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Can We Restore Our Faith In Politics

December 22, 2009

Competition: The Ultimate Consumer

Below is the text of a speech Mark was to make at a local debating event:

Make no mistake – this year’s parliamentary allowances and expenses scandal will have a lasting impact on British democracy. The Daily Telegraph’s handling of this story will provide a seminal case history to media watchers for decades to come. This parliament is now paralysed by inaction and lacks credibility or public confidence to govern effectively.

This would be serious at the best of times. These times, however, are arguably the worst seen in the post-war era. Our nation is engaged in an increasingly unpopular – and for many unwinnable – war in Afghanistan; meanwhile the seriousness of the economic situation and the burden of the debt crisis are only slowly beginning fully to emerge. Only the catharsis of a General Election can end this expenses saga and nothing would be more catastrophic for trust in our democratic institutions and processes for this toxic controversy to be prolonged into the next parliament.

Indeed, I suspect that the public will only recognise closure of the expenses scandal when some Members of this parliament find themselves under criminal investigation. Truly these events promise the largest shake up in parliamentary practice since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally that momentous upheaval came as a consequence of a crisis of confidence in other institutions – the position of the established Church of England; sustained controversy surrounding the monarchy under George III and George IV. Similarly today’s political crisis arrives hot on the heels of an unprecedented economic firestorm over the past two years where the catastrophe befalling financial institutions has shaken public confidence in a capitalist system which was supposed to have prevailed over its competitors in 1989.

Most of my parliamentary colleagues would have you believe that the MPs allowances scandal hit like a meteor out of the blue, but others had been campaigning vigorously on the expenses issue for some six years before the scandal broke. I had been warning colleagues within the House of Commons that the workings of the second home allowance were an accident waiting to happen. Yet for so long as a culture of cynicism borne of a lack of transparency and public scrutiny could be guaranteed, all too many MPs concerned themselves only with the question ‘Will any change in the system make me worse off?’.

As a result of parliament’s repeated abject failure in clearing up a discredited system regarded by many as illegitimate, this matter came only to a head when the country was in deep recession which made parliamentary obsession with expenses and allowances even less palatable. The public have rightly asked, ‘If parliamentarians have not the ability to put their own House in order over allowances and expenses, how can they be trusted to regulate and legislate for the rest of the country?’.

Insofar as there has ever been a firm distinction between ‘pay’ and ‘reimbursement for living away from home’ this had surely been blown apart by the resolution of the House in 2001 which resulted in a 60% uplift of the second home allowance (from approximately £12,000 to £19,000 per annum) despite there being no Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB) recommendation to this effect. The fact that some 95% of MPs were in the position to take the second home allowance ensured that this proposal was railroaded through parliament. Almost immediately an overwhelming majority of MPs claiming the second home allowance did so at or near the new inflated maximum level – a clear indication that the second home allowance was not ‘reimbursement’ at all, but part of an overall pay and rations package.

The reluctance of parliament to increase the headline salary of MPs (on three occasions since 2001 ignoring an SSRB recommendation) led to substantial increases in ACA and staff allowances (both now around double their level on my election to parliament in June 2001) with an implicit recognition (at least at a time when lack of transparency and public scrutiny could be assured) that any annual uplift in these allowances could be siphoned off as the equivalent of a pay increase.

The constant refrain we saw in newspaper coverage of the second home allowance that ‘there is no suggestion that any rules have been broken’ made it obvious to me that the rules over allowances and expenses were far too vague and needed transparent tightening.

It was perhaps slightly easier for me as one of the twenty five London MPs who cannot claim the second home allowance to take a detached view. However it seemed to me that most MPs simply failed to understand the disbelief at the stream of revelations over the extensive enrichment of Members courtesy of this allowance. The electorate’s understanding (rightly in my view) was that public money should be properly incurred only in the renting of a furnished apartment in central London for the purposes of undertaking parliamentary duties. Hence the dismay at the widespread practice of taking out a mortgage with public funds, remortgaging at will to ensure that those payments are taken to the absolute maximum of the second home allowance available as well as calculating the location of a ‘main home’ in order to maximise financial benefit.

Similarly, the reason for the public uproar about the still intact, if much derided, ‘John Lewis’ list was surely the widespread belief that most of the items should not be on it at all. The second home allowance was originally – and in my view properly – designed to cover the additional costs of living in London. No mortgage interest payments. No remortgaging at will. No pocketing of capital gains on the sale of a taxpayer funded second home. No purchase of household furnishings. No buying of state-of-the-art plasma TVs, stereo systems and barbecues. No payment of £400 monthly grocery and food bills, £250 per month general expenses – all paid without receipts, no questions asked. All of the foregoing are surely the purpose of a basic salary.

Once pressure began to grow for MPs to release details of their expenses – preferably voluntarily but involuntarily if necessary – rearguard action was taken to prevent the publication of claims. It was this that led to the disastrous policy of redaction (the blotting out of confidential – and some not-so-confidential details) as well as what turned out to be largely spurious claims that home addresses should not appear. This had less to do with security and more with pulling the wool over the electorate’s eyes.

Has the expenses scandal changed parliament forever? Yes, of course. It is an issue that will hang like a cloud for some time to come and will linger in the public’s subconscious for decades as a deserved curse on our House. Whether it has changed parliament entirely for the better we cannot yet tell. If it has ensured that MPs will genuinely treat with greater respect taxpayers’ money and instinctively know right from wrong, it will have achieved a great deal. It will also have rid parliament of some of its less honourable Members.

Unfortunately I fear that the reforming steps we have taken so far undermine those positive aspects, damaging further the relationship between representatives and their constituents. The scandal itself, which has triggered demand for reform wider than that of expenses, has deterred many talented and able people from entering political life. We can only hope that the next parliament will not be filled with inexperienced men and women regarding themselves as little more than cheerleaders for their Party leaders. The worst possible outcome would be the reinforcement of a parliamentary class made of people with little or no experience outside the political sphere. It is possible too that the expenses woe will encourage many of Edmund Burke’s ‘good men’ (and women) yet alone the public simply to give up on democracy.

I say this not to lament the scandal’s unveiling. Rather I mourn the hopeless way in which we politicians handled it. It did not need to have been that way. We may all be poorer for it.

We should grasp this rare opportunity in the aftermath of the Allowances scandal to implement overdue, but lasting reforms to the way politics operates.

  1. Pare back the control exercised by the Executive

Successive governments (and Opposition leaderships) shoulder much of the blame for the parliamentary expenses fiasco that has blown up so spectacularly over the past six months. As I have said, we have witnessed the repeated grandstanding by Party leaders, refusing to implement independent salary reviews but then turning a blind eye to the cynical – and at its extreme, fraudulent – manipulation of the second home allowance (whose annual uplift was never reduced, reversed or even capped) as a salary substitute.

Naturally the 24/7 media world in which politics operates militates towards close-unit teams around any Party leadership being ‘on message’. However, my own Party leader has explicitly accepted that the powers of Executive patronage (including his own) should be curtailed.

  1. Select Committees to exercise real power

The appointment of all members of Select Committees should be by secret ballot of all MPs. Chairmanships have too often been handed out by the Executive to former Ministers or senior backbenchers on the basis of their compliance and willingness not to ‘rock the boat’. Scrutiny is largely illusory – remember that the most used oxymoron in politics is the phrase ‘the influential Select Committee’.

Select Committees should also be much smaller (ideally numbering between five and eight MPs) and all its Members should be fully committed to acquiring or developing genuine expertise in their field. Currently we witness the charade of ill-prepared MPs (on the rare occasions when they attend) parroting out planted questions cobbled together by the committee clerk rather than even pretending to hold witnesses or Ministers to genuine account.

  1. A much smaller House of Commons

At the risk of talking myself out of a constituency (curiously MPs proposing a reduction in the size of the Commons invariably tend to be on the cusp of retirement) I reckon there ought to be a substantial reduction in the size of parliament. Conservative Party policy of a 10% cut in the size of the House of Commons should only be seen as a first step. Ideally a fixed sized parliament of 450 or 500 Members should be our medium-term goal. As a consequence the primary priority of all MPs should be the holding of the Executive to account, rather than acting as a local ombudsman on constituency issues more appropriately dealt with by local authorities, law centres and citizens’ advice bureaux to name but three publicly funded bodies properly designed to deal with parochial concerns.

  1. Begin the process of separating the Legislature from the Executive

The final element of my wish list is probably a step too far even for my more reform-minded colleagues….for now, at least. However, if parliament is to have any future relevance beyond making up the essential numerical armies required by any government to get their legislation onto the statute book, we should regard law-making as an end in itself rather than as an essential stepping stone towards holding ministerial office.

There is a rather important caveat that needs to be addressed before we begin the headlong rush towards empowering individual parliamentarians.

The fact is that many – perhaps even, most – MPs themselves do not regard any of the foregoing as their main role, still less the constitutional duty of holding the Executive to account. Instead the House of Commons increasingly consists of a cadre of über-councillors, focusing much of their attention and burgeoning workload in a constituency focused comfort zone.

No doubt, local connections to one’s seat are important. So too should MPs be responsive to the concerns of their constituents. The question is whether this generation of MPs and the next will be equipped to play its key role in the transformative parliament that democratic renewal so desperately requires.