Bruce Anderson: We can go too far in denigrating MPs

Legg limits should not be retrospective – even Culpability Brown has a right to fairness
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The Independent Online

Just when you think that things cannot get any worse, they do. For the past few months, a lot of decent MPs have been close to despair. They have not only seen their own reputations trashed.

The same has happened to the reputation of the Commons itself, and that is bad for the country. Parliament may be imperfect – human institutions generally are – but it is one of the coral reefs of British history. Anyone who wants to understand our constitutional evolution, to understand why we have been such a successful country, should begin their enquiries in Westminster. Start out with a critical intelligence, by all means, but also come prepared to revere. Parliament does not deserve to be held in contempt.

Yet it is, which is why a lot of good MPs are oscillating between anger and guilt. Anger at the unfairness of it all: guilt, that it has happened on their watch. Everyone knew that the expenses system had dubious aspects and everyone knew why: the reluctance of successive governments of all parties to face the bad publicity that would arise from a sensible pay deal. In compensation, expenses were increased and there was widespread nodding and winking. No one gripped the expenses question; let sleeping tabloids lie. Now, no one knows how to make the hounds of humbug return to their kennels.

Indeed, there is a tacit coalition between the baying right and the rabid left. Some right-wingers argue that MPs should be badly paid, because they should have made money before going into Parliament. Some lefties believe that they should be badly paid to give them experience of poverty. No one except Patrick Cormack seems prepared to make the common-sense point: that MPs ought to have a certain status and be paid accordingly. These days, Sir Patrick finds it hard to command a hearing and the voters who dismiss his arguments know what status MPs deserve: pariah status.

The widespread refusal even to listen to MPs contrasts with the deification of retired civil servants. Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Christopher Kelly are both able men. But neither is infallible; the Legg findings contain factual errors. One assumes that neither man would be vain enough to claim that his judgements could not be questioned. Yet they are being treated with a reverence which Kim Jong Il might find excessive.

It is easy to understand why Messrs Brown and Cameron are behaving in this way. Neither sees any point in fighting a losing battle with public opinion. Brushing aside the fairness issues, both of them just want the problem to go away. In this, Mr Cameron's Eton education is relevant. In that worldly, tough-minded and realistic institution, boys learn that life is unfair.

But fairness is another British coral reef. Someone ought to stand up for it, and begin by insisting that retrospective legislation is wrong. It is true that the Treasury has been known to disregard that principle and to make certain tax legislation retrospective, but complex disputes between tax accountants and the Inland Revenue should not become a precedent in less rarefied matters. If MPs made an honest claim for allowances that were acceptable under the old system, it would be unfair to reclaim them now, even from Gordon Brown. Sir Thomas has a puritanical attitude to gardening and cleaning. He seems to believe that left to themselves, MPs would employ half of Poland in the house and Capability Brown in the garden. But the figures which he considers appropriate were not in force when Mr Brown submitted his cleaning bills. Although the Legg limits may well be enforced from now on, they should not be retroactive. Even Culpability Brown is entitled to fairness.

If the leaks are to be believed, Sir Christopher will recommend that MPs should no longer be allowed to employ their wives as their secretaries. That would be petty and silly. Like diplomats' wives and army officers' wives, MPs' spouses already do a great deal of unpaid work. It often makes sense to formalise the arrangement. An MP's wife will know the constituency and its personalities. If she were his secretary, she would start with advantages which a new girl would take months to acquire, and there is a further problem with new girls. Their role can develop. Perhaps Sir Christopher has already thought of this, so that his report will also consider the employment of mistresses.

Disraeli once arrived home from the Commons to find that his wife had waited up for him with a game pie and a bottle of champagne. He found the appropriate compliment: "My Dear, you are more like a mistress than a wife". Many a Commons wife has wondered how to exercise a mistress's allurements, especially when she is stuck in the patch, long miles from Westminster. Working as her husband's secretary should guarantee political companionship and constant involvement, thus ensuring that their lives march in step. Moreover, any MP without an efficient secretary is a foolish fellow. The ensuing office chaos is likely to communicate itself to the electors.

That brings us to a conclusive point. MPs should not be treated as if they were Bob Cratchit being interrogated by Scrooge about a three-farthings' discrepancy in the petty-cash book. There have to be rules, more explicit than in the past. There has to be transparency. Thereafter, MPs should be trusted. It is probable that the two civil service knights cannot help thinking in terms of Whitehall hierarchies, in which office furnishings are determined by rank and improve with promotion. It is true that many of today's MPs also think in terms of promotion and that the knights of the shire have been replaced by the esquires of the suburbs. But if Parliament is to function properly, MPs must recover their independence of spirit. Although they will always be accountable, the real terms of their employment should not be determined by their salaries and expenses, let alone by the Civil Service handbook. Those terms are a matter between them and their constituents.

This raises longer-term questions, such as the loss of MPs' independence to their Whips' offices and the loss of Westminster's independence to Brussels. Both of those are far more serious than the current trumpery nonsense about expenses. Nothing can be done about them until MPs regain something which should be precious to us all: their institutional self-confidence.