the review.
As soon as the pay and allowances of MPs is audited by an impartial, out of house operator, instead of being drawn up by politicians and to be debated by the politicians who are affected by it, then Parliament will stop looking like a glorified ‘Old-Boys’ network. If you want to restore the faith of the public in politics, you need to be completely open with them as they are the people you represent. If they carry on serving each other as they do, then disillusionment will only continue to worsen.