A couple of readers have asked me what I think about the MPs’ expenses scandal that’s turned the British Isles into a Banana Republic.
My first thought is Banana Republic politics is rather fitting for the UK today, given our dire national finances, unelected leader and last week’s threat to our debt’s AAA status.
Beyond that, the expenses row is not a matter of personal finance, or even business and economics.
It’s politics of the most venal kind.
But the scandal does shed light on how our Government could be improved.
Given that it’s a Sunday, I thought I’d share a few personal opinions.
Expenses are always controversial
When I’ve worked for employers, I’ve been notoriously tight with expenses, routinely getting trains instead of taxis, say, or staying in mid-ranking hotels.
I needn’t have bothered. Most companies barely notice this sort of effort, and besides it makes the boss look bad when he books into a five-star hotel.
Expenses are notorious cookie jars in many industries – especially the news media that is currently tearing strips off MPs.
Journalists don’t only make big expense claims (read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop for one classic account). They also consider ‘jollies’ such as lunches or press trips overseas as a perk of the job, whether paid for by the employer or a third-party.
I don’t say that’s wrong, necessarily. But it is hypocritical for them to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude towards MPs’ expenses.
The Telegraph today is lambasting a Liberal Democrat MP for claiming some heating and lighting expenses for the time his wife worked at home as his secretary.
Yet this is something hundreds of thousands of self-employed people do. It’s much more efficient to use your home than to hire an office for most sole traders.
I actually think it should be made easier to claim such expenses as a self-employed person. But the State is currently hostile to small entrepreneurs, and would rather we all worked for companies it can dump red tape onto.
Of course, the magic words that vindicate all attacks for the newspapers are ‘tax-payer funded’.
I believe the public sector is bloated and wasteful, and so expense claims for duck houses and moat-dredging annoy me as much as anyone.
But MPs are hardly alone in wasting tax-payers’ money. The BBC, for instance, could look at itself a bit more closely.
Does this BBC newsreader you’ve never heard of ‘deserve’ a £92,000 a year salary? That’s far more than most MPs, and all she’s paid by us to do is read words off a teleprompter.
At least the BBC operates in a semi-competitive environment, though, compared to Government.
The fact is we the tax-payers employ MPs. We are their employer. It’s juvenile to keep screaming ‘tax-payer funded’ as if MPs are robbing a nunnery.
What’s an MP worth?
Am I making Monevator even more of an acquired taste by defending MPs and their crazy expenses claims?
Only a little.
In many cases the claims are crass, and I’ve enjoyed shouting “Snouts in the trough!” as much as you or anyone else.
But we’re grown up enough around here to realize this system didn’t emerge out of a vacuum.
Quiet voices have been shouted down when they explain that the expenses system, particularly the second home allowance, was done as a soft way to raise MPs’ pay. As such, MPs proceeded on the understanding that what they spent their money on was their business, rightly or wrongly.
Raising MPs’ core pay is political dynamite – a tabloid just needs to shout those magic words (“tax-payers’ money!”) and we’re in a national tizzy again.
Let me be clear, I don’t think most of today’s MPs are worth even the £64,000 we do pay them. If you add in amazing pensions we can only dream of, they’re doing very nicely compared to the average voter.
But they shouldn’t be the average voter – they are running the country.
That doesn’t mean MPs should be paid more just for the privilege. It means we should pay more to get better MPs who can do us a better job.
If you’re a private company hiring a new financial director, you can pay according to the difference he or she would make to your organisation.
We can’t currently do that, and so we get second-rate characters who lead us from one bungle to another.
Worse, they’re career politicians for whom Parliament is their main trade for making money, as opposed to a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference to their country.
We’ve got the politicians the system deserves
I’m sure many MPs do want to make the UK a better place. Politics isn’t worth the grief, otherwise.
But most of them have never made a difference outside Government, so why should we expect them to do any better as MPs? They might want to make a difference, but they’re ill-equipped to do so.
Let’s also think what the average MP’s job entails:
- Getting elected
- The stuff of government
- Staying elected
Because ‘the stuff of government’ also affects getting elected and keeping their seat, we now have a political class who are experts primarily in getting and staying elected.
What we need are skilled outsiders with real-world experience for whom government – making a difference – is the important part of their jobs.
In contrast, consider the Conservative leader David Cameron, who is lamentably our best hope for digging us out of the economic mire we’re in.
He seems a decent enough chap, but he’s had no professional life outside of politics. He’s never run a big company, or made a scientific breakthrough, or operated on brains, or written an opera, or any other sign of real achievement.
Does anybody really think his experience and skills will prove more important than his political abilities in him getting elected?
Of course not. We’ve barely seen his skills, and we know he’s got no experience.
Cameron will be elected by being a good and likeable politician, not because the electorate admires his C.V.. And then we’ll have another man with no real-world work experience in charge of the country.
On Question Time recently I heard another politician explain that he had taken a second job as a director of a company because he wanted experience of the business world.
He should have experience of the world before becoming an MP!
To get heavyweights, we must change the system
I’d like to see the brightest of each generation aspiring to take a few years out of their high-flying careers to serve in Government.
Realistically, that means paying them properly, perhaps around £250,000 a year.
Do be able to afford this:
- I’d slash the number of sitting MPs to 200, as opposed to the current 646.
- I’d replace the House of Lords with an executive chamber, more like a Court of Appeal
- I’d cut the Scottish and Welsh parliaments down to half-a-dozen MPs in each (assuming I didn’t scrap them completely)
Remember, just as the CEO of Shell doesn’t dig up oil, MPs don’t do the heavy-lifting of running the country. That’s what the Civil Service is for. What we need are effective leaders and decision makers.
And before anyone tells me we need the current 646 MPs to serve their constituencies, keep in mind the U.S.. House of Representatives has 450 or so members – fewer people, serving a population five times bigger than the UK!
As for the House of Lords, the 700-odd peers are a complete and utter waste of money, given that the Lords no longer has any real political power.
Some sort of oversight facility is required though – hence my Court of Appeal-style second chamber.
Two term limit – no career politicians
Fewer, better MPs with real experience of the world would be far better at making decisions and driving through meaningful policies to improve the country.
But how would we avoid more career politicians turning it into a gravy train?
I’d limit terms in office to a maximum of two sessions of Parliament.
The U.S. President can only serve for two terms to restrict his power and the corrupting influence of years exposed to power.
I think it’s exactly the same with MPs. Two terms would be your lot.
If we paid people with excellent experience truly excellent salaries, and made being an MP an aspirational thing, rather than a joke, we would get a better Government.
If we carry on like this, we’ll continue to get slick faces with mediocre minds or C.V.s, bent on a lifetime of making pacts and keeping their seats in Westminster, who spend too much time figuring out ways to benefit themselves rather than the country.
The commercial world stopped operating on a Jobs-For-The-Boys basis years ago.
We need to shed the historical baggage and the Old Boy’s Club to transform Government, too.
I’ll keep comments on this post open as I know it’s a hot topic, so please do add your thoughts. Abusive stuff will be deleted, but I’d love thoughtful contributions, whatever your views.