Westminster

BBC praise for plans

Stephanie Flanders, BBC economics editor had this to say about the Lib Dem manifesto: “The Liberal Democrats may be only the third largest party at Westminster – but when it comes to tax plans, they punch above their weight. Their manifesto has a lot more numbers than either of the other parties. That deserves some credit. Their tax proposals are also by far the most ambitious we’ve seen this week. Whether they would do what the party says they would do is another matter.”

On Labour and the Tories, she was less kind: “The Labour and Conservative manifestos are very different. Labour’s was big on words – and detailed promises and commitments which we had heard before. It put government at the centre. The Conservative version is longer, but lighter. About a third of its 118 pages actually contains written text – the rest is made up of pictures, fun facts, and (yes) blank pages to give readers a rest. Their focus is on the private sector – and on individuals.

“But the two documents have one important thing in common: neither of them makes any further contribution to public understanding on how Britain’s £167bn budget deficit is going to be cut. And they both leave plenty out.”

The Lib Dem manifesto is about four key policies —

• Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.
• A fair chance for every child.
• A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
• A fair deal for you from politicians.

In the words of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats: “We’ve had 65 years of Labour and the Conservatives: the same parties taking turns and making the same mistakes, letting you down. It is time for something different. It is time for something better.”

The manifesto itself is a pretty hefty document — strengthened, as Stephanie Flanders points out, by pages and pages of detailed costings. This is not pie in the sky, these are workable plans which — if the situation did transpire that we were in government with members of other parties willing to work with us — would form the blueprint for economic recovery. Sustainable economic recovery that is, because, despite the promises of the last four chancellors (Lawson, Clarke, Brown, Darling) the Labour/Conservative or Labservative economics has done nothing but cycle us through boom and bust.

If the full document is more than you want to read right now, here are the key points in a bit more detail:
fair taxes
that put money back in your pocket
• The first £10,000 you earn tax-free: a tax cut of £700 for most people
• 3.6 million low earners and pensioners freed from income tax completely
• Paid for in full by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy and polluters

a fair chance
for every child
• Ensure children get the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes
• Made possible by investing £2.5 billion in schools targeted to help struggling pupils
• Give schools the freedom to make the right choices for their pupils

a fair future
creating jobs by making Britain greener
• Break up the banks and get them lending again to protect real businesses
• Honesty about the tough choices needed to cut the deficit • Green growth and jobs that last by investing in infrastructure

a fair deal
by cleaning up politics
• Put trust back into politics by giving you the right to sack corrupt MPs
• Restore and protect hard-won British civil liberties with a Freedom Bill
• Overhaul Westminster completely: fair votes, an elected House of Lords, all politicians to pay full British taxes

Job Descriptions for MPs?

By far the biggest story of the parliament-which-is-soon-to-end is the expenses of Members of Parliament. Expenses, perks, salary, general behaviour. To a certain extent, we ought to celebrate the final ending of the age of deference, when we, the people, now feel able to challenge the political class to explain how they spend our money.

But the elephant in the room (this cliché has become very common recently) is the question of what MPs actually do. Cabinet ministers, of course, run government departments. Sort of. Actually, civil servants run government departments, and cabinet ministers (if they are wise) set policy or (if foolish) get involved in top-level executive decisions. Junior ministers, naturally, do what their senior colleagues do, but less so. The opposition is there to hold the government to account, and back-benchers of the government are… well… to provide the necessary support for the government to be a government.

If MPs are merely voting fodder or some kind of inspection agency, then their senior-management level salaries look a bit over-priced. Some MPs ask barely more than one or two parliamentary questions a year — not the sort of thing which holds anyone to much account. There are All Party Parliamentary Groups on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from human trafficking (a substantially overlooked topic) to beer, a subject which is seldom overlooked. However, these APPGs have no direct influence on the activity of government. There are also select committees, which form part of the process of law-making. But, again, quite a few MPs are not members of any select committees. These are typically the MPs who ask the fewest parliamentary questions.

Members of Parliament have, at least since the war in most areas, supplemented their parliamentary duties with constituency duties. These range from holding surgeries as semi-surrogate social workers, to an endless round of openings and parties. MPs also respond to constituents’ letters, and raise issues of importance with local government. But, again, they raise issues, but have no direct authority. Naturally, in a public sector organisation, a letter from an MP carries a certain weight. But only a certain weight. It is soft influence, not hard impact.

Ask a member of the public exactly what an MP does, and you may get a fairly vague answer. Ask an MP what MPs do, and the answer can be equally vague. To restore trust in politicians, we need job descriptions.

To someone who has lived without one, a job description may seem threatening. MPs have muttered about the unfairness of being told what to do, and how to live. The phrase ‘living on rations’ has cropped up.

But the truth is, the entirely unregulated life of an MP can be as bad for them as it is for the people they serve. A friend of mine was told by his doctor that if he did not stand down as MP for a seat he had famously won a few years before, then he would be dead in five years. Endlessly late nights, a culture which emphasises alcohol consumption, and a demanding programme which is effectively a 40 hour week in Westminster supplemented by a 40 hour week in the constituency, is not good for the MP, nor is it good for the decisions they should be making on our behalf. There is a reason why good companies do not let their senior managers overwork — overworked managers gain progressively fewer results the longer they extend their hours.

The other benefit of a really clear job description is that, if an MP fails in it, he or she could actually be removed. The ability for the electorate to remove failing MPs is part of Liberal Democrat national policy. An MP who seldom turns up at the House of Commons, is rarely in the constituency, and whose letters are written by a team of poorly paid researchers working from a fairly elementary rule-book, is not earning the money we pay them. Worse, he or she is preventing a more diligent, hard-working person from representing the voters.

It is no surprise that all of the worst excesses of the expenses scandal were in ‘safe’ seats. An MP with no accountability framework, no means of removal, and no likelihood of even having to campaign hard when the General Election is called can casually disregard his or her duty. And, it seems, some, or even many, did.

Job descriptions, then. A simple summary of hours to be worked, outputs to be measured, methods of accountability, common standards and disciplinary procedures. Businesses discovered them decades ago. It’s time for the elected-sector to make its way into the late 20th century. Perhaps as a step (heaven help them) into the 21st.

Real issues, number one…

Business, as I learned when I was in it, is about forming partnerships to get the end consumers products that they need, want, or will enjoy, in a way which is cheaper, better, faster or easier than the way they would otherwise get them. In this way, the manufacturer grows rich, the supply chain grows rich, and the consumer has a richer life experience. And, of course, both the transactions and the profits also involve a contribution to taxation, which funds many of the things which are good, but which would not otherwise happen if left to market forces alone.

But not all businesses are like this. There is always an undercurrent — and sometimes it is powerful and drags in whole communities — of businesses which make their money by tricking the customer, by preying on fear, on misinformation, on unethical selling tactics, or simply on the poor life chances of their victims. The Office of Fair Trading regularly shuts businesses of this kind down, but they persist, and, in some cases, gain the protection of the law, even when what they are doing is blatantly unjust.

In a deprived community, all of the following are probably acting:

    unsecured, high interest loan companies
    companies processing money transactions for a high fee for those without a bank account
    employers who repeatedly hire staff for six months and then fire them, in order never to have to make redundancy payments
    quasi-legal firms urging people towards unnecessary litigation
    ‘bait and switch’ online traders
    landlords offering below-basic accommodation for prices designed to gain the maximum housing allowance
    companies providing cash machines where there are no bank-supported ATMs, with a transaction cost sometimes 20% of the money drawn

Over the twelve and a bit years I lived in Stechford, one of the UK’s most deprived communities, I saw all of these, some quite regularly. By contrast with dodgy second-hand car salesmen, unhygienic restaurants, people selling contraband cigarettes and garages offering MOT certificates for dangerous vehicles, all of the above trade within the law. And yet they suck the life out of the communities least able to afford them, and least able to resist them.

This is legally sanctioned injustice. It engenders anger, and despair. I saw the anger boil over into rioting in the 1980s. In the 2000s, I more frequently saw a cold resignation. “They’ll always rip you, but you can’t do much,” is a phrase I heard all too often.

Should a nanny-state prevent people from spending their money however they like, even if it means they get perhaps just 70p in the pound in terms of value received? Or should predatory traders be allowed to get away with anything they like, so long as they stay within the letter of the law?

In the seminal book The Spirit Level, public health doctors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examine the life expectancy, crime rates and other key metrics from the twenty most prosperous nations, and show, fairly convincingly, a strong correlation between larger gaps between rich and poor and poor overall life expectancy and societal good for the community as a whole. The UK, Portugal, and USA have the widest gaps in the Western World, and perform worst on almost all the metrics. Correlation, of course, does not demonstrate causation. However, it is fairly elementary to show that endemic injustice begets both violence and despair.

Government should be working on global warming, on the economy, and on rebuilding Britain’s damaged democracy, because these are big things which only governments are big enough to tackle. But government must also have a care for the little things. The answer is not additional legislation. Indeed, many of these companies prosper in the tangled world of badly drafted legislation which allow them to invoke clauses or style themselves as other kinds of businesses than they are. But we do need some of the collective intelligence of Whitehall and Westminster to be directed at these issues.

There is no armageddon waiting round the corner if we do not tackle these things. The British National Party may well elect its first MP at the General Election, as might UKIP, trading on false blame for the causes of deprivation. But it is almost inconceivable that they will ever have enough seats on anything, even the Parish Council, to actually set or influence policy. But we should tackle these issues because it is our duty to do so. Those who are elected are elected to serve the whole population, and to make decisions which benefit all.

In the right direction

MPs with outside interests could be paid lower salary — The Times. Bill Cockburn, head of the Senior Salaries Review Board, has suggested that MPs with outside interests could be paid at a lower rate than ‘full time’ MPs. But Tories, who have disproportionately more outside incomes than MPs of other parties, are already opposing the suggestion.

The simple truth is that, in any other walk of life, a member of staff who is not available for work for the contracted amount of time is paid at a lower rate. Of course, many constituency voters might baulk at the fact that their MP was only part-time — if they knew about it. Although website www.theyworkforyou.com attempts to track MP outside employments, it will only be from 1 July this year that MPs are required to disclose them. Naturally, many MPs are now curtailing their outside interests to limit that damage this disclosure will bring.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. In my opinion, an MP who works an outside job, or who benefits as a company director (remembering that most companies want MPs as directors because they think it will benefit them) is not concentrating fully on the job.

Actually, I feel that differential salaries is only a step in the right direction. Who should decide which constituencies get part-time MPs, and which get full time MPs? Or should a part-time MP job-share with another part-time MP? In that case, which of them would get to vote on which issues, or would their votes only count for half? Surely the only logical solution is to ban MPs from outside interests all together. If we are to recover any kind of trust at all, we must absolutely decouple money from politics.

What would actually make the most sense would be to freeze a new MP’s assets when they entered parliament, and unfreeze them — fully index linked — when they left. If properly structured, there could be serious incentives to quit. If MPs lived simply as MPs, a generous pension would help those who realised that they had essentially finished what they joined the House for to move on, rather than hanging in for as long as possible, which is what many superannuated politicians seem to do now.

It’s often said that paying any less than the current salary would not attract the ‘right’ kind of people. Evidently there is a kind of person who can be had for £66,000 a year, but not for less. From my point of view, someone who believes that they should be allowed to supplement this income by spending less time on their duties is not remotely the ‘right’ kind of person. Whether they supplement their income through property speculation, or through milking the expenses train, or through outside jobs, what we are talking about is simply greed. And, in my book, greed is not the qualification which sets a man or woman apart as the person who should serve the public in Westminster.

But differential pay is a step in the right direction — provided that the differential is sufficient that the MP makes no profit from outside interests at all.

Money and power may mix now, but they should not in future.

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