Reforms fall short

Sir Christopher Kelly’s report offers a bare minimum of reforms but fails to address the fundamental issues with parliamentary funding — that the rich are still advantaged when it comes to being an MP, and the tax-payer hands over cash with poor value for money when it comes to what MPs actually achieve.

Essentially — if you don’t have time to read the 139 page report — Christopher Kelly recommends reducing the allowances MPs can claim, preventing them from claiming for mortgages, and cutting down what MPs near London are allowed to get. But he does nothing to stop MPs earning lucrative amounts through second incomes, and he does absolutely nothing whatever to require MPs to work a certain number of hours in return for their annual salary or to deliver achievements or outcomes. In this way, parliament remains a ‘gentlemen’s club’, where those with substantial external earnings are little harmed by the new arrangements, and where there is no accountability, beyond the once in five years popularity contest of the General Election which has more to do with competing party promises than with the MP’s own track record.

Kelly entirely dodges the question of external earnings. In noting that he intends to recommend no change, he trots out the tired excuse: “It can bring valuable experience to the House of Commons and the income from it can help to preserve independence from the whips.” ((page 11))

But this flies in the face of a principle which Kelly references repeatedly — bringing MP’s remuneration closer to the expectations of their constituents. Normally, if a constituent works a responsible full-time job, their contract will stipulate what external employment they are allowed to hold, and how potential conflicts of interest with their main employment should be managed.

The problem with MPs having external interests is that MPs get to vote on absolutely everything. No aspect of British society is outside of parliament’s discussions. True, MPs are required to declare an interest when the debate explicitly touches on their directorships. But a debate may implicitly touch on many areas, and no interest declared.

Further, there are a number of professions and commercial interests which could be legitimately considered to be against the public interest. I have the greatest, deepest admiration for Tory MP Kenneth Clarke in much of what he does (and, really, has he not realised yet he is in the wrong party?), but a directorship of British American Tobacco surely flies in the face of widely accepted public priorities. Equally, we have MPs who benefit (or who have benefitted in the past) from the operation of fee-charging cash machines, which sap the resources of deprived communities where banks are unwilling to place the free ATMs common in affluent areas.

There are a large number of businesses which, while not illegal, are predatory in nature. What’s more, there are changes to society which benefit legitimate business, but whose benefit to society as a whole is altogether more questionable. Churches and many voluntary groups, as well as trades unions, opposed the Thatcher-sponsored Sunday trading bill. Sunday trading — if it did anything — fuelled the growth in consumer spending and thus consumer debt which is a key factor in the boom-bust cycle which has left our economy reeling. Many of the MPs (in fact, probably most) who voted for that bill gained substantially from it, through their external interests.

Kelly’s claim “the income from it can help to preserve independence from the whips”, is particularly disturbing. If the standard remuneration for MPs is not enough to preserve their independence from whips, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the framework Kelly is proposing. Worse, it means that new MPs, or MPs from backgrounds that do not privilege them with access to directorships, are ‘whip-fodder’.

The other enormous problem with Kelly’s prescription is that it changes the remuneration of MPs without making any assessment of what it is that MPs are actually supposed to do. How often should an MP attend parliament? How many parliamentary questions should they ask? How much constituency work? How many letters should they answer themselves, compared to the number which are answered by their researchers?

Should MPs have performance related pay? How would that performance thus be measured? It would certainly offset the time that MPs with outside interests put into earning their extra money.

David Cameron has expressed the view that there should be fewer MPs. Why? What benefit would that be? If we are really concerned about saving a few million pounds, then we should perhaps be looking at the £100,000 a year that relatively minor but senior civil servants get. There are very few MPs by comparison, and they earn far less. Cameron of course is making this suggestion because it sounds contrite, honest and cost-saving. But it is nonsense, as is any attempt to set the amount that MPs get paid (including their expenses) without setting out their duties and hours of work.

If we really want to sort out the complete mess which parliament is now in, and if we really want to make the work of an MP transparent — understandable to someone who does a regular job, for a regular wage — then we need to give MPs contracts like any job gives its employees. They should set out how many hours, what outcomes, how the work is to be measured. And if we really mean to modernise, then there should be a mechanism for throwing an MP out if they fail to live up to not only the basic ethical standards, but also the basic work, that we would expect from any other employee.

Because, ultimately, MPs are our employees.

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