In defence of MPs

In defence of MPs

In defence of MPs

First Published 18 June 2016

Yes, too many MPs have behaved unethically, says former housing minister David Curry. But some do need two bases -unless we only want to be represented by people of independent wealth.

Is there a case for the defence? Yes. Have MPs made it easy to make that case? You must be joking! But the case needs to be made just the same.

The revelations about MPs’ use of allowances, especially the second home allowance, have been immensely corrosive of public trust in parliament. Inside parliament MPs have felt they were living in a minefield: if you haven’t been contacted by the Telegraph by 11 am you are OK for the next 24 hours, MPs tell each other. The mantra ‘I haven’t broken the rules,’ or ‘it was approved by the fees office’ had added to the calumny. MPs have given the impression they had a special set of rules which set them apart from their constituents.

The truth is brutal: too many MPs have behaved in a way which is unethical and utterly at odds with the spirit of the rules even if technically within them.

Plasma TVs (whatever they are!), massage chairs, champagne glasses read like the booty collected by African tyrants with their Swiss bank accounts.

Is there a case for the defence? Yes. Have MPs made it easy to make that case? You must be joking! But the case needs to be made just the same.

The revelations about MPs’ use of allowances, especially the second home allowance, have been immensely corrosive of public trust in parliament. Inside parliament MPs have felt they were living in a minefield: if you haven’t been contacted by the Telegraph by 11 am you are OK for the next 24 hours, MPs tell each other. The mantra ‘I haven’t broken the rules,’ or ‘it was approved by the fees office’ had added to the calumny. MPs have given the impression they had a special set of rules which set them apart from their constituents.

The truth is brutal: too many MPs have behaved in a way which is unethical and utterly at odds with the spirit of the rules even if technically within them.

Plasma TVs (whatever they are!), massage chairs, champagne glasses read like the booty collected by African tyrants with their Swiss bank accounts.

The retribution is brutal as well. David Cameron has marched MPs before a drum-head tribunal and forced them to retire. He is fearful that independent candidates would challenge MPs vulnerable to charges of creative accounting and threaten his Commons majority after the next election.

Labour, belatedly, has sent a batch of MPs to the guillotine. The honourable retirement with, perhaps, some distinguished years in the House of Lords has been replaced by public humiliation and private shame.

There is a competitive race to clean up the allowances system: ironically the scandal has almost certainly ensured that every claim submitted from now on even under the old system would survive scrutiny from a panel consisting of the Archangel Gabriel, the head of the Soviet secret police and Hercule Poirot.

So what is the defence? It is that MPs have a unique job. In London they are lawmakers, scrutinisers of government, advocates of causes, ministers. But they have constituencies, their own patch of this land as they see it, in which they are the local doctor, the vet, the social worker, the priest, the councillor and counsellor all rolled into one. Despite the introduction of ‘social’ hours, parliament can still sit until any time in the day or night -and a huge amount of the lobbying, contact, and informing comes after hours. And constituency work is open-ended.

Of course, some MPs represent constituencies within commuting range of London (though the hours of parliament are not normal working hours). But MPs with more remote constituencies need two bases and unless we are to insist on being represented by people of independent wealth or of significant earning power alongside their Westminster job the public has to stump up for it.

My constituency is 250 miles north of London. Its 700 square miles straddle the Pennines in North Yorkshire. I can get in my car in a village just north of Leeds and drive for two hours until I get within spitting distance of Lancaster without leaving my own constituency. I simply could not fund that cottage from my own pocket. Many MPs are in exactly the same position.

So why did it turn so sour? Of course salary has something to do with it.

Governments (and oppositions) have competed in sanctimonious refusal to increase parliamentary pay, even when an independent body has determined the increase. To most of our constituents £63,000
is a pretty good whack: the problem is that it falls far short of the salaries of the ‘peer group’ MPs deal with every day of the week: head teachers, chief executives of the local council and top officials -civil servants, health trust and PCT management, business leaders and
the like. So alongside the salary a range of benefits have accumulated of which the most generous is the final salary pension. it has simply grown, like topsy, bit by bit with the complaisance if not the overt encouragement of the party leaderships.

Of course this will not cut any ice with people struggling to make ends meet. One ironic ‘achievement’ of this Labour government has been to preside over the widening of the income gap until it is the most extreme in Europe. No wonder MPs are seen as being on the comfy side of that gap!

The answer is not to take the plunge and replace allowances with a much bigger salary. It is to have well defined allowances, properly scrutinised to make sure that they deliver the basic support to maintain a second home (which will be liable for capital gains tax).

There is one other thing that needs doing: Parliament needs to reassert its role within the constitution. Although this theme is now fashionable some MPs (including yours truly) have excavated away at this seam of constitutional reform for years. Parliament is weak. It is a shell. It is the tool of government. We are badly governed and the weakness of parliament is part of the reason. It is ironical that British democracy should depend on the unelected House of Lords to deliver effective scrutiny of the government. Give MPs their real job back and let them earn their money!

David Curry is Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon and a former housing minister.