Saturday, 16 May 2009

It's not just the expenses that need to change. It's the MPs.

When I was first selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate at the age of 26, I won’t deny that an MP’s salary would have seemed a pretty attractive proposition. Even hard-done-by Parliamentarians tend to earn more than middle-ranking copywriters in ad agencies. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it that the cash wasn’t my primary motivation for thrusting myself into the political limelight.

My opponent was a gent called Sir Archie Hamilton – the then Chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee of backbench MPs. He had a rock-solid seat in Epsom, south-west of London, and wasn’t likely to be troubled by my challenge as young Labour pretender. (I did actually manage a swing of 12.4% against him in 1997, which wasn’t too bad. To the consternation of the local Liberal Democrats, I also managed to come second. But second, as we all know, don’t mean diddly squat. I didn’t give up the day job.)

The reason I’m dusting off this ancient and parochial piece of political history is that the issue of MPs’ outside interests was quite a big one in those days. Leaving aside their generous and unpoliced expenses, British Members of Parliament – particularly Conservatives – have traditionally worked as lawyers, consultants and company directors in their ‘spare’ time. These interests are declared on a register and today usually generate little comment.

I remember Sir Archie, who declared a number of such interests, being quoted in the run-up to the election as saying that no professional person would expect to earn less than £100,000 a year. And that was in the mid-90s. His observation gets right to the heart of the current expenses crisis, in my view. MPs often believe that they deserve more money than they are actually paid. Some, such as Sir Archie, choose to find additional paid employment outside the House of Commons, which is at least open and above board. Others just bung the extras on expenses. Eton-educated Tam Dalyell was exposed by The Telegraph as having requested £18,000 for bookshelves, just two months before he was due to retire as an MP in 2005. Interviewed on the BBC, the veteran socialist Baronet was unapologetic. He had a lot of weighty volumes of the Hansard Parliamentary record and needed somewhere suitable to put them on his 200-acre estate. He was given £7,800.

The British Parliament is broadly populated by three types of people. First, there are those who are already wealthy through inheritance, privilege or corporate success – a rather arrogant group for whom Parliamentary commitments are seen as a sacrifice. These businessmen, barristers and barons of the shires claim that they are foregoing lucrative employment elsewhere in order to serve the public and feel they’re entitled to proper recompense.

A second group consists of former public servants, such as teachers, local government officers and so on. They have worked hard over many years and received little reward in return. And while many are no doubt very honest, I’m sure there may be some who feel it’s now payback time.

The third category of MP has never been employed in any role the public would recognise as being a proper job. These are the trade union bureaucrats, policy wonks and party apparatchiks who are probably well meaning, but arrive with few reference points for what might be acceptable or unacceptable in the outside world.

I’m prepared to accept there may be a handful of MPs who defy these stereotypes, but you’d be hard-pressed to fill a Commons committee room with them. All in all, Parliament is hugely unrepresentative of the general public. And this is the other core issue that needs to be addressed.

If we want our Parliament to be full of people who are already ‘successful’ or who have a track record of achievement and now aspire to real financial security and reward, then we have to accept that they are never going to be satisfied with the basic salary currently on offer.

So what are our options?

Well, we can increase the salary to Archie Hamilton’s suggested £100,000 or maybe £125,000 in today’s money. This is, however, completely unacceptable politically. The British public won’t stand for their politicians being paid these kind of sums. And on an international comparison table, it wouldn’t make any sense, as British constituencies are very small. We have far too many MPs for the population.

Alternatively, we can continue the abused system of allowances and expenses. But that’s been blown wide open in The Telegraph. The gravy train has hit the buffers and the wreck is unsalvageable.

So here’s a radical suggestion that would really shake things up. What if we discarded some of the current motley crew in favour of real people? In other words, lose a few lawyers and add a few administrators. Get rid of the intellectual elite (I do use the term advisedly) and replace them with shop keepers, office workers, self-employed caterers, students and old-age pensioners.

I remember the maverick former sports minister Tony Banks once arguing that some of the Commons chamber should be selected by lottery rather than election. I have to say, in the light of recent events, that I am coming round to this point of view myself. What if we elected half the Parliament, but other members were selected randomly in the manner of jury service? It would be a civic obligation to serve.

Of course, there would be many practical obstacles. Jury service usually lasts a couple of weeks, whereas a Parliamentary term is up to five years. How could employers be expected to keep jobs open for people who disappeared for so long? What if the people selected had no relevant experience for serving constituents or no inclination to represent the public interest?

Many things would need to be ironed out, for sure. But the basic principle is a very good one, because it would lead to a House of Commons that was much more representative of the British population. More women, more people from ethnic minorities and more people with an understanding of real life. Above all, a large group of Parliamentarians who would actually be grateful to receive a salary that is between twice and three times the national average. My bet is that they’d have a much better grasp of the issues facing the country. Not to mention fewer moats to fill, gardens to be cleared and bookshelves to be built.

© Phil Woodford, 2009. All rights reserved.