Leading Article: Cheques and balances

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WITH TERM nearing its end in the House of Commons, the dogs for once dared to bark, even bite. Tory MPs rebelled when the influence of the whips forced the outspoken Nicholas Winterton off the select committee on health. Then they defied the Government last week to vote an increase of pounds 11,000 in their staff and office allowances, against the pounds 4,200 increase that John Major wanted.

Not much of a rebellion, perhaps. And it does not look good for MPs to be voting themselves more money even if it is really for their secretaries and researchers. Some newspapers used stronger words: 'indecent', 'hypocritical', 'improper'. Yet there is nothing so indecent, hypocritical and improper as the chorus of sanctimonious complaint from the ranks of cabinet ministers, with their chauffeur-driven Rovers and Daimlers and their retinues of Civil Service mandarins. The cost of the private office at 10 Downing Street, according to a parliamentary written answer, was pounds 8.2m in 1990-91, rather more than was available in staff and office allowances at the time to the entire Parliamentary Labour Party.

Taking ministerial opinions on this subject at all seriously is like asking for burglars' views on how the police should be financed. It suits the executive perfectly well when economic circumstances dictate 'restraint' in the resources available to those who are supposed to keep it in check. And that executive, though it makes a song and dance about forgoing salary increases, has shown precious little restraint in its own use of resources. The number of paid ministerial posts has increased from 60 at the beginning of the century to more than 100. (In this supposedly non-interventionist Government, Trade and Industry has seven ministers, including one for 'corporate affairs'.) At the last count, the number of political advisers to ministers, an invention of the 1970s, had risen to 34. The average salary paid to them from public funds in 1991 was nearly pounds 38,000, close to the sum that MPs voted themselves last week, to such ministerial indignation, for their entire office expenses. The increase in ministerial powers is unquantifiable: the 1988 Education Reform Act alone gave the Secretary of State for Education more than 400 new powers, according to one calculation.

To deny MPs money for researchers, secretaries, computers and the like is to deny their constituents any hope of protection from this swollen and overweening executive. Parliament's performance in recent years is not an encouraging one. How often do changes - such as the loss of the right to examine the expenses of the Royal household - slip through unnoticed? How many MPs sufficiently understood the workings of pension funds to challenge the Government's failure to establish adequate regulation, as exposed by the Maxwell affair? How many MPs have enough information to assess the effects of the centrepieces of the last Parliament's legislative programme - the reforms of the education and health services? A few MPs, such as Tam Dalyell, can embarrass governments by focusing their energies and resources on specialist fields. But there is little reward in politics for specialisation. Most MPs prefer the instant opinion, aimed at the media headline. It is hardly surprising: the House of Commons library has 27 research staff, the US Congress has 1,000 researchers.

MPs' office expenses should be more closely controlled, as the review body which recommended the increased allowances proposed. It should not be acceptable, in most cases, for MPs to employ their spouses as researchers or secretaries. There should be cast-iron guarantees that the money is not used for overtly electoral purposes. But the executive has no particular interest in working out the details of such safeguards. It prefers MPs who troop tamely through the lobbies at the behest of the whips, MPs who, lacking the wherewithal to expose the important failings in legislation and in the exercise of power, can be stirred into rebellion only when they feel instinctively that something is wrong. Our MPs are not perfect, far from it. But it benefits nobody, except ministers, for them to become weaker while the executive becomes stronger.