The one great thing about the MPs’ expenses scandal is that it consigned to the scrapheap a number of very average politicians and provided an opportunity for a cultural sea change in the House of Commons. (Whether this was actually achieved or not is a different matter).
Whitehall was a very strange place when the MPs’ expenses scandal broke. For us civil servants the turmoil and the subsequent ministerial reshuffle less than a year before a general election created its own challenges. Imagine the mindset of a politician of any party taking ministerial office knowing that there had to be a general election in less than a year. What do you do?
Puffles has given Jacob Rees Mogg a regular kicking over his register of interests – both the time spent not doing parliamentary work that tax payers pay him to do, as well as the scale of the remuneration/payments that he receives for this non-parliamentary work. But let’s not be politically partisan about this. The same could apply to former Chancellor Alistair Darling or ex Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell.
In terms of what MPs have to do day-to-day, the pressure that MPs are under is huge. When Parliament sits their day starts early and doesn’t finish until 10.30pm. There are huge numbers of events, meetings and seminars that they are expected to attend – which explains why the Commons Chamber is seldom full. You only have to look at the Order of Business to see what else is happening outside of the Chamber – and that is just the select committees. This doesn’t cover meetings with ministers, party political gatherings, meeting with lobbyists, pressure groups, campaigners, charities and even constituents who make their way down to the Palace of Westminster.
For those MPs that do not live within commuting distance from Parliament, staying in London overnight becomes essential, not just a nicety. Having commuted from Cambridge and having lived in London, one of the biggest benefits of living in Central London was being able to get a reasonable amount of sleep as well as being able to have something of a social life…until my debts got too big.
What got MPs into trouble was the misuse of taxpayers money – leading to a handful spending time in prison. Arguably more should have been hit harder, but then we come back to the issue of ‘political cowardice’ of politicians trying to score political points on the issue of MPs’ pay rises without considering the issue of costs of living – something that is screwing the rest of us in a big way too.
For me, ideally the issue of tax payer funded constituency offices and second (London) homes would be one managed entirely by the Parliamentary authorities – taking MPs out of the equation completely. It would not require receipts or a huge paper trail. Parliament would own the properties that MPs lived in outright & provide the basic furnishings – anything else, just as for the rest of us would be the responsibility of the tenant – the individual MPs. In terms of the submission and publication of food receipts and things…wasn’t it and wouldn’t it be far easier to increase the salaries rather than have an expensive bureaucratic burdensome regime that takes up the time of too many public servants – elected or otherwise – whose time would be far better spent doing other things.
We then come to the issue of ‘extra curricular activities’ of MPs that I mentioned at the start of this post. My take is that being an MP is more than a full-time job in itself. This is one of the reasons why I am uncomfortable with the current set up – as being a minister is also more than a full-time job too. Yet a number of ministers that I have worked for and with have mentioned to me the importance of being able to meet constituents – and how this helps keeps them grounded in a way that in particular senior civil servants (on similar salaries) will have little insight of.
The case of MPs being paid eye-watering amounts of money for regular activities that can make significant demands on their time makes me uncomfortable. Some MPs have detailed and colourful records in their registers. Others have nothing in them. Having income from investments is one thing, receiving income from regular paid work is another – especially work that is purely for private gain rather than in general public service, such as sitting on the board of a school or a charity. But regular paid work is not so clear cut when it comes to writing articles or books. In the world of social media, writing articles (and allowing us to respond) is in the public interest – allowing us to challenge what politicians are saying in an open forum.
Finally, there is the issue of the professional politician – something that Peter Oborne wrote about in his book “The Triumph of the Political Class” – where politics for too many in power has been a career of a lifetime (or a leg-up to greater riches when you look at Tony Blair and friends) rather than a vocation after a career in some other field.
The challenge as with all of these things is finding the right balance. I don’t think we’ve quite found it yet.