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.

Election talk: fluff

Talk of a General Election in March is just fluff, unless we as a nation can decide what MPs are really for. But neither Brown nor Cameron, nor yet the Daily Telegraph, seem ready to face the real crisis: politics in Britain is broken, and it needs fixing fast. But what, and how?

What kinds of Prime Minister are there? I made a little list: Leaders, Managers, Administrators, and Caretakers.

Gordon Brown is a caretaker. He came in at the dog-end of the Blair years, and was instantly faced with crisis after crisis. The poor man has never got his head above water. The things he did well (the Millennium debt campaign, for example) are all forgotten about. Nobody can really point to anything he has done especially badly. It’s just that crises gather round him and he doesn’t seem to have the power to sort them out and get on with his real agenda. In fact, more than anything else, the public’s un-love affair with Gordon is based on him not having an agenda at all.

John Major was an administrator. Aside from the personal things (you can imagine him carefully filling in all the forms, and frowning when anyone had written in the space marked ‘do not write in this space’), his approach to Britain was to carefully make sure that we were fulfilling expectations, doing our duty, moving the agenda long in safe increments. But it wasn’t his agenda, and, since he’d been voted in because he wasn’t Thatcher, it wasn’t her agenda either. Really, it was the ‘Victorian values’ agenda — harking back to a time when politicians were good, and the people were good, and Britain could be proud of its place in the world, because it was good. John Major never went to university (he did a correspondence course in banking instead). If he had done, he would probably have discovered that history is not quite as simple as he thought it was, and that nostalgia is not all it used to be.

Cameron wants to be a manager. ‘Let us look after the economy, and we’ll do it somewhat better’, is his appeal to the electorate. I’m reminded of a story I read about a new manager who arrived at a company and found three envelopes on his desk, with a note: “If things are not going well after three months, open envelope 1. If things are not going well after six months, open envelope 2. If things are not going well after nine months, open envelope 3.” After three months, things were not going well, so he opened envelope 1. Inside was a note, which said “Blame your predecessor.” After six months, he felt obliged to open envelope 2. Inside, the note said: “Predict that things will shortly get better.” He duly did so. However, as things still did not improve, he found himself opening envelope 3 after nine months. The note inside was terse: “Prepare three envelopes”.

The ever fickle public may well believe that Cameron could not possibly do it worse than Brown, and may want to give him a chance. I have to say, I think that that confidence is misguided. But Cameron has no compelling vision of the future of Britain, and absolutely no vision at all of the future of politics in Britain. He wants to keep as much of the system intact as he can in the face of the overwhelming public hatred for the political class and their expenses. He will duck and dive and say all the right things. But Cameron will not be any kind of a reforming leader, and, to give him his due, he has never promised to be. If elected (and contacts in Mori are now saying it is unlikely he will obtain a sufficient majority), he will be blaming Brown after three months and after six predicting recovery.

Tony Blair, of course, saw himself as a great leader. As did Margaret Thatcher. But, of course, both of them led us into trouble. Thatcher established greed as the one great spiritual value of the nation and tried to turn it into policy with the poll tax, charging people based not on their ability to pay, but on the simple fact of their existence. Blair led us straight into the arms of George W Bush, and thence into the Iraqi desert. Leaders will be judged by history more strictly than managers, administrators and caretakers. It’s probably fair to say of John Major that he did no real harm, and of Brown that he did no real anything.

However, this is not the time for a caretaker, or an administrator, or even a manager. The expenses scandal is not the cause of what is wrong with politics, it is merely a symptom of it. For years the role of the MP has become steadily less clear and less valuable. Prime ministers have become more presidential, cabinet has become steadily less answerable to parliament. When I was small, ministers resigned when their departments blundered. These days, they simply blame officials and sack them.

In the mean time, parliament has increasingly realised that all it actually does is make or block legislation, and play a supporting role to the government-opposition media prize fight. Unsurprisingly, we have ever more laws, and yet no greater justice. MPs talk constantly about efficiency savings that could be made, but every bill they pass makes life more complicated and requires the creation of more jobs to administer and supervise it. And, before we see that as some kind of useful job-creation, the people who really have the ability to manage such new laws would be better employed applying their talents to the great problems of state.

I do not remotely condone the misuse of tax-payers’ money (and, more importantly, the misuse of power and privilege which we the citizen voted them in for). But I understand why some MPs, arriving perhaps full of ideals only to discover that their significance in a stitched-up secret society is essentially zero, would then look around for something else to do. The devil has indeed made work for idle hands. Or, if not the devil, Mrs Thatcher, who, to support her articulation of greed as the basic principle of the economy, created a system which rewarded inventiveness and brazenness at the expense of public duty and honesty.

People are talking about a March election suddenly. Of course, Cameron is talking it up, because he knows that the sooner the election, the less chance that he or his party will have been caught saying or doing something really stupid. But the larger question goes unanswered: just what exactly are we electing? What is an MP’s job description? What are the hours? What are the duties? What constitutes a legitimate expense and what is simply misconduct. More importantly, what is the role of the House of Commons? Clearly not to scrutinise — the House of Lords does that, and, despite the archaic system, is more effective in doing it, because it has a robust group of cross-benchers and independently-minded lords political who ensure that it is not simply the whipping dog of the party in power. Hopefully not to generate yet more regulation and legislation. We have — in many parts of our life together — moved to the point where we are no longer protecting people, but actively curtailing their legitimate life aspirations.

Liberal Democrats may have been a voice crying in the wilderness for a long time, arguing that politics should be changed, that the safe-seat system (which is at the heart of the vast majority of the really serious expenses breaches) needs to be abolished and every vote should be counted, not just the few that are cast by floating voters in a vanishingly small number of swing seats, arguing that MP expenses should be made public, and for an end to Punch-and-Judy two-party politics. A voice crying in the wilderness, but the wilderness is now at our doorstep.

When leadership is needed, we would do best to those who have been pointing the way consistently throughout their careers, not those who jumped when the bandwagon suddenly became popular.

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.

Honest answer to wrong question: Legg Report

Sir Thomas Legg’s response to the MP expenses crisis is an honest answer to the wrong question. But it is still the wrong answer, and does little to assuage public anger, or to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the merely ugly.

Legg’s recommendations, which will form the basis of the deliberations of the Commons Members Estimate Committee, publishing on 4 November, have already resulted in MPs receiving letters telling them how much they should repay. Some MPs have paid up, others have complained, others are submitting additional paperwork. Some are, undoubtedly, breathing sighs of relief, since the Legg has not applied limits to mortgage interest payments.

The heart of this particular controversy is that Legg has applied retrospective limits which he has made up himself, based on what he thinks MPs should have been allowed to claim, and is asking MPs to pay back anything above this limit.

It doesn’t take long to see why that really doesn’t answer the original question. The public was not outraged because it thought that MP expense limits were too high (or, indeed, too low), but because MPs were apparently abusing these expenses. Some of this was just ugly — moats, duck houses, and light bulbs. But some of it was really very bad indeed. The man who this week admitted paying £100,000 into his own company is the most recent, but we heard widespread accounts of improper use of public funds, gaming the system (the famous ‘flipping homes’) to make a profit, and outright fraud against the taxpayer.

Therefore, suggesting that this can be solved by setting a limit is, to say the least, eccentric.

Are we really saying that you can commit fraud up to a certain level? Or are we saying that if you honestly played by the rules and only claimed for legitimate expenses, but you happened to claim for more than Thomas Legg has since decided should be the universal rule, you should pay it back?

If you walk out of a supermarket carrying goods you have stolen from the aisle, and they catch you, then simply saying you’ll take them back is unlikely to keep you out of court. On the other hand, how angry would you be if you paid for your goods, got them home, and then had a visit from the police who said that the prices at the supermarket had since gone up, and you were now required to pay the difference between what you first paid and the new price?

And this is the nub. Legg’s solution punishes the innocent — the, we believe, majority of MPs who committed no intentional fault with their expenses — by making them pay back money that they disbursed honestly in accordance with the rules. MPs vary enormously in their wealth. Some have moats, Balmoral style houses and, indeed, separate houses for their ducks. Others substantially and sacrificially support charities and good causes, and are left with little over. But all the innocent are punished along with the guilty.

At the same time, Legg’s report acquits the guilty. The only thing which could have saved the reputation of parliament would have been a string of by-elections caused by MPs resigning from the house. MPs promising to step down at the next election is nowhere near enough. It would be like being caught committing fraud at work, and then being kept on because you were retiring in a couple of years anyway.

Instead, all are treated as if they were equally innocent, and equally guilty. And that offends natural justice. Thus far, we have had no action by parliament against its erring members, and no exoneration of those who have lived up to their calling. Every MP is tainted with the same stain, whether they were guilty or not.

Finally, Legg’s is the answer to the wrong question for another reason. Of all bodies in the UK, parliament must be self-regulating. Calling in civil servants, former judges, lawyers and all those others is simply dodging the fact that parliament ought to censure itself.

We return to the age old question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guards? The answer, in this case if in no other, is — the guards must guard themselves. No one else can. And, if the guards cannot, the electorate lies waiting for them. Parliament can run amok, but it can only run amok for five years, and then it must face us, the voters.

Back to Top