Friday 13 September 2013

Time to Change MPs' Expenses

MPs' expenses. By this time four years ago the whirlwind of scandal had more or less blown itself out. But it has left a deep legacy of distrust and loathing towards our honourable members. Such is the toxicity that I've previously felt compelled to defend MP's expenses. And yet, despite 2009 and all that, to use the parlance of our times, there are some who still don't "get it". As revealed this morning, it is indefensible that Karen Bradley, the Tory MP for Staffs Moorlands employs her husband on a salary a quid short of £45 grand. Nadine Dorries has been a generous boss to both her daughters, giving them £45K and £35K respectively. And the odious Peter Bone and anti-minimum wage MP Christopher Chope employ their wives on top whack as well. I know a thing or two about working for a MP and I can tell you there's nothing a parliamentary researcher or other member of staff does that warrants such a ludicrous salary. There is a school of thought that says the same goes for MPs too. Whatever, these are examples of the worst kind of troughing that can only undermine politics' already low standing.

In the first place, MPs' actual expenses incurred during the course of discharging their duties only form a small amount of the overall expenses claimed. Staff and office running costs are lumped in when they shouldn't be. Of the £98m expenses tab, £74.3m of that went on staff and pensions. The majority of these workers, it should be noted, are not on the inflated salaries some MPs indulge their partners and children with. Of the remaining £23.8m are office running costs, which include rent, bills, supplies, and staff expenses. The proportion of expenses directly claimed by MPs collectively is unstated. It could be uncovered by going through every claim for each Member, but life's too short.

It is about time the whole system of expenses and staffing was overhauled and rationalised. How to restore public confidence? To begin with, office costs and MPs' expenses need decoupling for balance sheet purposes. Once and for all the cost of running a constituency and parliamentary operation must be available to public scrutiny, but be entirely separate from MP out-of-pocket expenses. Second, there needs to be an end to the nepotism. The employment of family members isn't the case of a few bad apples. When about a quarter of MPs do it it's a systemic problem. This arises from each office being completely beholden to the individual MP. They decide who to employ for however many hours, at whatever pay in line with staff budgets. There are IPSA standards of competencies but a straw poll of any number of constituency and parliamentary workers will tell you they are seldom adhered to.

I can understand why MPs would want to keep their hiring and firing autonomy. But too many have proven they aren't to be trusted. A formalised process needs setting up that takes charge of advertising for and employing new starters on standard contracts (as negotiated with the recognised trade union - in this case, Unite). I would also go as far to undertake an audit of every employee on the IPSA payroll. There will be a large number of workers who undertake duties that are of a higher pay grade and don't get the requisite remuneration. And there are others who do next to nothing and draw salaries not commensurate with their abilities, let alone actual work undertaken for their boss/parent/partner. This might require regrading some people. It could also force some family members, cronies and incompetents to seek employment elsewhere.

Technical measures are no substitute for the political renovation British politics needs. But establishing the separation of expenses and office costs, and ensuring IPSA takes on most of the heavy lifting of staffing makes it less likely our politics will be debased by Westminster's troughing culture in future.


Sarah AB said...

I agree, both about inflated salaries/nepotism, and about some people carrying out duties associated with a higher pay grade. I noticed my MP advertising for a (paid) intern, and thought that he'd probably attract really excellent candidates and that the living wage (although better than minimum wage or no wage) would probably not represent fully fair remuneration.

Speedy said...

Thanks, very informative.

When you have the people who make the decision the same people who benefit (or not), you have a problem.

This is a fundamental shortcoming of democracy - it is almost always self-interested. And this is most keenly exposed by parliaments, around the world.

I am reminded of what one Italian parliamentarian said about Mussolini - he may have wiped away democracy in a couple of days, but we spent 20 years doing the damage.

Phil said...

Working for a MP is, rightly, much sort after and relatively prestigious. It can open the door to bigger and better things and help fill your 'useful contacts' book up. So people who want to work for a MP are more likely, IMO, to accept interning at much lower rates than the job warrants.

Phil said...

That's always going to be the problem with representative democracy - and there isn't a quick fix.