Leading Article: Self-important and self-rewarding

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The Independent Online
MEMBERS of Parliament voted early yesterday for a 38 per cent increase in allowances for staffing and running offices in Westminster and their constituencies. In future they will be able to claim up to pounds 39,960 a year. Backbenchers are modestly paid, both by European standards and by those of the United States. Salaries of pounds 30,854 are not generous if elected politicians are expected to do a full-time job, rather than devoting a significant part of their energies to the law, to public relations and consultancies or to company directorships. But if they believe they are poorly paid for their efforts, they should have the courage to say so, force through a substantial pay increase and prepare themselves for the wrath of the Government and their constituents. Instead, MPs chose the easy option - a large increase in inadequately policed expenses.

The most obnoxious part of the exercise was that the rebels did not reinstate those parts of the review body report on expenses which called for the creation of a Commons personnel office to ensure that MPs' staff are given proper contracts of employment, are adequately paid and are competent to perform the tasks for which they are supposedly hired. Until this is done, backbenchers will continue to be accused on the one hand of underpaying and otherwise exploiting staff, and on the other of siphoning funds to spouses and relatives.

It is possible in theory to develop a case for a substantial increase in MPs' allowances. The Shadow Cabinet, for example, is inadequately funded. There should be a specific allocation to meet its legitimate needs. For a backbencher to staff and equip an office in the Palace of Westminster is expensive (although the rooms, postage and telephone are provided free). To run a constituency office is also expensive. An MP who appointed two secretaries, a research assistant and a constituency case officer would see little change from pounds 39,960. MPs should be given the tools and the personnel necessary to do their job. But what, exactly, are MPs for? What job should they be doing?

In recent years, many backbenchers have encouraged constituents to treat them as a cross between social workers and the Citizens' Advice Bureau. MPs are, first and foremost, legislators. It is important that they should retain the right to take up the grievances of individual constituents as they see fit, but the tendency to regard every MP as an advocate-cum-ombudsman is disturbing, because it diverts them from their primary task.

Moreover, politicians tend to be self-important and self-aggrandising creatures. It is agreeable to have an office, a secretary and a personal assistant and, eventually, for your personal assistant to have a secretary, too. It is also politically useful. An MP's representatives in the constituency can all too easily become full-time party political propagandists paid by the taxpayer.

There is no reason why the state should provide MPs with local political machines, as happens in the US. Some of the most effective parliamentarians, both in representing individual constituents and in testing ministers in the House, have been those who travel light. Enoch Powell, when an MP, was a formidable operator. So is Dennis Skinner today. Neither has needed a protective army of research assistants and private secretaries.