Last week, a friend of mine went canvassing for the European elections. In two hours, he was the only person he met who knew – or cared – that an election was imminent. This did not mean that those whom he encountered were lacking in political awareness.
On the contrary: he had never seen the public so animated. But only one subject exercised them: MPs’ expenses. As he put it, every street had been renamed Earbash Drive.
Though the anger is understandable, anger is rarely a wise guide to action. The system must be changed, but not in a spirit of mob outrage. If there was not a problem which required thought, it would never have arisen. The new arrangements will need calmness and deliberation. Sir Christopher Kelly, the civil servant in charge of the expenses review, has exasperated a lot of MPs by insisting that he needs time to produce a proper report. He has a good case.
His difficulties arise from a deceptively common-sense point. Anyone who is obliged to maintain two residences in order to do his job is surely entitled to an accommodation allowance for the secondary residence.
That, however, is as far as commonsense takes us. The terms and conditions of these allowances are necessarily complex: hence Mr Kelly’s need for more time. Until the 1990s, MPs’ accommodation allowances were not generous.
They certainly did not cover mortgage interest payments. Those who did not own property in London rented rooms or stayed in their clubs. In one respect, life was easier.
There was less pressure for MPs to live in their constituencies. Even if they could not emulate Duncan Sandys in the 1950s, who reminded his local party that he was the representative of Streatham in Westminster and not the other way round, some of them could get away with a monthly visit. But over the past two decades, all that has changed. Three new factors are in play: cowardly governments, stroppy wives and resurgent Liberals.
For years, successive governments have been reluctant to pay MPs properly.
One can understand why. On MPs’ pay, there is never a good moment to catch the public in a generous mood. As they contemplate the pressures on the public purse, and on their own, few voters are inclined to conclude that their MP deserves more money. So salary increases were held back, while “expenses”, which attracted no publicity, were raised.
Old-fashioned wives were much readier to kiss the husband goodbye on Monday morning and endure stoical domesticity until Friday evening.
Today’s girls are more demanding and some of them are also sceptical as to what precisely the husband gets up to during those long nights in London. So there is more pressure on MPs to ensure that family life can take place in both residences. That adds to costs.
Finally, there are the Liberals, always ready to remind the constituency that their candidate is local, while the sitting member is never to be seen. In Tory seats, “will you live locally?” is the first question that an aspirant will be asked. These days, a reply in the negative will almost invariably elicit a negative response.
As a result, the current arrangements came into being, under which anMPcan claim more than £20,000 a year: not an unreasonable sum, given London prices. But it is not as straightforward as that. What about the MP who already owns two houses. Is he entitled to the allowances?
What about the Parliamentary married couples; should they both receive a subsidy? Are MPs allowed to spend the money as they choose, even if that means chandeliers and hugely expensive televisions? If an MP uses the allowance to pay mortgage interest on a more valuable property than he could otherwise afford, is he allowed to keep the profit?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. The simplest solution would be to abolish the second residence grant and compensate MPs with a substantial pay rise. In a sense, this was what Gordon Brown would have arrived at, with his proposal for a daily allowance. That was unworkable. It would have seemed to the public that MPs would have been given an additional payment, merely for deigning to turn up to work.
Yet any fair review ought to include an assertion which would be howled down in Earbash Drive. The vast majority of MPs are decent and hardworking. They did not go into politics to grow rich. Most were animated by a spirit of public service, often with more than a tincture of idealism.
Many of these good men and women now find themselves hideously embarrassed, often unfairly so. Take Oliver Letwin: what on earth is he supposed to have done wrong? As long as there is an allowance for a second home, essential maintenance must be an acceptable item. Mr Letwin suffered from a burst water-pipe. The local water authorities ordered him to repair it.
He did so, and claimed the money.
All would have been well, except that part of the water-pipe ran under the Letwins’ tennis court. So in the public mind, he is indelibly accused of wasting taxpayers’ money on affluent fripperies. If only it had been a hole in the roof.
There have been abuses. “Flipping” is a clear example. MPs should be able to alter the designation of their secondary residence perhaps once in a Parliamentary career, but not like a pancake-maker on Shrove Tuesday. That is not the worst.
Although over-generous home improvements may be reprehensible, they do not amount to embezzlement.
MPs who succeeded in converting housing allowances into cash in the back pocket are now in danger of being awarded free accommodation, at a lower standard.
That should not be allowed to discredit the vast majority of MPs, who are not crooks. But Earbash Drive is not persuaded of that, so there is an urgent need to detoxify Parliament’s reputation. As it may be beyond the power of the human mind to devise an acceptable system of expenses, there is an argument for revisiting Gordon Brown while also reducing the number of MPs. Face down Earbash Drive, increase the salary – but also announce that the number of MPs will be cut from the current 646 to 500, in three tranches of 50 at successive elections.
Another festering boil is overdue for lancing. Those who know the Speaker assure one that he is a good man. If so, he does not behave like one. Parliament now needs a great speaker: a commanding presence in the Chamber, respected throughout the country, who could summon the party leaders and instruct them to get a grip, fast. Instead, we have a painful mediocrity, who stumbles from truculence to self-pity, and who has no idea how to uphold the dignity of his office. He must go.
The Portcullis has come to symbolise Parliament. But the Parliamentary portcullis is now damaged beyond the power of an MP's expenses to repair it. Yet it is vital that it should be restored. No country can function well if its system of government is held in contempt.