How hard can it be to sort out the expenses and salaries of Members of Parliament? When I listened to the headline news on the plans to reform expenses, I was broadly in support of them. After all, the number of poorly attended debates is a little shocking. Actually, if we could pay MPs according to how much backbone they show and deduct wages if they ask simpering questions from their own party, I’d consider us to arrive at the perfect system – but since I’m not going to be given the job of determining ‘the backbone’ allowance, we can skip past that.
Having read Harriet Harman’s speech in defence of the proposals, and seen the party political pissing contest that has resulted, I feel the passionate urge to reiterate the original question. How hard can it be to sort out the expenses and salaries of Members of Parliament? MPs earn about £60,000. Of itself, this should be more than enough to handle mortgages, taxes of all shades and any sundry bills. It’s enough to afford suits and travel. It probably isn’t enough to afford accommodation in London, but it’s not clear to me that this requires the second homes allowance.
A better way to channel resources would be to purchase a series of rooms in different hotels around the city, or to allocate MPs council housing instead of inviting them to pick their own second home and paying down the mortgage on it. At the end of their tenancy, the house would revert to whichever council in whose jurisdiction it lay. Instead both Brown and Cameron are insisting upon the option of allowing MPs to purchase a second home, leaving Clegg to insist that any profit from selling the home be realised by the taxpayer.
Clegg has the right of it, in that regard – though I think it’s a mistake to concede second homes to MPs. It’s unnecessary – or it would be unnecessary if we had enough council housing to go around. Then there’s the matter of the staff of MPs.
The Tory Democracy Task Force and the government have already agreed that MPs expenses in regard of staffing etc should be exempt from Freedom of Information laws, recent announcements on expenses being published notwithstanding. The topsheet of parliamentary expenses will be published, the rest will not. The government, which plans to hold a vote next week, has also decided that the staff employed by MPs shall become employed by the House of Commons, which shall have oversight as regards wages and so forth.
I’m not in favour of exempting staffing expenditure from FOI, but on the other hand, centralising the employment and payment of parliamentary assistants may turn out to be a good thing. Who can forget Derek Conway, the man who was employing his son to do nothing, whilst his office secretary was being paid barely £10,000 per annum? That sort of behaviour is scandalous – and perhaps centralising the staffing issue might allow for better levels of pay – but the only way we’ll know about it, is if all the details are published, not just the bottom figures for each of the new twenty six categories of expenditure.
Far from being merely an issue for populist tub-thumpers, ranting about how the leaders of our land are too busy clearing out the kitty to fill their own larders, the payment of all parliamentary staff is a matter for the labour movement. Both in the case of MPs, and in the case of their assistants, the amount of money changing hands is relatively small – but there is a point in having MPs survive on something approaching a worker’s wage, and something to be said for making sure their assistants aren’t drawn only from the self-supporting wealthy.
The point is to diversify parliament, through both experience and personnel, perchance making it a little bit less of a clique.