David Cameron

Decade of distrust reaches an end

The 2000s began with the end of Bill Clinton’s US presidency limping out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They finished with the UK House of Commons facing a collapse of public trust which is set to result in 1/3-1/2 of MPs leaving or losing their seats in the 2010 General Election, and trust in politicians at an all time low of 13%, according to IPSOS Mori. We went into the decade with the taste of the sleaze of the John Major administration still in our mouths, and, as a reminder, Jeffrey Archer charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, a charge which was to see the man who had been selected to be Conservative candidate for Mayor of London sent to Belmarsh prison in 2001. We came out of it with the threat of prosecution hanging over a growing number of parliamentarians.

Given that Major’s men were up to their tricks throughout the 1990s, and the current crop of Expenses-scandal-sleaze MPs had been doing what they did since either the 1990s, or whenever they got elected, where did politics go wrong?

It’s a common misconception (pushed forward by those who hope to survive the storm) that it was the system which made MPs claim expenses to which they were not entitled. But this is manifestly untrue. No system makes people act in a dishonest way. Nobody was forced to break the law by claiming for mortgages which did not exist, nobody was forced to break the explicit parliamentary rule that expenses should not be managed in order to render a profit at the tax-payer’s expense, and nobody was forced to use the expenses system to claim for excesses such as moat cleaning, duck houses, and limed oak toilet seats (even as I write this one, I’m forced to think ‘did this really happen?’ Apparently, it did).

Also, how is it that so many of them did it? It’s been pointed out (by me, among other people) that the majority of MPs were not engaged in these practices. But a sufficiently large minority from all three parties (including my own, though to a lesser degree) have done so that the entire class of MPs is not merely under suspicion, but under complete derision.

Political parties are now changing the way in which they assess and select parliamentary candidates. But it’s fair to say that, in the 1990s and 2000s, candidates were not being assessed on the trustworthiness, although (especially in the ‘spin’ years), parties have always been interested in credibility.
So, what’s the difference?
Credibility is whether or not you appear trustworthy to people. Politicians with no interest in football have been told to bone up on the off-side rule in order to appear more credible in urban constituencies. Politicians who live in London but are standing in far-flung rural areas (ie, anywhere outside the M25 that is not 90% urban) are photographed in Barbour jackets. People change their accents, go through teeth-whitening procedures (because people with whiter teeth tell fewer lies… right), and discover obscure ancestries which link them to the constituency. Every ‘parachute’ candidate rents a flat where they intend to stand. Credibility can be bought for the right price with the right advice. It doesn’t always work — we all remember William Hague’s reverse base-ball cap, and David Cameron being photographed cycling to work, followed by a van full of his papers. But, despite these minor mishaps, David Cameron at least has shed most of the Eton / Oxford exclusive dining club / millionaire image that he grew up with.

Trustworthiness is something quite different. Self-evidently, many of the people we trusted were not worthy of our trust.

So, where do we go from here?

If we really want trustworthy politicians, we need to start voting for them. I think it’s fair to say that the big political parties have not got the message. There has not been a flurry to find candidates who are more honest than those of previous generations. The all-women, all-ethnic minority shortlist talk is not about increasing trustworthiness, but about increasing the overall credibility of the party that shortlists them. Actually, a desire to increase credibility without a search for honesty is a mark of the deepest untrustworthiness. Or bad faith, as we used to call it. But the big parties are counting on the public voting on party, political or tribal lines, not lines of trust. They believe that, after we’ve had our rant, we will still lump all politicians together as necessary evils, and get on with voting for the ones we would have voted for anyway. Therefore, we need to disappoint them, and severely.

But, given that every politician will be coming to us at the election with the claim that they are more trustworthy than the others, and given that the richest and best connected will be able to have the best advice and be able to buy the best services, how can we tell?

Here are my thoughts:
1) What did they do before politics?
People who have served the public, perhaps in charities, in the armed forces, in the muckier bits of the public sector, have a very different track record from those who made a killing in the city or played around with inherited wealth before being given a safe-seat. That doesn’t mean that people who work in the city are not trustworthy, or that inherited wealth makes people liars, but a track record of service in the past goes a long way towards underlining a promise that they will serve us in the future.

2) How hard did they have to work to get here?
The vast majority of expenses-scandal MPs have been in what are generally termed ‘safe-seats’. Check out someone’s political track-record. Have they faced disappointment and defeat in the past, or have they been handed easy victories? Easy victories don’t make someone untrustworthy, but the majority of those who cheated did have big majorities to shore them up.

3) Where does their money come from?
People whose every working hour is given to becoming richer are unlikely to give up the habit when they get elected. More importantly, there are some ways to get rich, or, get by, which are in the public interest, and some which are predatory in nature. Someone who trades on other people’s greed, weakness or ignorance in order to gain their money is unlikely to be trustworthy in parliament.

4) For sitting MPs, what have they done?
The ideal MP works hard, claims only reasonable expenses, and arranges their affairs so that there is not even a suggestion that they may be profiting at the public expense. If your MP is seldom in the House of Commons, has claimed extravagantly, or has made a fortune through publicly-funded property speculation, then there is very little reason to believe that they will change their ways in the next parliament.

5) What’s their position on second jobs?
Will your candidate be dedicating his or her paid time exclusively to the House of Commons, or will that time be shared with company directorships, business dealings, lobbying firms and lucrative contracts? The rules, it appears, will not be changing to ensure that they do not, so it’s a good indicator of just how trustworthy they really are. For sitting MPs, you can easily check the register. For candidates, you can write to them or ask them at a public meeting whether they will be retaining any of these income streams, and whether they can guarantee to make the House of Commons their sole source of income. Taking a second job does not make someone necessarily untrustworthy, but, if someone is promising to dedicate their life to serving you in the next parliament, you can legitimately question how much time that will leave them for other things.

6) How do they respond to criticism?
No-one likes being criticised, but it’s instructive to see how people behave when they are accused of an impropriety. Some people flare up, some people become very sad, some people become very earnest. All of these are normal reactions. But some people demonstrate consummate skill in deflecting the criticism. This isn’t necessarily a sign that they are untrustworthy, but, taken with the other indicators, it can reenforce what you already know. Jack Straw, who isn’t from my party, always gets very agitated when people criticise him on Radio 4. A friend of mine who worked with him tells me that he is, in person, very trustworthy. Peter Mandelson, from that same party, is always very smooth in the face of criticism. Partly that’s his job, but, equally, the word is that he is not necessarily the first person you would want to trust.

7) How hard do they try to be credible?
Finally — and for this you need to really meet them and look them in the eye — how hard are they trying to be credible? You probably won’t be able to tell if they’ve had their teeth whitened (some people have naturally white teeth), but, when you talk to them, if you move off the usual subjects, you can get a fairly good impression about whether they are happy to talk about anything, or always want to move the conversation back to them, their credibility, the uncredibility of other candidates, the sins of other parties. Anyone who is too desperate to have you trust them — like a car salesman who keeps saying “I’ll be honest with you” — is probably not someone you should be trusting. Again, some people are naturally eager to make friends. But, generally, those people are more natural at it.

I don’t want to suggest that everyone who fails these tests is a liar, and, I’m sure, there are people even now coaching would-be MPs about how to pass these tests, or others like them. But, if we have no tests, then we are left only with what the candidates tell us about themselves. With their credibility, not their trustworthiness. If you don’t like these, then write down what things would make you trust or distrust someone. But do it, and then vote on it.

Otherwise, as we enter the 2010s, rather than the government we really want, we will once again elect the government we deserve.

Many people will wish to point out that the decade ends at the end of 2010, and the new decade begins in 2011. I do agree with them. However, the arbitrary decade beginning with the year 2000, which was celebrated (somewhat bizarrely), as the Millennium (bizarrely because, notwithstanding questions about year 0, nothing in particular happened in the Year 1000 for us to commemorate) has reached an end, and it is that decade which I am describing.

After the fire…

Warwickshire County Council did not know what had hit it when thousands of people took to the streets up and down the county to protest proposed cuts to the fire service. The level of public anger was vastly greater than expected. Bosses understood that closing down fire stations would not be popular. But what inflamed residents most was the apparent dishonesty of the consultation document, which worked so hard to talk up the benefits that it neglected to mention the proposals would reduce the number of fire-fighters and close fire-stations.

Within four months of the consultation document being released, county councillors in the ruling Conservative party had done an about face and put the proposals on indefinite hold. Three days later, Conservative party leader David Cameron was despatched to Leamington Spa to suggest that the proposals should wait until after the public enquiry into the deaths of firefighters at the Atherstone-on-Stour tragedy. Whatever his intention, this fuelled speculation, in the Stratford Herald as well as in other places, that the decision to suspend (not scrap) the fire cuts was made in order to defend an increasingly shaky electoral position in Warwickshire, and that councillors were responding not to the will of the people, but to the dictat from Conservative Central Office.

One of the officers involved with putting the proposals forward told me that consultation documents were supposed to put one side of the story, and that this was standard practice up and down the country. When I suggested that this was not, or should not be, the case, he asked me how else the changes could be pushed through. It had clearly not occurred to him that, if it was impossible to persuade an informed public who had been given all the facts, perhaps they should not be pushed through at all.

I don’t think there was ever a time when anyone in Warwickshire would have been taken in by the consultation document which was put before us. But I do believe the extreme spin which was put on it reflected the fear of the people putting it forward, and that fear was fuelled by three things.

First, it was fuelled by the knowledge that, just a few months before, the man who was to front it had been promising that there would be no fire cuts. Whether this made a difference to his electoral prospects or not it’s hard to say, but, clearly, Warwickshire Conservatives believed that no word of fire cuts could or should be breathed before the County elections, which saw them take Warwickshire from no overall control into Conservative administration. Councillors were clearly afraid that they would be accused (which they in the event were) of concealing swingeing cuts, and they tried to hide this by presenting the cuts not as cuts at all, but as an increase.

Second, it was fuelled by the knowledge that Warwickshire would shortly be sharply criticised in a national review.
This information was not made available to the public until the day after the consultation finished, but the Comprehensive Area Assessment known as OnePlace reported: “The Fire and Rescue Authority know they have to improve their fire prevention service. They also know that they have to change the way they work to improve the service as a whole. This is a difficult task and part of the challenge will be to explain the plans to residents so they understand the reasons for the need to modernise the way the service is provided.” In the fuller text, the assessment added: “They have been slow to make the changes needed to provide a more efficient, modern fire service that balances emergency response with good prevention and protection work and gives taxpayers good value for money. The pace of change is picking up.”

The extreme haste with which the proposals were developed and put to public consultation between the end of the council elections and the announcement of this assessment reflects the real fear that people would be even less open to change if they knew what was driving it. In fact, almost certainly the opposite would have been true — if the authorities had admitted early on that they were in serious trouble and needed help, they would have gained a more sympathetic hearing. I doubt it would have changed the outcome, but it would definitely have changed the tone.

Third, it was fuelled by the fear that, after all, the proposals did not stack up. Councillors and officers initially refused to release the full document setting out the risk assessment for the changes, and only did so when Liberal Democrats Hazel Wright and Peter Moorse on Stratford District Council put in a Freedom of Information request. This was the first official, public document that admitted that fire stations would close and that the total number of fire-fighters would be reduced by 51 (the consultation document gave the impression that they would be increased by 25). When a subsequent Freedom of Information request asked for the costings, the answer was that costings had not been calculated.

All these fears that the public would mistrust the reasons behind the proposals — in the bizarre world of half-baked decisions and incomplete logic — led those putting the document forward to produce not something which was so transparently transparent that people would be forced to say “we disagree with your proposals, but we admire the honesty and clarity with which you put them”, but which in every sense failed to fulfil its obligations to the public trust.

After all the revelations of MP expenses during the summer, for people to be given something in the guise of a consultation which was little more than a trick, was more than anyone was willing to stand.

I have yet to meet one person from the Warwickshire public who supported or trusted the proposals. I doubt that I ever will. In a year when public trust in politicians has fallen to its lowest in recorded history, the Warwickshire Fire Consultation did us the gravest disservice.

It is customary, when a major public consultation, on which an organisation is betting its future, fails, for someone to offer their resignation. As yet, no-one has. I think it is probably too much to hope that, in the next few months, in order to restore damaged public trust, someone will.

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.

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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