Of all the arguments advanced by disgruntled MPs against Sir Christopher Kelly's proposed curbs on their expenses, there is one that I find particularly, outrageously, dishonest. It is the one that says they will produce a Parliament of the super-rich. The same ardent defenders of the status quo tend also to have a uniquely disingenuous line about how the new rules will particularly deter women. Really? Even more than the misogynistic colleagues in the Chamber? More than the "Neanderthal" selection boards? More than any other job that requires half of a couple to work away from home? Come off it; any aspiring female MP will be made of sterner stuff.
If anything, the new rules could make it less, rather than more, essential to have money. The big cost for MPs, as Sir Christopher's report stresses, is living in two places, when one of them is central London. He cites figures showing rental costs, which will henceforward be met, in consideration of family size and circumstances, on the same basis as with military staff posted back to London. With accommodation costs dealt with, the MPs will be better off than most other people living on a taxed salary in SW1.
As a 10-year resident of that post code, I know whereof I speak. But the new crop of MPs can relax. Once you have somewhere to live, your pay will go at least as far in SW1 as it will in many other places. Assuming your socialising and shopping is mostly local, your public transport, even taxi, costs, will be lower than – just to name a few places of my acquaintance – Bristol, Nottingham or Oxford. What is more, most places will be within reasonable walking distance.
There are the same supermarkets and chain stores you find anywhere, with similar prices. Fruit and vegetable stalls offer multiple deals as reasonable as any market town. Recreation? You have all the theatres and cinemas you could wish for on your doorstep, and kiosks with cut-price tickets on the day. You pick up the local paper free.
The cream of national museums and galleries is at your disposal, also free, and the Thames Embankment and St James's Park (with pelicans , swans and squirrels) for a walk. If you spurn your subsidised refuelling stops at Parliament, you will not starve outside. (Tip: lunch is cheaper than dinner, and much cheaper if you cross into Pimlico.)
The trouble, it seems to me, is that many MPs have acquired ideas of their worth above their station. Even at today's level, before expenses, an MP's pay is almost three times the average British salary. And if they sacked their spouses tomorrow, MPs would still bring in twice the average household income. I have no doubt that a quid pro quo of introducing the new regime will be a rather nice – and not needed – GP-size, rise in pay. Welcome to SW1, where the secret is that your salary will go further than you think.
Don't 'save' archives, donate them
The personal archive of the First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon, has been "saved for the nation", and we are supposed to applaud. The National Heritage Memorial Fund, the state's benefactor of last resort, put up £550,000. But should the state, or Cambridge University – which has raised most of the rest – have had to fork out any money at all?
The easy answer is that, had they not, the papers would have left these shores for a rich American university. But why were the papers for sale? You would have hoped – or rather, I would have naively hoped – that the poet's heirs would have understood the archive's national importance, done the decent thing and donated it. Pause to bow to David Hockney, who recently gave major work to The Tate. But some archives should surely be regarded as part of our heritage and automatically earmarked for the nation. Some countries do this, so depriving certain papers of all market value. Are we too squeamish to do the same?
Gangsters of the city's streets
My enemy No 1 on city roads used to be white-van man, driving along – anonymous and bloody-minded – as though the Highway Code was
for everyone else.
White vans seem to be thinner on the ground these days; perhaps it's the recession. But a new adversary was ready and waiting in the waste management depots. What we used to call a dustbin van and Americans call a garbage truck, seems recently to have doubled in size and weight, grown enormous jaws, and adopted the road manners of a playground bully, ploughing down the middle of the road, manoeuvring without indicating, and always, but always, assuming priority. With white van man you had a slim chance of competing. With garbage-gangsta, your only sensible option is to get out of the way.
A mother's right to choose
The High Court is currently hearing one of those wrenching cases that sometimes come its way. This one concerns a one-year-old child, known as Baby RB, who was born with a rare muscle condition. The hospital wants to withdraw life support, and the mother agrees. The father is contesting the decision. He and his lawyers argue that an operation could improve the baby's life.
At its most basic, this is a case about the right to life at a time of constant medical advance. But for me it also recalls something else. Back in 1987, an Oxford undergraduate fought through the courts to try to prevent his pregnant girlfriend, a fellow student, from having an abortion. He argued that he believed in the sanctity of life and, as the father, was entitled to share the decision. The case was closely studied by the pro- and anti-abortion lobbies as a British replay of the landmark US case, Roe vs Wade.
A few similar cases have subsequently been heard, and each time the court has ruled for the woman. How could it, I always wonder, be otherwise? The woman bears the child and 99 per cent it is she who will have to raise it, probably alone. The same applies in this case. The mother, by all accounts, has been devotedly by her child's side; she argues he should be allowed "a peaceful, calm, and dignified death".
If the father is prepared personally to care, or fund care, for Baby RB, by all means give him legal custody to act on his idealism. If not, so long as there are doctors to agree, the decision must rest with the mother.Reuse content