Bruce Anderson: Face the facts... Most MPs are decent people, not crooks

Many of these good men and women find themselves hideously embarrassed, often unfairly so

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Recruitment Genius: Chef

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Chef is required to join one of the largest ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is required to jo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
There are around 250 species of bumblebee in the world  

If you want to rumble a bumblebee, now’s your chance

Michael McCarthy
 

Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred

Simon Danczuk
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor