Saturday, November 07, 2009

Kelly has gone too far

Yes, MPs brought the expenses affair on themselves, and yes, the system needs to be reformed - but reforming it on the basis of a 'blood sacrifice' will not necessarily produce a better Parliament. Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since the start of the MPs expenses affair, it has been clear that no one political party has had a monopoly on sleazy behaviour.

From Tory knight Sir Peter Viggers’ duck island to Labour ex-minister Elliott Morley’s mortgage claims, the scandal has engulfed those on all sides of the political divide.

You might expect from this that the net effect of the whole debacle in terms of the opinion polls would be pretty well neutral.

But that is not in fact how the public has seen it. In fact, polls have consistently shown that the public regards Labour as far more culpable than the Tories in its handling of the affair.

In a sense, that is inevitable given that Labour is the party in power.

After all, as I have noted previously, the government had every opportunity to spot this car crash coming down the tracks, and every opportunity to reform the expenses system before the extent of the abuse became clear.

But of course, it didn’t, and fearful of the hostile opinion polls, the Prime Minister is now falling over himself to implement the clampdown on MPs expenses that he should have brought forward a year ago.

The net result is that Mr Brown was left with very little wriggle room once standards chief Sir Christopher Kelly had published his own recommendations on how to reform the system this week.

Mr Brown and the other party leaders have already made clear they expect MPs to implement Sir Christopher’s proposals in full – but to my mind, this is not necessarily a good thing.

At the risk of provoking a furious backlash from Journal readers, I am not sure that effectively banning most MPs from purchasing second homes does not amount to something of an over-reaction.

The statute books are full of bad legislation, hastily passed in the aftermath of a moral panic, of which the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1995 is perhaps the most notorious example.

We seem to be on the verge of making a similar mistake with MPs’ expenses, inventing rules designed to produce a ‘cathartic moment,’ or worse, a ‘blood sacrifice,’ rather than considering the most sensible system going forward.

For me, the key question is: will what is being proposed improve the quality of Parliament?

In this region, we are set to see perhaps the biggest exodus of political talent in a generation, with parliamentarians as diverse and distinguished as Jim Cousins, Alan Milburn and Chris Mullin all set to leave the Commons.

Their departures will, in my view, leave a hole in the region’s body politic that may take some years to fill.

But if on top of that, the new expenses regime causes some genuinely public-spirited individuals to conclude that they can no longer afford to represent us, it will be a sad day indeed.

My worry is that we are seeing an example the law of unintended political consequences, whereby a measure designed to clamp down on the political gravy train ends up primarily penalising MPs of no independent means.

There is a risk that we will end up with a situation in which the only people who can afford to be MPs are those rich enough to be able to buy second homes in London without the help of a mortgage.

If so, it will mean history will have come full circle since the days before the Labour Party was formed in order to provide parliamentary representation for the newly-enfranchised industrial working class.

Perhaps, at a time when Eton College seems set to regain its reputation for supplying the British ruling elite, we should not be so surprised at this.

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Anonymous said...

There is no comparison in a stupid claim from a duck island which was not paid and actually defrauding the tax payer by claiming for a mortgage that no longer existed. If you must make comparison I would suggest you find a better one.

Westerly21 said...

If history comes "full circle" it will be because of the stupidity and negligence of those who were given the chance to even out the system in the first place.
Along with opportunity comes responsibility. They all knew that what they were doing was questionable. They got caught. Live with it!

Stephen Rouse said...

Anonymous - I'm sure Paul can answer for himself, but I took the purpose of that paragraph as illustrating the variety of dodgy behaviour, not suggesting any equivalence.

Bedford Translations said...

Hi Paul

You say, "if...the new expenses regime causes some genuinely public-spirited individuals to conclude that they can no longer afford to represent us, it will be a sad day indeed."

Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As an aspiring Labour candidate for a North East constituency "in your back yard" that is selecting, right now, it certainly hasn't put me off.

You say, "Eton College seems set to regain its reputation for supplying the British ruling elite".

Just for your information, I didn't go to Eton. And I don't think any of the other 30-odd aspiring candidates attended this school either.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting but entirely erroneous. Nobody - certainly not Sir Christopher Kelly or the party leaders - is suggesting MPs should be "banned" from buying second homes. Anybody can buy a second home if they have the money. What Kelly is proposing is that MPs are not granted a taxpayer-funded subsidy on such purchases, which is eminently reasonable. He is at the same time proposing that rented accommodation is made available for the large majority of MPs who need a second base in London. There is no reason at all why this arrangement should put off aspiring MPs... unless their main incentive was in fact the associated property windfall.

Paul Linford said...

The operative phrase being "anybody can buy a second home if they have the money."

Many people don't have the money to buy second homes in London, and some of those may not want to rent. Will this lead to a more socially diverse House of Commons? In my judgement, no.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, well I think you're mistaking the socially diverse for those who are sniffy about rental accommodation. Nothing wrong with wanting to own your own home, of course (I do), but most of us have to do it out of our own money. And there are plenty of MPs who already happily rent homes in London (some of them exceedingly nice). If we're going to encourage social diversity perhaps we should be encouraging a few more of them, rather than the money-grubbing variety.

I would add, by the way, that I agree that the reforms should not discourage the less well-off from standing for Parliament, and some of the measures proposed perhaps would go too far. I am also in the camp that believes MPs should get a good pay rise, perhaps even to £100k. But there is no justification at all for MPs pocketing capital gains (and, in an admittedly small way, contributing to house price growth in the capital) with the help of the public purse.