Sometimes my wife and I read chunks of the newspaper out to each other as we find interesting titbits. Yesterday I bought the Sunday Telegraph and marvelled at the number of pages devoted to the expenses of our elected representatives. And that was after the Telegraph had devoted Friday and Saturday to the issue too. It’s back in the paper yet again today! It’s all on this link if you want to read all about it.
As I read through the allegations, I found myself reading out almost every other paragraph to Vanessa, such was my fascination with the moral dungeon some MPs have stooped into.
I don’t object to MPs receiving a decent salary, but I think some of them fail to recognise that £64,766 is a pretty reasonable level of remuneration.
We shouldn’t ask them to work for peanuts, and indeed we don’t. Their salary is plenty enough for elected representatives working in public service. It’s not like the market would create a higher salary. Hundreds of people are eager to become an MP, for every one who makes it into office. Indeed, if MPs’ salaries were defined by supply and demand, they’d probably work for free. But in that scenario only the rich could afford to represent us and avoid penury.
It is true that many (though perhaps not all) MPs could earn more outside parliament. Indeed, some of them do earn more in their part-time jobs. But aside from their moonlighting, they have chosen a noble path and should swap their personal financial ambition for higher ideals.
£65k is only their base salary. Aside from their generous expenses, there are a range of ways MPs can earn more:
- If their constituency is in London, they get London weighting.
- The Prime Minister, his secretaries of state, their ministers and their parliamentary under secretaries all get a salary supplement.
- The Leader of the Opposition, his whips, the Speaker, his deputies and Select Committee chairmen also receive a supplement.
So I really don’t buy the argument that expenses are in some way a substitute for a decent salary. The salary is fine, and as the Speaker has argued, MPs should not just “work to the rules”, but consider “the spirit of what is right”. In the meantime, it’s clear that many MPs’ application of the rules shows so little regard for the spirit of them that one wonders whether the needle in their collective moral compass has been installed back-to-front.
Under the circumstances, it would seem wise to ignore the moral compass and just get the rules right. Michael Martin is finding himself isolated from voters and even most MPs in his witch-hunt of the leaker, but he accepts that “serious change” is needed. The Committee for Standards in Public Life is working on this, but it won’t be bounced into rushing the process. As the chairman says, the “issues are not simple”. What kind of issues are they? What should they be considering? Here are a few thoughts:
- Expenses should be accurate, not generous.
- Money should be paid to reimburse expenses actually incurred in the course of an MP’s work.
- No individual needs to spend £400 per month for groceries in their ‘second’ home. What are they eating? Perhaps caviar omelettes for breakfast and organic truffles spiced with saffron for dinner. This needs considerable revision!
- An MP could rent a decent one-bedroom flat in central London for £1,200 per month. If something grander is desired, so be it, but £1,200 towards rent, mortgage interest or hotel rooms is plenty, in London or elsewhere.
- Repairs and maintenance are a personal matter which the Commons authorities should not interfere with. But if an MP needs to extend their mortgage to pay for repairs, the authorities could cover the interest payments provided they do not exceed £1,200pm.
- An MP should be asked to designate their ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ homes at the beginning of a parliamentary term. Any desire to change this should be considered by an independent panel. The request and decision should be a matter of public record.
- A fixed grant at the begining of an MP’s tenure could be paid to cover special expenses, such as furniture. This could be equal to a month’s salary (£5,397). It would be taxable, but any actual expenses the MP incurs would be tax deductable with HMRC. NB: MPs already receive a 3-month severance payment when they retire (or are turfed out) as an MP.
- What MPs tell the Commons authorities about their living arrangements should be consistent with what they tell HMRC. It should also be consistent with reality!
- All expenses should be receipted. If an MP considers it too onerous to supply a receipt for any claim, then it’s probably too small to bother reclaiming.
The information revealed in recent days is – in my view – a credit to the Telegraph. It wasn’t cheap, perhaps £100k, but it was probably a bargain given how much the paper has milked it. But the other cost lies within the risk of libel action, which must be considerable. Was it wrong to publish? I think not, given the widespread concern about so many MPs. Some of them have difficult questions to answer, and the truth will hurt them. But others have innocent reasons linked to their curious expenses.
I don’t doubt for a moment the Prime Minister’s probity in connection with the £6k cleaning bill paid to his brother. But many voters will judge him harshly for it. If he is innocent, then the taxpayers’ frustration is unfair. But the situation is perhaps more unfair on his brother Andrew, whose family has borne the brunt of sniping comments from acquaintances. Andrew’s wife Clare has written about her frustration over the whole issue.
There have been awkward questions for the Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove who’s been accused of ‘flipping’ his second home. Mr Gove has given a robust defence to the most serious charges, but shows welcome contrition on some minor points.
I believe Mr Brown and Mr Gove are among many whose expenses may not look good, but who are (generally) above board. They will be annoyed about how their expenses have been portrayed, but I believe it will be good for them. At this stage, the situation is so severe, the public mistrust so widespread, that it is time for every MP to face the charges and mount their defence. One by one, they ought to take that opportunity to clear their name. The BBC has outlined the key charges and responses currently in the public domain. Check it out and judge for yourself. In my view, some MPs will need to mount a better defence than claim they acted “within the rules”.
The whole affair enhances the appeal of an early election. The Prime Minister’s authority is already weak. It would be a disaster if all remaining authority in the House of Commons is also allowed to drip away. That is what appears to be happening now. If there is to be no general election in the near future, I would like to see a swathe of resignations and by-elections. I doubt it will happen, but something must be done to stop the rot.