A row with a Labour MP and a wonky crystal ball

Facebook is now giving you more reason to waste time on it by reminding you what you posted on this day in previous years. I’m mostly enjoying it. A random bit of cheek from the much missed Andrew Reeves made me laugh and cry yesterday. Today I was reminded about a post on my own blog from five years ago.

Tom Harris, then MP for Glasgow South had been whinging something chronic about the (then) new IPSA, the body which administers parliamentary expenses, set up in the wake of the scandal. I wrote a post in response which said, basically: Tom, you have a point, but this is how public services generally treat ordinary, often vulnerable people. I then went off on one giving many examples of such horrors.

There might be some who take a bit of perverse pleasure in seeing MPs being treated like that. I’m not one of them, although I have no objection to them having to provide documentary evidence of things. You try claiming benefits or tax credits without providing supporting documents and see how far you get. Most MPs, as I have repeatedly said, are good people – but then so are most people who deal with the Department of Work and Pensions, the UK Border Agency and HM Revenue and Customs – and nobody should have to put up with poor systems and bad service.

One thing IPSA hasn’t done yet is lost any confidential data, unlike HMRC under Labour where the details of Child Benefit claimants went missing.

I do have a slight concern about the way in which one MP spoke to the IPSA officials (apparently interns, who have no power in the organisation) when asked to file his children’s birth certificates:

It is not yet known whether the IPSA official in question is even physically capable of performing the act the MP then requested of him, or even if it is legal within the United Kingdom.

.I wonder if this is a bit of poetic licence on Tom’s part but if a benefit or tax credit claimant had spoken to a Government official like that, they would have suffered some fairly severe consequences and perhaps been denied service, however understandable the grievance. I also think Tom would be the first to stand up and defend the relevant Government agency in that instance.

Tom was none too pleased and took me to task in the comments:

Caron – first of all, which MP has “around £5000 a month to fall back on”? An MP’s monthly salary is £3200 after deductions. And just because that’s more than the average take-home pay, that does not mean we can afford to pay our constituency office rentals, our constituency office phones and all the related costs of running an office and then wait until Ipsa get around to reimbursing us at a time convenient to them. The issue is not about hand-outs or allowances (that would be so 2009); it is about money spent by MPs in the course of their duties which Ipsa owe us. And you seem to believe that MPs only have the right to complain about Ipsa after every complaint that the general public has has been addressed. If you believe that, then bless

I think it’s fair to say that most of the rest of the comments were more in agreement with what I’d been saying.

My last word, though, showed that my crystal ball had gone a bit wonky.

I  think the other point it’s worth raising is that because of our current electoral system, Tom Harris has his job as MP until he decides to give it up. Ok, he’s one of the few that got over half the votes cast this time round, but that’s not by any means half of the electorate.I don’t think that any MP should have that kind of job security and this shows why we really need PR.

We could never have imagined back then that in 2015, Tom Harris would lose his job, swept away by the SNP as if his previous majority was made of candy floss. Of course, that doesn’t mean the system is fair – with the SNP getting 95% of Scottish seats on just over half the vote.

We need to think about the best way to bring about real, constructive change in Scotland. I don’t want to “change it back’ to the old hegemony. I want to see a properly pluralist, thriving democracy across the whole UK, underpinned with not just a commitment to but a celebration of freedom, openness and diversity.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I remember when Tom Harris tried to defend his complicity in getting a mentally ill woman evicted from her council house, and when he started losing, he ignored us because he was too busy watching Downton Abbey.

  • Funnily enough I had an argument with him on twitter as well (and I didn’t start it) – maybe if he’d spent less time on twitter he’d still be an MP.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 17th Jun '15 - 10:12pm

    I love that this is turning into “Rows we have had with Tom Harris.” Could it be that we actually miss him?

    And, Sarah, I remember that row as well – we had it during a fringe at Conference where Julian Huppert and, I think, Antony Hook, were being awesome about ASBOs and civil liberties.

  • I believe so. Sarah Brown was talking about how the best way to get away with alcohol in an alcohol-free area was to make sure you’re carrying expensive wine. Then dove-tailed into institutional racism and classism with ASBOs (indeed, Labour criminalised more political minorities than the Tories could ever dream of)

  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Jun '15 - 11:28pm

    ‘Ok, he’s one of the few that got over half the votes cast this time round, but that’s not by any means half of the electorate.’

    Whatever the electoral system, decisions are made by the people that show up.

    ‘I don’t think that any MP should have that kind of job security and this shows why we really need PR.’

    Why? Are long-standing MPs actually a problem per se? And what is it makes you think that PR would eliminate long-standing MPs?

    That said, I happen to believe that an ossified democracy is an unhealthy democracy and there should be a turnover of MPs. Yes, maybe it slightly conflicts with a view that democracy demands that if someone wishes to stand and they are elected then so be it. But on this issue I say tough and democracy can have it’s tail tweaked on this one.

    I would like a no exception 3 term limit on all MPs, Lords, MEPs, Councillors, Police Commissioners – the lot. And SPADs for that matter, they can step into the sunlight too. A severe reduction in the numbers of MPs, Lords and Councillors would be welcome as well – less, better. I personally think Cameron’s statement that he will step down was a thoroughly good thing.

    If you want a thriving pluralism I’d say great – but instead of using it as a way to (over) sell PR how about we enforce real turnover of people rather than just cross our fingers with the voting system?

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 18th Jun ’15 – 7:58am
    “…This is the sort of vital difference that causes middle class people to be blase about the difficulties facing the really poor.”

    As so often, Ian, you hit the nail on the head. It never ceases to amaze me how ignorant the middle classes are about the other people who surround them. False assumptions and general ignorance seem to be the stock In trade of the average Conservative voter. This is made worse by a media in the hands of press barons who reflect and promote such ignorance.

    Sadly we even see this sort of attitude reflected in articles and comments from Liberal Democrats in LDV.

  • Liberal Neil 18th Jun '15 - 1:02pm

    One of the bizarre IPSA rules is that while they publish details of how much each MP is spending on their constituency office rent they do not publish where that office is.

    So in our case we know that our Tory MP Nicola Blackwood has been paying rent for a constituency office but neither she nor IPSA have published where it is. No-one in the constituency knows where it is!

  • Douglas McLellan 18th Jun '15 - 6:08pm

    I was glad Tom Harris lost. He seemed to delight in opposing any progressive change to elections, the electorate, electoral systems or even what it meant to be a MP.

    It is easy to bring about “real, constructive change in Scotland.”. Stop complaining about the SNP and framing their policies and debates in terms of what it would mean for an independent Scotland. Never, ever mention independence. Leave it alone. Don’t give it any oxygen.

    If you say Scotland can’t be independent or it will be bad it will result in either voters being turned off or voting against you in a kind of “hell mend ye” kind of thing. If nothing else, no unionist has developed an acceptably positive narrative for Scotland being in the UK. Leave it alone and soon the SNP will be in an echo chamber. Challenge them on school attainment, NHS waiting times and armed police. Do it for the people of Scotland, not to create the fear of an independent Scotland. That would be a way to start being constructive in Scotland.

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