Tuesday, April 21, 2009

MPs expenses: revolution now?

“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, Michael Martin, to go and go now. He has 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. He accused me of defaming the parliamentary group of MPs and had me reported to the deputy sergeant at arms. Now as Speaker he likens himself to a trades unionist defending pay and conditions - this is completely inappropriate, as are the methods used to silence dissent.

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 must resign also, not just because he is an irascible buffoon who can’t even read a prepared statement coherently, but because he 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 best suggestion I’ve heard all week is that he should be replaced by Kate Hooey, the Labour MP who got an inarticulate
ear bashing from Martin last week for daring to challenge his handling of the expenses issue.

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 last week 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.

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