Opinion: The row over MPs’ expenses disguises the real problem

Call me paranoid, but I can’t help thinking that there is a right-wing conspiracy to drag our system of government back to the Middle Ages. I refer to the long-running campaign in the Tory press calling for cuts to pay and expenses for MPs.

The argument, often aired by columnists like Simon Heffer in the Telegraph, is that MPs should all be very rich, successful people who represent their constituents as a kind of pastime. Their pay should only be necessary for the occasional lunch at Smiths of Smithfield, or a bit of light opera.

Dishearteningly, I have heard this argument parroted by people on Radio Five Live phone-ins, who seem to think that democracy should be cost-free. This is a worrying – not to say dangerous – trend. It is becoming popular to believe that only the rich should be allowed to hold political power.

Clearly this view has gathered momentum thanks to 12 years of a Labour Government which has specialised in graft, corruption and nepotism on a grand scale, while presiding over an emergency stop in social mobility. The stories about Tony McNulty’s expenses last week were merely the icing on the giant Labour cake of greed and self-interest.

But in spite of all that – and here I have to declare an interest, as I am part-paid by an MP – I don’t believe that pay or expenses are the root cause of public resentment. In my view, the real problem is that too many MPs have second jobs and directorships.

Let’s start with their pay. An MP is paid £65,000 a year, roughly the same as a middle-ranking civil servant or a head teacher. They also get about the same again in office and staffing allowances and their controversial a second home allowance – a total of around £130,000 a year. This is still considerably less than the chief executives of most local authorities.

However, unlike those chief executives, an MP’s job is for a fixed term – a maximum of five years, unless they get re-elected. And it must also be borne in mind that MPs have all at some time been PPCs – where they work and campaign unpaid in the community for years, sometimes decades. So looking at it overall, it could easily be argued that public gets very good value for money from their MPs.

The problems start, in my view, when MPs start being paid to do things outside their work for their constituents. My boss, Julia Goldsworthy, was paid £20,000 for appearing in The Games on Channel 4, and she donated her entire fee to charity. Quite right. But why can’t other MPs do the same? Why should MPs be allowed to hold lucratives second jobs, but not nurses, say, or policemen?

William Hague is a case in point. He earns, reportedly, £200,000 a year from books and after-dinner speeches. So why should I have pay for his second home in London? It is this kind of behaviour that gives MPs a reputation for being on the make – not the relatively modest amount they are paid.

If the Government wants to reform the system, it should scrap MPs’ allowances altogether and double their salaries. This would be unpopular at any time, particularly during a recession. But it might sweeten the pill somewhat if, at the same time, MPs were banned from having second jobs, and forced to spend all their time focusing on the needs of their constituents. Now, more than ever, people need their MP’s full and undivided attention.

PS – Our Tory PPC George Eustice couldn’t even manage three months as an unpaid PPC. According to news reports, the former Conservative Central Office spin doctor has quit Cornwall already to take up a London PR job, plugging great bastions of environmentalism such as Coca Cola, Vodafone and Vladamir Putin.

* Joe Taylor is Lib Dem Organiser for Camborne and Redruth.

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  • David Heigham 28th Mar '09 - 8:27pm

    No. It really is valuable to have MPs who are not all 100% professional politicians.
    For their salaries, why not tie them to,say, NHS GP’s average earnings?
    For expenses (except housing) why don’t we let the normal tax inspector scrutinise them, and we pay what the inspector allows as proper expenses? The inspector is used to assessing GPs’ expenses.
    For housing, offer all MP’s the choice of a grace and favour place near either Parliament or their constituency; or a place they select themselves which the government buys and owns and in which the MP lives rent free? No MP will then get rich at public expense from property speculation, and Central London MPs will find they do not want the bother of an un-profitable second home close to their first one.

  • David Heigham 28th Mar '09 - 8:28pm

    Sorry. Forgot to say that James Graham got there first on how to ocpe with MPs need fro a second home.

  • Sally Hunter 29th Mar '09 - 9:44am

    You really should watch what you write Joe.

    As a PPC George Eustice does not get paid and nor would he expect to. Less you forget Julia gets expenses for travel and her work in Cornwall.
    He has taken a role at “the PR firm” so to pay his way.

    Nor has he “quit Cornwall” – you only wish!

  • “They should be entitled to travel and accomodation expenses if they live outside the M25.”

    That just moves the arbitrary line from the ILEA border to the GLA border and creates an equal number of anomalies. Eg Stevenage on the the high-speed North East line is outside but has quicker transport links than some places in London.

  • Who’s in the frame to be the next Home Secretary?

  • Surely this is an argument to rework the way in which MPs are paid, rather than simply deny them from holding second jobs?

    Wouldn’t it be simpler if they had a minimum income entitlement guaranteed by the taxpayer, and any external income they received would count against it? That would allow them to take second jobs if they chose, while avoiding the Hague situation of having an MP paid amounts that make his taxpayer-funded salary look ridiculous.

  • David Morton 29th Mar '09 - 3:18pm

    First off the article its self. At best its confused. At worst its riddled with unargued assertion, factual inaccuracies about the levels of MP’s allowances and a completetly false paralell between MP’s total package and civil service pay ( where support costs are not included.)

    I completely disagree with Joe in his assertion that the current concern about expenses is whipped up by the right wing press and find the sweeping dismissal of ive live phone in a bit patronising.

    I’m neither cornish or a libel lawyer so when joe says the Tory PPC has “quit cornwall” I’m sure joe has evidence that he isn’t living there anymore ?.

    The penultimate paragraph is the real shocker. If as suggested MP’s salaries are doubled ( so an extra £65k pa) and all other allowances are abolished then

    (a) how on earth do you run an MP’s office on that paltry sum ?

    (b) don’t you then massively incentive lazy MP’s ? if they do no case work, use no postage, have no office presence then they pocket the cash because its salary.

    I would ask rhetorically if the author has ever visted let alone studied an MP’s office operation but clearly given his proffession he has.

    basically this subscribes to the theory that it doesn’t matter how much drivel you write as long as you have a crack at a Tory by the final paragraph.

    Aren’t the issues at stake a bit more complex and important than that ?

  • I agree with Patrick Smith that it is dispicable that only 89 MP’s turned up for the Fuel Poverty Bill- especially those who live in London and could have broken their day to get the train in.
    I actually agree with quite a bit of what Joe says, there is a problem with the view that democracy should be cost-free. It will return politics to the preserve of the rich. However unrepresentitve our democracy is now, it would be worse if they were not paid. Take some of the Old Labour MP’s- people from ordinary working class backgrounds who simply would not be able to entertain the idea of politics as a voluntary activity.

    As to politics as a vocation, I think that most of us who work for an MP/PPC would agree it is not something you do for the money! Remember, many MP’s spend years working as a Councillor, organiser, researcher or on a part- time wage so they can serve their prospective constituents. And as for the MP’s, well those that do their job properly probably work coming in for 70-80 hours a week, I know I would not work those sort of hours for minimum wage!

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