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.