trust

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.

Nadhim Zahawi welcomed to contest

I would like to welcome former Wandsworth councillor Nadhim Zahawi to the Stratford on Avon parliamentary contest, selected tonight by the Conservative Association as their candidate. Nadhim is a highly respected figure and Chief Executive of YouGov. I do want to send my condolences to Councillor Philip Seccombe who, as the only local candidate, might have expected to have gained the vote. Philip has a strong background in the constituency, and would have fought a very strong campaign.

I look forward to a clean campaign, fought on the local issues which we all care about. I also want to echo Digby Jones’s comments of this week, as he urged us all to put the people of Stratford on Avon first. Digby is (as so often) right: more at this time than ever before, it is for us politicians to earn the trust of the people we will represent, not to impose a central party will on them.

Wrong answer too late.

In tonight’s vote the Commons opted for a national referendum on the Alternative Vote as a replacement for our current first past the post system. The referendum would cost an estimated £80m, but, because the Government has delayed so long (almost 13 years, in fact), it is unlikely that the bill will be passed before the General Election, and therefore even less likely that any referendum will take place.

More seriously, Alternative Vote is not a true proportional system — up to 49 per cent of the votes would still be discarded, meaning that a government can still be elected with an absolute majority on around 30 per cent of the total national vote.

This paragraph is going to be short and mercifully simple. But if you lack the Liberal Democrat passion for discussing complex voting systems, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph.

So: in first past the post, you put down one X on the ballot paper, and, late that night, the candidate with the most Xs wins. The candidate may have gained not much more than 1/3rd of the total vote, and, often, only three quarters of the voters will have voted. As trust in politics declines, the numbers voting shrinks, and so our elected leaders have less and less of a mandate. The alternative vote system gives you a 1-2-3 etc choice of your favourite, second favourite, and so on. When the votes are counted, the least successful candidate is eliminated, and their second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. This carries on, until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, and they are the winner. All the remaining votes are discarded. Although this is marginally more successful at giving people an MP they are happy with, it does not mean at all that the government is elected based on the votes cast across Britain. There’s a variation, AV plus, which I won’t go into, which is a much more proportional system. Truly proportional voting comes with the Single Transferable Vote, which is hideous to work out on paper, but which computers can do as easily as AV, AV plus, or even first past the post. And, these days, even the government has computers.

So where does that leave us? The one thing that the Alternative Vote Labour has pushed for tonight will give us is a system where it is much harder for a Conservative government ever to be elected. Gordon Brown may be counting on getting the support of Lib-Dems because of his fig-leaf gesture towards a proportional system, but, in truth, this is tinkering with the electoral system in order to change the result of future elections.

If Labour had done this, as it originally promised, when it first came to power, then we might have avoided much of the collapse of trust in politicians of the last ten years. Even Alternative Vote reduces the number of ‘safe’ seats which play no real role in an election. And it is in the safe seats that we have seen the greatest abuse of expenses. But this death-bed conversion smacks of nothing more than desperation. And it is a desperation which will surely further undermine the residual confidence the electorate has in government.

Quite simply, it is the wrong answer, too late.

Help Haiti

Help Haiti

Child victim of Haiti earthquake 2010, image courtesy WorldVision

Tens of thousands have been killed and more than three million people have been devastated by the massive earthquake that has rocked Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries. The Disasters Emergency Committee website is www.dec.org.uk. This is an umbrella group for key aid agencies, and is coordinating UK giving to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

The impact of an earthquake of magnitude seven is almost impossible to imagine.

Two years ago I went with World Vision, one of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) partners, to Armenia, scene of the devastating 1988 earthquake. Even after twenty years, and hundreds of millions of pounds of international aid, Armenia, previously one of the wealthiest Soviet states, is still in poverty, with much of the infrastructure unreliable, unsafe (to Western eyes), or incomplete. The landscape was littered with derelict factories and abandoned buildings. People I talked to told me that they had simply abandoned the last twenty years, and their hopes were that their children would one day be able to live the kinds of lives they had lived before the quake.

Haiti was, by contrast, already one of the poorest states in the world before the earthquake struck. It has for long been one of the least able to organise even ordinary levels of nutrition, housing and sanitation.

Clearly, everyone must make their own mind up about what they want to do, and each is in a different position financially. However, I want to put my weight behind the call to donate to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal. All the monies through DEC will be handled by well known, well trusted charities, including Oxfam, tearfund, actionaid, WorldVision, the British Red Cross, CAFOD and Christian Aid. It’s simple to donate online, or by phone to 0370 60 60 900, or by cheque payable to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE and sent it to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE, PO BOX 999, LONDON, EC3A 3AA.

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