Posted tagged ‘MPs’ expenses’

Paying the members of parliament

May 24, 2009

OK, I have to make a confession. Today the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, was to be found in our household. Let me emphasise immediately that it wasn’t mine, another member of my family wanted to read it. But my confession is that I did also have a look at it. Just for the pictures, of course. But my eyes were drawn to a comment piece written by the paper’s former editor, Charles Moore, in which he assesses the implications of the row on the expenses of British MPs. You can read the whole thing here, but I want to quote the following extract:

‘And why are MPs nowadays the salaried staff of government? There is a basic conflict of interest in the fact that those whose job it is to guard the taxpayer from the demands of government are more and more dependent on the taxpayer for their existence. Surely, they should be self-employed, with personal, not state pensions.’

What does he mean? Maybe what he has in mind is some mechanism by which MPs become independent contractors earning a fee for their ‘services’ – hardly a great idea, as it will first and foremost strike everyone as a tax evasion measure – which will probably not improve their image. But there is a more worrying thought – that he thinks that members of parliament should not be paid at all by the taxpayer. This strikes me as possible because the title of his piece is ‘Now is the time to obliterate the professional political class.’ It suggests he doesn’t want ‘professional politicians,’ but rather politicians whose main income comes from something else. And he also writes:

‘Labour really does believe in a political class. It thinks that having lots of full-time politicians paid lots by the state is good for them and good for the rest of us. It thinks that if they are paid by the state they will not be corrupt, and that, government being a self-evident good, it is better to have more of it.’

This sounds to me as if he wants to return to the 19th century, when MPs were not paid. If that is so, it’s a daft idea, and dangerous. Not paying parliamentarians means that you will only ever have MPs who are rich; or who have rich backers. I cannot really believe that having an MP beholden to, say, a large company, or even to their own professional income, makes them less corrupt. In fact, the British parliament in the middle of the 19th century was a hive of corruption, with seats in Parliament being bought and sold. If you were to read one of the novels by Anthony Trollope, in particular Phineas Redux or Ralph the Heir, you get a good sense of the sleazy corrupt nature of parliamentary politics back then. Not to mention the absence of women MPs.

There is no alternative in a democratic society to paying members of parliament, and indeed paying them reasonably well. The problem is not, as Charles Moore seems to think, over-payment: it is that an unacceptable framework for expenses was allowed to develop which actually encouraged petty corruption. That all this needs to be cleaned up goes without saying. But not by going back into pre-democratic times.

In the meantime, we need to ensure that our system in Ireland is of a high ethical standard. We must not fall into the same swamp that has become visible in Britain.

Counting the cost of the expenses

May 17, 2009

You are probably aware of the story that has been rocking the British political establishment for the past week. If you are not, you can get it straight from the horse’s mouth by reading this account that the Daily Telegraph newspaper has published of its investigation into expenses claims of British Members of Parliament.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the behaviour of so many British MPs is inexcusable, and their petty greed has done so much to bring the political and democratic system into disrepute. They have failed in their obligation to observe high standards, and have compounded the failure by, in many cases, appearing to want to defend what they had done by saying that it was ‘within the rules’. We were only an inch away from hearing someone say that they were ‘only following orders’. It will be some time before the damage from all this can be repaired, and democracy is the main victim.

So much, so obvious. But actually, do read the Telegraph’s account, and then maybe consider this. I cannot read the article without feeling a sense of high irritation at the self-congratulatory tone of the newspaper, and I cannot help wondering about the tabloid-style sensationalism they have employed to advance this story. In fact, they have turned it not into a story but a whole mini-series, quite unnecessarily spinning it out over several days, presumably in part in order to build up circulation. I am not for a moment suggesting they should not have published this information; on the contrary, it is shameful that it took so long to see the light of day. Nor am I being even slightly ambivalent about the culpability of the politicians. But the way this campaign was advanced was calculated to inflict maximum damage not on the politicians – that was going to happen anyway – but on the political system as a whole.

Furthermore, across the media this story has involved highly paid British journalists condemning much more modestly paid politicians. And therein lies another issue. For some time the UK political establishment has been playing a game of under-paying MPs, to make the pay appear modest in public analysis, while encouraging them through nod and wink to supplement their pay via the expenses system. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when bait is dangled so visibly in the water that the fish will bite. The whole system has turned rotten, encouraging too many politicians to go through their careers on the make.

The scandal has not broken in the same way in Ireland, but probably there is doubtful behaviour here too. Some general analysis of the system here has already begun, as in this Irish Times article. It is probably inevitable that more attention will be paid to the conduct of TDs, but it is also to be hoped that we avoid the undercurrent of cynicism about the integrity of politics.

The political system consists of more than just the lives, conduct and deeds of the politicians. It is what secures our basic freedoms and rights, and the stability we need to generate wealth and secure fairness and welfare for the public good. The last time that trust in the political framework broke down comprehensively was in Germany’s Weimar Republic. And we all know what happened after that.

We are living in very dangerous times.