Politics: The only way is up

We asked a panel of experts how they would solve Parliament's problems
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Indy Politics

The pollster: Peter Kellner, president of YouGov

If you were to pick out one MP's claim as highlighting the worst excess, which would it be and why?

Sir Peter Viggers and his duck house. It's not the amount of money that causes concern, but the underlying cast of mind. There is a rough parallel with tax avoidance (legal) versus tax evasion (illegal). "Flipping" homes comes into the avoidance category. The rules were daft to allow this. Conservative MPs who claimed for duck houses and moat-cleaning were in evasion territory.

Are we in danger of going too far in condemning MPs and putting off good people from politics?

No. People don't go into politics for the money – even when that money is inflated by dodgy allowance claims. Indeed, the quality of MPs is likely to be higher in the next parliament, because of the likelihood that a few dozen will now stand down at the next election following the allowances row, and be replaced by bright newcomers with fresh ideas, who will know the rules from day one.

How would you solve the second home issue, given that most MPs have to have them?

MPs who represent constituencies inside the M25 should receive no second home allowance; MPs outside the M25 should receive a flat-rate allowance of around £20,000 a year. MPs' (and peers') arrangements should be subject to standard Inland Revenue rules, so that perks such as free parking spaces at Westminster are taxed as benefits-in-kind.

What single innovation would help repair the damage to MPs' reputations?

There is no magic bullet. Rules can help to deter bad behaviour; they cannot positively promote trust. The culture of politics must change – less spinning, less evasion during interviews, fewer emails attacking the private lives of political opponents. The culture of journalism must change, too, so that the many good things that politicians do are reported alongside the bad things.

Would electoral reform improve perceptions of MPs' probity?

No, if by electoral reform one means proportional representation. There are strong arguments for and against PR, but they have nothing to do with probity. What might help a little is compulsory voting – with a "none of the above" box on ballot papers. If "none of the above" achieves the highest vote, then re-run the election in that seat with new candidates.

Who would you like to see as Speaker? What sort of qualities does he or she need?

The perfect Speaker would have the lifestyle of Mahatma Gandhi, the charisma of Barack Obama and the public appeal of Joanna Lumley. But I would settle for a tough and respected reformer. S/he can't be Labour; it would be wrong for the third in succession to come from the same party. Two that could give Parliament as a whole the lead it badly needs are Ming Campbell and John Bercow.

The Independent: Martin Bell, former anti-corruption MP for Tatton

If you were to pick out one MP's claim as highlighting the worst excess, which would it be and why?

It's hard to know where to start in such a crowded field. I would go for the most absurd of the claims, because it highlights the MPs' sense of entitlement and their mindset of living in a world of their own. This is the claim by Sir Peter Viggers for garden improvements, including the now-notorious duck island at his home in Hampshire.

Are we in danger of going too far in condemning MPs and putting off good people from politics?

Good people will be attracted to politics only if it is a reputable profession. For that reason, the purge must be thorough. After all, the present crisis of confidence in the House of Commons is not the fault of the public or the press. It is the fault of the MPs themselves.

How would you solve the second home issue, given that most MPs have to have them?

The second home issue can be resolved, like so much else, by common sense. MPs should be allowed to claim only for necessary and essential living expenses. These exclude food, furniture and fittings. They are paid well enough to buy their own bath plugs and lightbulbs. The same applies to duck islands.

What single innovation would help repair the damage to MPs' reputations?

The most important single reform is an end to self-regulation. MPs have shown that they cannot be trusted to police themselves. I say this as a former member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Also, the new House of Commons Commission should make a public apology to Elizabeth Filkin, the former parliamentary commissioner for standards, for dismissing her for doing her job too well.

Would electoral reform improve perceptions of MPs' probity?

Electoral reform would improve democracy and give more people a sense that their votes actually matter. But I regard it as a separate issue. The immediate priority is to purge the system. The test of the parties' good intentions is how they deal with their miscreants, especially the frontbenchers.

Who would you like to see as Speaker? What sort of qualities does he or she need?

The new Speaker must be an MP of proven integrity, neutrality and authority, admired and respected on both sides of the House. A number of possible candidates pass the test: Frank Field, Sir George Young, Richard Shepherd and Dr Richard Taylor (the Wyre Forest Independent). So does Vince Cable, but his economic expertise is too valuable to lose.

The academic: Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government, Oxford

If you were to pick out one MP's claim as highlighting the worst excess, which would it be and why?

Douglas Hogg's claim for cleaning his moat and for his piano tuner – made worse by the lordly arrogance and self-righteousness with which he sought to defend himself, displaying contempt for the public. He still does not feel that he has done anything wrong.

Are we in danger of going too far in condemning MPs and putting off good people from politics?

There are a large number of good MPs who have not tried to milk the system – such as Hilary Benn, Vince Cable and James Brokenshire. So I do not think that we are going too far. The public are perfectly capable of distinguishing between those MPs who have acted ethically and those who have not. The only people being put off entering politics will be those seeking to milk the system.

How would you solve the second home issue, given that most MPs have to have them?

The Additional Costs Allowance should be replaced by a system of overnight expenses plus subsistence costs necessarily incurred in the performance of parliamentary duties. To prevent abuse, an MP's main residence should be deemed to be the property in or nearest his or her constituency. MPs represent their constituencies in the House of Commons, not the House of Commons in their constituencies.

What single innovation would help repair the damage to MPs' reputations?

The regular publication of MPs' expenses online. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Would electoral reform improve perceptions of MPs' probity?

Yes. Many of the worst abuses have been committed by MPs in safe seats. Primary elections would ensure that MPs were chosen by a wider group than the small unrepresentative cliques who often now act as an electoral college. In the long run, the single transferable vote method of PR would give every elector the chance to combine a vote in a general election with a vote in a primary election.

Who would you like to see as Speaker? What sort of qualities does he or she need?

Sir George Young – a man of integrity, widely respected throughout the House, who has chaired the Committee on Standards and Privileges with great authority. The fact that he is an Old Etonian and a baronet ought to be – and is – quite irrelevant. He would be an outward-looking Speaker who could begin the task of restoring Parliament's public standing.

The Tory MP: Ann Widdecombe

If you were to pick out one MP's claim as highlighting the worst excess, which would it be and why?

Obviously, the deliberate fraud has been the worst, but some others stand out. Many MPs have two homes, two mortgages, two council taxes and so on, but they only have one stomach, which they take from one home to the other. How any MP can spend £19,000 on food is beyond me.

Are we in danger of going too far in condemning MPs and putting off good people from politics?

We do have a lynch-mob mentality. If you were a Christian in Roman times going into the arena with the lions, you would have a better chance of surviving than an innocent MP. Michael Spicer, for example, has no helipad, let alone one paid for by the taxpayer, but everyone wants to believe he has. Most MPs are honest. That said, the scale and the blatancy of what has gone on has amazed me.

How would you solve the second home issue, given that most MPs have to have them?

I look forward to what Sir Christopher Kelly proposes, but the second homes allowance should be an enabler. I have always used the "avoidability" test. Can I avoid spending money on this? Some things are clearly unnecessary. Other things, like the plumbing and the central heating, you have to have done. It seems to me a lot of people have thought, "Here it is – how am I going to spend it?"

What single innovation would help repair the damage to MPs' reputations?

I don't think there is a single thing. Certainly, we have to tighten up on the system. Greater transparency is essential but it's not everything. We have to have a greater adherence to a much tighter rule.

Would electoral reform improve perceptions of MPs' probity?

No, certainly not. All proportional representation systems make a country less democratic. One of the problems with PR is that it is the politicians who decide who forms the government. There are plenty of flaws with our own current system, but you try dismissing a coalition. You can't get them out once they are in. Besides, it isn't just the safe-seat MPs who have transgressed.

Who would you like to see as Speaker? What sort of qualities does he or she need?

I couldn't answer that as I may yet be a candidate. I might be prepared to do it as an interim, but I am not running for Parliament next time. I have been heartened by the number of people who have encouraged me in this idea.

The PR expert: Mark Borkowski

If you were to pick out one MP's claim as highlighting the worst excess, which would it be and why?

A lot of the recent hoo-hah is a great job of sound-bite journalism, picking up on creative accounting. The MPs I'd pick as the worst offenders are the ones who are claiming for things like mortgages they've already paid off – the outright fraudulent rather than the people taking advantage of a deeply flawed system.

Are we in danger of going too far in condemning MPs and putting off good people from politics?

Far from it. I believe that the revelations should inspire a new generation of politicians. This scandal will, with any luck, inspire new people to go into politics and raise the game. We need professional politicians – a proper wage for a proper job.

How would you solve the second home issue, given that most MPs have to have them?

The only solution is tied second homes for politicians – as in 10 and 11 Downing Street – houses or flats that belong to the state and which are used by politicians for as long as their term of office lasts.

What single innovation would help repair the damage to MPs' reputations?

Britain needs MPs who understand public relations – and not in the Machiavellian sense. We need MPs who are able to look clearly at the world and at their place in it, who are able to communicate transparently with voters through social networking, who are willing to be accountable for their mistakes, and who remember that they are in a position of power by the grace of the people who voted for them.

Would electoral reform improve perceptions of MPs' probity?

Yes. MPs should be paid a decent wage that precludes the need for expenses – we need professional MPs and a professional wage for them. There needs to be root-and-branch restructuring of the political system to prevent any more gerrymandering and there should be no more consultants.



Who would you like to see as Speaker? What sort of qualities does he or she need?

Someone like Vince Cable. The Speaker of the House needs to be open, trustworthy, fearless and without sin – someone who will gain cross-party respect. Betty Boothroyd is a good recent example of the type I mean.

The Labour activist: Chuka Umunna, candidate for Streatham

If you were to pick out one MP's claim as highlighting the worst excess, which would it be and why?

There has been wrongdoing on all sides but the second home allowance claims of husband and wife MPs Andrew MacKay and Julie Kirkbride took my breath away. Their claims – over £170K in five years – suggest that neither has a first home and gives the impression of working the system for maximum personal advantage. Of course, since then there have been the moat, the duck island and the rest.

Are we in danger of going too far in condemning MPs and putting off good people from politics?

Yes. My own MP, for example, is ranked 597th out of the 645 MPs for the amount of expenses he claimed in 2008. He has no right to claim for a second home and did not even know he could nor would he dream of claiming for food, yet all MPs are shamed by association with the miscreants. While there are decent people like my MP, nevertheless I fear this Parliament will go down as the "Rotten Parliament".

How would you solve the second home issue, given that most MPs have to have them?

A second home could be purchased by Parliament and remain the property of the Parliamentary Estate, with the MP paying a rent. When the MP retired or was replaced, the use of the property could revert to their successor or be sold, with the proceeds going to the public purse. That way the public and not politicians would benefit.

What single innovation would help repair the damage to MPs' reputations?

There is not one but there are many. Wholesale constitutional reform is needed but, more immediately, my practical suggestions would be the application of two overriding principles – no claims for anything that would set MPs apart from the people they represent and no claims for anything not directly related to the work of being an MP. If a claim does not meet these two tests, there should be no payment.

Would electoral reform improve perceptions of MPs' probity?

Yes. MPs say their claims were within the rules but if the rules are so moribund, where was the clamour for change in the Commons before the abuses were published? Parliament is a gentleman's club born out of machine politics. Electoral reform would introduce multi-party politics, the revival of a culture of scrutiny and blow the status quo apart, which is just what we need.

Who would you like to see as Speaker? What sort of qualities does he or she need?

Whilst retaining the Speaker's impartiality, let's now revolve the role annually between the three UK-wide parties. This system of rotation operates well in our town halls. I like what I am hearing about John Bercow – his suggestion of stripping party whips of the right to nominate members to select committees demonstrates a determination to implement change. Frank Field could go next.

The peer: Baroness Williams, former cabinet minister

If you were to pick out one MP's claim as highlighting the worst excess, which would it be and why?

I would rather not name names, but the issue that most appals me is the claiming of interest for mortgages that have already been paid off. If there is a case for criminal prosecution in these episodes, it must be brought.

Are we in danger of going too far in condemning MPs and putting off good people from politics?

We are in danger of not getting good people if they know they will constantly be attacked. Bad MPs have to be exposed but, in general, MPs work very hard and get very little credit. All the time, including weekend surgeries, they deal with dozens of cases that attract very little publicity. I suspect a lot of the public anger towards them relates to frustration about the state of the economy.

How would you solve the second home issue, given that most MPs have to have them?

Generally, there should be no "flipping". In cases like becoming a minister, an appeal should be made to an independent agency as to whether "flipping" is justified. There should also be a standard list of what MPs can buy and how much they can spend. The list might come from a consumer organisation (eg, Which?) indicating a reasonable price for the goods to be acquired.

What single innovation would help repair the damage to MPs' reputations?

We need an independent agency to oversee expenses. It could be a beefed-up Committee on Standards in Public Life, but in any event, it needs to stand above the party battle and have the authority to say no. It should be for an outsider to judge on fairness – with the potential for an appeal – not a party leader or anyone else involved in party politics.

Would electoral reform improve perceptions of MPs' probity?

It would not necessarily improve MPs' probity, but it would certainly improve the electorate's view of a fair representation in Parliament. For a start it would make Parliament more representative, and the presence of more small parties in Parliament would make it harder for the two largest parties to reach the old cosy understandings that have brought us to where we are now.

Who would you like to see as Speaker? What sort of qualities does he or she need?

He or she should have a reputation for integrity and be able to rise above party tribalism. Someone like Tony Wright, who sadly is retiring at the next election. One or two of those whose names have been floated have exceptional moral courage. The previous Speaker's problem was not dishonesty. He couldn't believe that some MPs could behave quite as badly as they have.

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