Legit and illegit – expense omissions

MP Expenses claims – www.parliament.uk.
Here’s the list of what parliament has decided should be omitted from today’s expenses disclosures:

  • Rejected claims
  • Any residential address
  • Regular travel patterns
  • Names of anyone delivering goods to homes
  • Money spent on security
  • Hotels or guest houses used
  • Letters/emails to Fees Office
  • Bank/credit card statements
  • Phone numbers on itemised bills
  • Personal items not claimed for
  • Staff names and addresses
  • Bank/Giro details
  • Landlord
  • or mortgage provider
  • Photocopies of cheques
  • Signatures
  • Reference numbers ie NI
  • Legit, or not legit? Heather Brooke — lest we forget, the journalist who actually pressed for all this to come into the open, long before the Daily Telegraph took an interest — is none too impressed. “I can see that avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor of what’s been deleted,” was her comment.

    Here are my views on what should and should not have been omitted:
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    If you look at the actual expenses for MPs, it’s clear that the omission of details with no inclusion of covering details — for example, a general postcode rather than an exact address, mean that we have almost no power to scrutinise. We would not have seen, for example, where the fabled house of Boris Johnson was which was inside his constituency and yet more than 50 miles from London (Henley on Thames is 36 miles from London — perhaps he was confusing it with Henley in Arden, which is in my constituency Stratford on Avon). We would also not have seen the occasions when neither the MPs first nor second home was in the constituency or in London, nor would we have been able to identify flipping, or most of the other abuses.

    This is simply not good enough. How does Parliament expect to restore public trust if it refuses to disclose the details which would exonerate at least a proportion of MPs?

    Perhaps, in reality, Parliament has not yet faced up to the extent to which it has lost the public’s trust, and the parlous state of our democracy.

    Quite simply, this must change. And soon.

    Another mistake

    The decision to publish MP expenses today with key details blanked out is, quite simply, a mistake. But it is a mistake in a long line of mistakes, and it is a mistake which the Daily Telegraph has been counting on and which it will use to justify its own monopolistic control of the story thus far.

    If we were in the situation where an altruistic parliament had, of its own volition and without compulsion, chosen to reveal its expenses, then there might be some case for omitting particular details which might create certain classes of problems. But we are not in such a situation.

    Given the scale of public anger, and the certainty the the Telegraph will publish anyway, withholding anything but the most clearly security-linked details does nothing more than confirm the popular conception that MPs — and parliament as a whole — is simply protecting its own interests. And, worse, it is incompetent in the way it goes about it.

    Only complete transparency will do anything to regain public trust. MPs may be embarassed, but they will either be embarassed by public disclosure, or held up to ridicule and shame when the Telegraph selectively reveals the obscured details.

    We try to teach this to the smallest of children, but the message does not seem to have got through to the political class: it is always best to admit what you cannot hide. Somehow, somehow, a part of me is still surprised and disappointed that neither this, nor its stronger, more principled corollary, is the watchword of our MPs.

    Quite simply, honesty is the best policy.

    Restoring trust – how?

    IPSOS Mori’s poll on trust in politics at the end of May should surprise no-one. 3/4 said that Britain’s system of government needed improvement — the most negative view since Mori started asking the question in 1995. At 20%, less than half the number of people believe that the Westminster parliament is doing its job, as compared with the last time they asked the question in 2001. 76% of people do not trust MPs to tell the truth. 62% believe that MPs put their own interests ahead of party, constituents and country — again, the worst that Mori has ever recorded. 2/3 think that MPs use power for their own personal gain. Even so, 80% believe that the system of expenses was to blame, not just the politicians.

    52% of people were prepared to vote for a candidate not caught up in the scandal, even if that meant voting against the party they want to win the election.

    It’s not hard to see how we got to where we are. But the question is: how do we get away?

    Given that only 1 in 4 people have said they trusted MPs in general to tell the truth, and this figure has stayed fairly constant since pollsters began asking the question, we could perhaps say that it is inevitable that voters don’t trust politicians. But this is clearly not universal. 51% of Americans think Obama’s leadership is excellent or good, and 47% think his ethics are excellent or good.

    Are the British naturally more cynical than Americans? Most of the world — we are given to understand — still believes British democracy to be above par on its ethics and honesty. Or do they simply believe this because they just don’t pay as much attention to it as we do?

    Certainly, right now, everyone who wants to distrust politicians (that is, 3/4 of us) can find lots of evidence for it. But, as Mori points out, even before the scandal, approximately the same number of people still distrusted politicians. It is therefore clear that it is something other than our observation of what politicians do that sows our distrust.

    It was said of King John that nobody trusts a man who trusts nobody.

    This struck me deeply when I heard it on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time during the run up to the Euro elections. No-one trusts a man who himself trusts no-one. The more I consider it, the more I am compelled to believe that it is the culture of sowing distrust, innuendo, constant attacks on the character of opponents, and, worse, constant mocking, that makes all politicians (including those who don’t indulge in this, because all are tarred by association) appear to be untrusting, and therefore untrustworthy.

    And yet, and yet. If we were to say that politicians were not allowed to be in conflict with each other, and to point out each other’s failings, then we would have no debate, and no means of holding government to account. The duty of opposition is to oppose, and it is one of the things which holds us back from tyranny.

    So, are we therefore left with a choice: either our politicians by their behaviour will forever command our distrust, or, by their silence, will appear to earn our trust while, in truth, betraying it? This is a truly Shakespearian conundrum.

    The answer, surely, is that there is a middle way. We are now engaged in a national process of hand wringing about standards in public life in relation to expenses. But it would not be beyond our power as a nation to start imposing standards on the the discourse of MPs. It was two elections ago that the Advertising Standards Authority threw its hands up and ceased to police political advertising. You can now, in a very real sense, say anything you want on a political poster, and get away with it. But the imposition of a standard of debate both in and outside the chamber of the House of Commons is something which could be done, and, for that reason, should and must be done.

    At the moment, the only thing which limits a politician’s ability to make any accusation they want is the risk of being found out later on.

    We are expecting the new Speaker of the House of Commons to reform members’ expenses. But we should also expect and require the Speaker to reform the standard of debate.

    We, the electorate, should also seek to vote, in the new parliament, for new MPs who will not stop at nothing to obtain and maintain power. In this, in the past, we have signally failed, and we should therefore, collectively, accept a large part of the responsibility for the politicians we have elected. Because, ultimately, the electorate does not necessarily get the government it wants, but it always, collectively, gets the government it deserves.

    No, Simon, PR WOULD help prevent expense abuse

    Simon Heffer in the Telegraph opposes proportional representation

    The Telegraph’s true colours have begun to come out. More even than a Tory victory at the next election, it wants things to stay unchanged. It is more deeply conservative than the Conservative party. Therefore, it is rather unnerved by the mood for change which its expenses scandal has created. Although it has rather misunderstood Gordon Brown, who is not proposing proportional representation at all, but a system which is more complicated to administer and is not truly proportional.

    Be that as it may, Simon Heffer’s argument is that changing the constitution will not prevent MPs from abusing expenses. But, if the current crisis has taught us nothing else, it has at least shown us that the more vulnerable MPs feel to the wishes of the electorate, the more scrupulous they feel they have to be. At one blow, a proportional system would end the corrupt collection of safe seats which, in truth, have a similar effect to the rotten boroughs of before the Great Reform Act. Rotten boroughs, of course, had only a few electors, and were in the hands of wealthy landowners. Safe seats, despite the multiplicity of voters, function in the same way. Just a few votes count — the votes of the members of the local constituency association of the party which ‘owns’ the seat. Once they have been cast, and the candidate selected, they are more or less guaranteed to be returned to parliament. Nothing short of a landslide victory for the other party puts a safe seat at risk, and, even then, the truly safe seats remain in the hands of the party that ‘owns’ them — until now, of course. The enormous backlash of the expenses scandal means that even the safest seats are unsafe for candidates deemed to have betrayed their voters. In the most notorious cases — Kirkbride and Mackay, for example — the incumbents are fleeing in order to give their successors a fighting chance. In the less clear cases, such as that of Bill Cash, incumbents are paying back money and making all kinds of promises.

    What we very clearly see is that threatened MPs are suddenly much, much more interested in being seen by their voters as honest. The contempt which some MPs clearly have for the electorate (for example, the MP who said that people were angry with him because they were jealous of his Balmorral-like property) vanishes into humility.

    Gordon Brown’s proposal would not end safe seats. In fact, although it would reduce the chances of a landslide victory, it gives the parties more power to ensure that their anointed are returned to parliament. A true proportional system, such as the Single Transferable Vote, ensures that all votes are counted, and all count. An MP who is loved by 45% of his electorate, but hated by 55%, is no longer in a safe seat. If he wishes to maintain his position, he will have to make friends with at least 5% more of the electorate, whereas, under the current system, he could probably have risked losing the support of another 10% and still got home.

    Will this make MPs more risk averse? Certainly it will make them more averse to the kinds of ‘risks’ that cheating on expenses bring. But any MP worth their salt will realise that a broader public vote will support a Member who can be seen to work hard.

    The long and short of it: Simon Heffer is simply wrong. Nothing would apply the minds of parliamentarians to transparent honesty than a proportional system. But nothing like a proportional system is actually what Gordon Brown is offering us. In his own words: “I have never supported proportional representation…”

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