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.

Fire consultation should be suspended

We now have access to the full management document on which the Warwickshire Fire proposals are based. Here it is. To be exactly right, this is the redacted version. In other words, they still aren’t telling us everything.

But, even as it is, there is enough in it — more than enough — to call into fundamental question everything that the Consultation Documents put forward. Some of it directly contradicts what the documents say. For example, in the Improvement Plan FAQ’s (sic), we read: “Will response times to incidents be increased? No, the locally determined response standards will be achieved across the county.” 1
The true picture, as presented in the Det Norske Veritas report (ironically, Det Norske Veritas loosely translates as ‘the Norwegian truth’), is that average response time across the county will increase. And, of course, those are average times. In the most affected areas, they increase substantially.

Most of what we learn, though, is that very substantial and important information was suppressed from the consultation documents. These were already suspected of being skewed and leading, but it is now extremely hard to come to any other conclusion than that a one-sided picture has been deliberately presented with a view to gaining public consent on what is — arguably — a false prospectus.

My report on the differences between the two documents is available for download here: Comparison between Consultation documents and Det Norske Veritas risk report.

My conclusion is very simple: the current fire consultation should be suspended immediately. It is now entirely discredited. It serves no worthwhile purpose continuing it — particularly as the management report makes it clear that the risks were evaluated in haste, with very many poorly based assumptions. Det Norske Veritas recommended that time be taken for a full report. It was not. Instead, a hasty and ill-conceived consultation was rushed through, without even the most basic steps of proof-reading the questions to make sure they all made grammatical sense.

This consultation should be cancelled. A proper risk analysis should be written, and published. Then, if there is still an appetite to close fire stations, a proper consultation should be run, pre-checked by an independent, competent advisor: a consultation which is honest, complete, and which fairly sets out the positives and the negatives.

Anything less will be a travesty.

Note: the web address of the Warwickshire Compact referenced in my report has changed. It is now: http://www.warwickshirecompact.org.uk/uploads/2/9/2/7/2927811/compact__codes_2005.pdf

Show 1 footnote

  1. the FAQs were uploaded on 16 October, and link to the DNV report — it is therefore particularly surprising that this claim is made

Fire report disclosed

After sustained pressure from the Liberal Democrats the County Council has released the management summary of a report by consultants Det Norske Veritas, presented to the Cabinet in July. The contents of the report, which contributed to the Conservative decision to move to public consultation on their fire review, had previously been kept secret.

The Det Norske Veritas Risk Review confirms information which — for some reason — did not make its way into the consultation document. This includes “overall number of firefighters reduced by 58” and “fire response from 12 stations instead of 19”, “increase in average response times, and consequent increase in fire and road accident risks”, along with the chilling conclusion “Reduction in cost outweighs the risk”.

Personal Update

Personal Update

Martin Turner at his home in Marlcliff, Warwickshire.

Martin Turner at his home in Marlcliff, Warwickshire.

A lot of people have been contacting me for a personal update. So here it is. We’re now living in Marlcliff, a tiny, beautiful village just over the river from Bidford on Avon in Warwickshire. I’m also now working for my day job for the NHS in Warwickshire. The easiest way to keep up with personal details is to find me on Facebook. If you don’ do Facebook, or just want an update, read on.

I’m still chairman of Warwickshire County Fencing Union, and West Midlands Fencing Captain, but, sadly, I’ve had to miss the start of the fencing competition series in the run up to the General Election, which will mean that my ranking will plummet as the year goes by. For those who are interested, my best ever ranking was UK 39th in Men’s Foil, and I held on to a spot in the top fifty for a full competition season in that year.

Politically, I will be fighting for the Stratford on Avon seat at the General Election, God willing, which is expected to be May or the very beginning of June. Liberal Democrats have come a long way over the last two years: we won the biggest swing against the Tories anywhere in the UK in May 2008, and the second biggest in the County Council elections in June this year, also coming 34th out of all districts for the Liberal Democrats in the European elections which were held on the same day.

We’ve started attending Bidford on Avon Baptist Church which, if you live in the area, meets in the Crawford Memorial Hall on Sundays at 10.30 am. It’s a warm, welcoming group of people, and a good place to visit if you are wondering about God.

We are also straight into the thick of things, as Tory councillors on Warwickshire County Council have decided to axe our local Fire Station, along with several others in the constituency. Quite simply, they must be stopped.

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