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Definitely. Maybe. Perhaps. We hope so

“Recognising marriage in the tax system is something I feel very strongly about and something we will definitely do in the next parliament. We will set out exactly how in due course,” was Cameron’s conclusion to a day of confusion, when he had earlier said: “It is something we want to do, something we believe we can do, it’s something, within a parliament, I’ll definitely hope to do. I am not today able to make that promise because we face this vast budget deficit – it is a clear and present danger to our economy. The public understand we cannot make all these promises up front. I think that is a very straightforward and honest way of explaining it.”

Nobody should hold politicians to dogma: after all, do we want them to do the things which are best for the nation, or do we want to make them jump summersaults to uphold the letter of words spoken perhaps a year or five years before? However: Cameron’s dithering all came on the same day.

But what should we really be doing about marriage and the tax system? Shortly after returning to the UK after almost ten years working in Belgium for international Christian youth charity Operation Mobilisation (OM), my wife and I were hit with a double-whammy: Gordon Brown abolished MIRAS, which had just about made our mortgage affordable (OM was and is a voluntary organisation, that doesn’t pay salaries — you’re actually responsible to raise your own funds to be there), and also abolished the married person’s tax allowance. Instead, he put the money into working families tax-credits. As we don’t have children, we didn’t get any of that, and our income for a while dipped below the basics of mortgage and utility bills. Those were not comfortable days!

Did we deserve MIRAS and the married person’s allowance in the first place?

It’s fair to say that MIRAS, or ‘mortgage interest relief at source’ was a tax-break for people wealthy enough to be able to afford to buy their own homes. Although it was a struggle at the time, we’ve certainly benefited from the rising market since then. If we had been paying rent rather than mortgage, we would have had nothing to show for it all more than thirteen years later. From a strictly ethical point of view, it would be hard to make the case that we ‘deserved’ MIRAS, when there were people over the road who worked just as hard for less pay, and would end up with nothing to show for it.

Did we deserve a tax allowance for being married? I firmly believe that marriage is the back-bone of society, and that the life-chances of children from stable homes where both parents are married are better. This is a simple matter of statistical evidence, and all the indicators point in the same way. But those indicators point the same way whether or not there is a particular tax-break for married couples. On the one hand, is it not good to encourage marriage with a tax-break? On the other hand, why should we reward the people with extra money who will have better life-chances for themselves and their children, when we should really be investing in those who have poor life chances? Again, we should look to the evidence: there is nothing to indicate that marriage as an institution dipped as a result of withdrawing the married-person’s allowance, or that its original introduction made people more likely to marry. We could perhaps point to the disincentive to divorce which losing the allowance would mean. But divorce is vastly more costly than that, and the amount is insignificant. And, again, do we really want to penalise people who are trapped in abusive marriages by taking away money they rely on?

The real issue was that, whether we deserved it or not, we relied on it. The adjustment was painful, and could have been devastating.

Brown and Cameron need to be much more aware of the impact their pronouncements have on people who are at tipping points. Take £100 a month away from someone who earns £50,000, and they will dislike you for it, but they are unlikely to notice it much. Take £40 away from someone who earns £20,000, and who is teetering on the brink of paying for a mortgage taken out during the housing boom, and you may tip them over into serious difficulties. It is irrelevant to ask whether they deserve the money, and whether society should be rewarding the £50,000 people for their hard work and higher contribution in taxes. Government does not exist to pass judgement about how people live their lives, but to organise society so that all benefit.

Perhaps Cameron recognised a little of that today, which led him to rock to and fro on the issue.

But that’s another thing a true leader cannot afford to do: dithering by leaders leaves the land in chaos. Those who dither, simply, should not be leaders.

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.

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.

The confusion that is transport policy

If you live in Coventry, it’s cheaper to drive to London than go by train, but if you live in Honeybourne, the train is cheaper. Stratford on Avon District Council this year threatened to impose parking charges on places like Alcester that don’t have a parking problem. In the evenings, on-street parking is free, but off-street parking, where you aren’t cluttering up the roads, is chargeable. And, woe betide you if you miss the hard to read signs, as I did shortly after they changed to evening charging (there was no sign to say that it had changed) — Stratford makes more money from the fines than it does from the charges.

The Transport Select Committee, it seems, agrees that transport policy is in disarray. It’s, of course, convenient to blame this on Labour (who are conveniently placed for many kinds of blame), but it transport policy has been in disarray for years. Barbara Castle, for those with long memories, was the one who shut down lots of the commuter and village railway stations. And Margaret Thatcher, famously, sold off the railways as a way to break the power of the unions. At the same time, lots of Labour local authorities across the country imposed the first of punitive parking regimes as a way of punishing motorists into behaving themselves.

Since then, motorists have been told that their road taxes, parking, petrol charges, and, increasingly, parking and speeding fines, are going up for all kinds of things — to save the environment, to pay for the roads, to support road safety, to manage congestion, to shift people onto public transport, to regenerate town centres, for cleaner air, for faster transits. The list goes on.

Does anybody really believe any of it?

It is disappointing that motorists no longer trust the government on transport policy. But the government has probably learned to live with mistrust now. More importantly, it seems that there is no longer a consensus within the various strands of government about what transport policy is trying to achieve. Nor much idea from the possible next government: David Cameron’s crew got very stroppy when petrol prices went up, and complained that this meant fewer road journeys, but it was their own Kenneth Clarke who introduced the fuel escalator with this very purpose. Do we worry that fewer car journeys will damage the economy, or do we worry that the endless increase in petrol consumption makes us ever more dependent on the rest of the world for oil?

Here’s another one. Until recently, diesel was more expensive in the UK than petrol. Why? Why do we tax diesel engines, which are 20% more fuel efficient (and therefore better for the environment) than petrol engines, in this way? Previously, diesel particulates were understood to be worse for pollution levels. But these are now filtered and the filtering strictly monitored through the MOT test.

And another — the new, much more expensive road tax for larger cars only affects newer larger cars. If you’ve got an old car, burning oil along with fuel as it chugs unhealthily along the road, then you pay less. But old cars are less fuel efficient and less safe. And another one — the Inland Revenue approved mileage rate is 40p per mile for the first 10,000 business miles, but only 5p per passenger: little in the way of incentive to car-share.

Until we can work out, as a nation, and agree it across local and national government, what transport policy is for, we will never work out what it should be.

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