Sunday, February 03, 2008
Dump greedy MPs and let the people run the country
This article of mine appears in today's Sunday Express.
Another week, another scandal involving a British Member of Parliament. Last week, it was Peter Hain, forced to resign from the government after failing to declare donations of over £100,000 to his campaign for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Now it’s the turn of Tory MP Derek Conway, who, it has been revealed, paid his two sons over £80,000 of public money for ‘research’ work.
What these scandals illustrate is that the big divide in British politics is not so much between 'Labour', 'Conservative' and 'Lib Dem', but between the political elite and the rest of us.
Our MPs live in a very different world to those they are supposed to represent. For instance, only 5% of Britons own a second home, yet for MPs, who receive taxpayers funding to enable them to keep a house or flat in London, it is almost de rigeur.
While many Britons face increasing job insecurity, MPs have easily the most generous conditions of employment of any group of people in the country. They receive a salary of just over £60,000 a year- not bad for what is at the most, a four-day-a week job with a two and a half month’s summer holiday. Incredibly, their holidays are to be increased by yet another 12 days this year, bringing the total to 90, over three times that of the average worker.
It’s not just MPs’ inflated salaries, their index-linked pensions and long holidays that puts them in such a feather-bedded position: there’s also the generous allowances they receive. Around £90,505 a year- (the figure is soon to be increased to £96,630), is available to MPs to fund a team of researchers and assistants. At least 100 MPs use this money to employ their spouses or other relatives, paying them around £1.8m a year. Overall in the 2006/7 tax year, MPs claimed a record- breaking £87.6m in allowances and expenses, an average of £135,600 per member.
Of course, if our MPs were doing such a fantastic job, there would be little cause for complaint. But the reality is that the more pampered our elected representatives have become, the more ineffectual they have been in carrying out their duties. Parliament is supposed to be the place where the executive is held to account- and where government policies are put under scrutiny. But under New Labour, the House of Commons has become a rubber stamp, with MPs acting little more than lobby fodder.
For their high salaries, we don’t really demand much of our MPs in return. Attendance in the House of Commons is not compulsory. And those who do attend regularly, are under no obligation to take part in debates.
Even when their House of Commons careers are at an end, MPs can still look forward to more riches at the public’s expense. Many end up on the boards of one of Britain’s 883 quangos,- drawing high salaries for posts that are often no more than sinecures. Neither is it unusual for members of the same family to hold senior positions: former Labour leader Lord Kinnock is chairman of the British Council, wife Glenys is an MEP and son Stephen is head of the British Council in St Petersburg, Russia.
Britain’s political elite hasn’t always been this venal. Journalist Peregrine Worsthorne recalls interviewing Herbert Morrison, Home Secretary during World War Two and a leading light in the post-war Labour government, after he had left office. To Worsthorne’s amazement, Morrison was still living in the same modest house in which he had been born. The contrast with Tony Blair, a man who less than a year after leaving office, has already pocketed an estimated £10m, could not be greater.
The notion that it is natural - or even acceptable- for political leaders to be shameless money grabbers like Blair is a wrong one. Charles De Gaulle, the symbol of French resistance in World War Two and the saviour of his crisis-torn country in the late 1950s, was all but destitute when he died, only a year after stepping down as President. De Gaulle went into politics not to enrich himself but to serve his country, a concept of public service that the grasping British politicians of today seem to have all but forgotten.
Not surprisingly, disenchantment with our self-serving political elite has led to millions of Britons turning away from politics. In the last two General Elections only around 60% of people bothered to vote, compared to 84% in 1950.
Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, believes that banning politicians from paying family members with taxpayers’ money would help restore public trust. But the problem goes deeper than that. Our politicians have shown, through actions such as repeatedly voting to award themselves above inflation pay increases, that their first priority is to themselves and not the people they were elected to represent.
Technology can provide a solution. With the use of telephones and the internet, many important political decisions, such as whether to endorse the EU Constitution, send British troops to war, or renationalise the railways, could be taken by voters themselves in referenda. Moving towards a more direct form of democracy means we could drastically cut back on the number of MPs and save ourselves a fortune.
Those opposed to greater use of referendums argue that the public would not be well-informed enough to make the right decisions. But I’m sure that we would get things right far more often than our out of touch, ineffectual, and increasingly corrupt political elite.
UPDATE: Here's the latest news about MPs' misuse of OUR money. I've heard of 'jobs for the boys', but as far as our far from Honourable Members are concerned, it's jobs for the mums, the dads, the inlaws and the boys' close friends as well.