Is there an accountant in the House?

Now that MPs have awarded themselves a pounds 9,000 pay rise, it"s time to check they are worth their salt
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The Independent Online
MPs have gone and done it. The leaders of the three main parties thought they were wrong. So what should happen now?

It is very simple. We need a retrospective productivity deal. Of course it would have been better to have negotiated this in return for the increases in salaries, but now the deed is done we need to make sure that we get value for our money.

The first thing to be clear about is that the headline salaries are not the problem. Naturally, whenever people decide their own salary they attract criticism, as directors of public companies have found out. Since in the case of MPs the money has to come from taxpayers, the majority of whom earn less than the pounds 34,085 they get now, let alone the pounds 43,000 they voted themselves, the extra pounds 9,000 is an additional transfer from poorer to richer people. But by professional or executive standards, even the higher figure is not out of line, as the review body concluded.

The second thing to be clear about of that overall quality of MPs is not the problem, either. These are decent people. To say that might seem politically incorrect, given the public perception of the way politicians conduct themselves - their drunkenness, their mistresses, their freebies, their willingness to trouser cheques for asking questions in the House. But by world standards British politicians seem models of propriety.

Compare with France, where a former prime minister, Pierre Beregovoy, committed suicide following allegations of corruption. Compare with politicians in Italy, Japan or the US, where hardly a week goes by without some further allegation of graft.

No, the problem is not too high pay, nor sleazy behaviour, but the fact that the work of MPs has not been subject to objective scrutiny. The revolution in the assessment of managerial and professional performance that has swept the world has passed Parliament entirely by. So the deal should be this: if politicians want to be paid professional salaries, their work should be subject to the same scrutiny as other professional workers. Here are five areas that need to be examined.

First, we don't know the optimal size for a constituency. The Isle of Wight has an electorate of just under 100,000. At the other end of the UK Orkney and Shetland have an electorate of 31,500. Most constituencies seem to have about 60,000-70,000 electors, but there has been no objective study as to whether this is appropriate, or whether, say, 80,000-90,000 would be a better range. Are voters in the smaller constituencies more satisfied with their MP's performance? Or do the economies of scale of a larger constituency encourage a more professional service? Here is an absolutely basic question - how many MPs do we need? We have not got the basic information on which to form an opinion. Maybe 651 MPs is the right number. But I suspect, objectively, it could be 450, or fewer. If a proper study were set in motion now, the constituency map could be redrawn in time for the next election after this one.

Second, we need to examine the support costs. One obvious example is the expenses MPs charge. At the moment allowances are far more liberal than they would be at a similar salary level in the private sector. For example, MPs can draw up to pounds 46,000 for office costs. A number of them pay part of this to their wives or significant others. (Some subsequently marry their significant others, but we will let that pass.) Now imagine what would happen if a middle-ranking executive decided that he or she was going draw an allowance for someone in their own family. It would be unthinkable. Yet in politics this is standard practice. As a first step a firm of accountants ought to report on the costs of the whole support structure for MPs to make sure the money, our money, is being spent properly.

Third, if the costs of the MPs back-offices are being scrutinised, so should their efficiency. There are an obvious series of practical measurements that any other service industry employs: response to constituents' queries would be one, satisfaction of constituents another. We could then see some league tables showing the best-performing MPs and the worst. Remember, we would not be assessing the quality of MPs' ideas - those are their own - but rather how well they perform their basic job.

Fourth, we should look at the way MPs spend their own time. Is it efficient to spend x hours in the chamber? How much time is spent actually working? Businesses spend a lot of effort in trying to minimise the burden on expensive management time. Parliamentarians have hardly begun to think in these terms.

Finally, of course we need to look at the whole process of Parliament. Is it efficient, for example, to have people sitting there far into the night? Is it necessary to have question time every week? Does it legislate too much? Or too little? For many politicians the very idea that their output should be measured and assessed would seem ridiculous. Go back a generation and it would have seemed equally odd to doctors, school-teachers, or bank managers. But assessment has been the crucial tool in improving the quality of the service to the end user. Politicians cannot become better performers without it.

By normal management standards this is a pretty standard problem: a stodgy, underperforming division, which has not been sensitive to its customers' opinions and which needs shaking up. The three party leaders have had their own views ignored. They agree among themselves. Now is the opportunity to step in and do what the top people in any half decent multinational would do: clear it up. And I suggest they take those five points above as starters.

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