Tuesday, 19 May 2009

MP Expenses are a benefit system, so let's treat them like one

Now I'm glad that Michael Martin has announced his resignation as Speaker from 21st June, but this is only a 'first step' to reform the system of expenses in Parliament.

It was obvious he had to go when it was exposed that he was using the system for his own benefit in the 'Taxes for Taxis' affair and had then used his position to block reform at every turn. He had lost any credibility to undertake the job at hand and public confidence was ebbing away for every second he remained in position (although as presiding officer it was much more than a one-man band, as the Telegraph's revelations and voting records show).

Now the focus will turn to exactly what reforms should be made.

Local celebrity chef Anthony Worrall-Thompson recently made the unpopular call for MPs to be paid properly, which would remove the need for them to make dodgy expense claims as a standard means to supplement their income and do the job properly. However it's worth pointing out that expenses were originally introduced under the Thatcher regime precisely because it was was seen at the time as politically unacceptable for MPs to vote themselves a pay rise in line with similarly ranking professionals (GPs, headmasters etc).

My feeling is that these arguments still hold and other ways round the problem should be considered.

So let's consider the principles of the matter.

Firstly, MPs pay should be sufficient to enable them to do the job properly.

Secondly, MPs are our country's representatives. Pay and conditions should be adequate to attract the best talent from all walks of national life and enable the electorate to choose on the basis of merit.

Thirdly, it is fair that any additional expenses they fairly incur in the line of duty should be reimbursed. This does not include, for example, helicopter rides where public transport is available.

The anger felt over this scandal comprises reactions to each of these points, but the phrase 'snouts in the trough' has been repeated so many times that it is easily overlooked that there is also an underlying hypocrisy to their behaviour.

Expenses and allowances have come to be considered by many MPs to be a right to which they are entitled whether or not they need them.

And this is the rub - ordinary members of the public are forced to disclose personal financial details when claiming benefits. Just so that the government can assess whether we could pay for such essentials ourselves.

Why shouldn't MPs be subjected to the means test too?

It's not just the sight of millionaire MPs claiming for packets of biscuits and bath-plugs that gets our goat, it's that they make a massive hue and cry about cracking down on fraudulent benefit claimants. MPs should also be subjected to the standards which they promote.


Mark Reckons said...

It would be politically impossible to raise MPs salaries in the current climate. I am not sure if they actually need to have their salaries raised anyway. £64K is a pretty good salary by most people's reckoning and about 2.5x the median average. Plus MPs get all sorts of other privileges like subsidised food and bars, automatic entry in "Who's Who", get to play lord of the manor on their patch can get decent seats in restaurants at short notice etc. etc. (Matthew Parris did a piece on this a few years back and listed all the privileges that you wouldn't even think of).

I think if somebody who was earning say £150K as a barrister was not willing to become an MP because of the money then they are not public spirited enough to be an MP anyway.

I absolutely agree that they should be reimbursed for reasonable and necesaary expenses. The problem is that the definition of reasonable and necessary has been stretched to breaking point by them.

I am not sure about means tests though. This implies that the more wealthy MPs should have to pay for all their expenses themselves. It sounds OK on the surface of it but the more I think about it, the more I think it is a little bit unjust. I guess that is a hard argument to make though.

Oranjepan said...

I'm guessing you've never tried to claim housing benefit...

I'm not sure about all expenses being means tested, but the 'lifestyle' expenses such as the ACA could easily be - why should Andrew MacKay own a £2m home and get it paid for (twice) and outer London allowance when he doesn't even have a home in the constituency?

Personally I'm a supporter of some sort of Citizen's Income and I don't think means tests are good, but I think it's disgraceful that Mps should have double standards - one rule for them etc...