The Guardian | Thursday 21 May 2009
Boost salaries andabolish allowances
It’s not a popular moment to suggest sucha thing, but MPs’ headline salary should beraised and allowances cut. There’s nothinghonest about the current system, in whichmost MPs treat second home allowancesas an integral part of salary, in eﬀect rais-ing their income to £104,000 before tax.The danger is that representing peoplein parliament will now look so tarnishedthat talented potential candidates will be put off – being an MP should attractpeople of the same calibre as those whowork at high levels in public service: sen-ior civil servants, judges, headteachersof large schools. Consider this: the civilservant who ran the fees oﬃ ce was earn-ing £125,000 a year, nearly twice as muchas the MPs whose expenses he oversaw.The heads of large London schools get£107,000. Judges and senior doctors getmore than £100,000 a year.If we pretend that pay shouldn’t matterto MPs, we’ll end up with a high propor-tion of low-calibre candidates, or thosewho have suﬃ cient private incomes notto care. Don’t forget that Lloyd Georgeintroduced payments for MPs in 1911 pre-cisely so that the pool of politicians couldextend beyond the privileged class.Let us be brave now. Remove the secondhome allowance, and make oﬃ ce travel astransparent as it is in any company. LinkMPs’ pay to those of civil servants’ grades,or those of judges, and fix them some-where in the region of £85,000-95,000 ayear. Take that issue out of the politicalrealm – and free us from the demeaningspectacle of MPs arguing that bathplugs,antique rugs and £8,000 TV sets are a nec-essary requirement for doing their jobs.
Let MPs reclaimcontrol in the house
Parliament exists to sustain a govern-ment by passing its bills and approving itsactions. But it also exists to hold a govern-ment and its ministers to account. Modernparliaments have been inﬁnitely better atthe former than the latter – think of Iraq,think of some anti-terror laws, and think,in particular, about the needless prolifera-tion of laws and regulations.MPs need to stop being sheep and start being watchdogs. The rest of us, the mediain particular, need to assist them. Parliament should draw up its own bill of parliamentary rights to control theexecutive. It should limit the power of the prime minister to alter Whitehall. Itcould restrict the number of ministers.Select committees could sit many moredays and ministers could be required toaccount them more regularly.MPs should reclaim control of parlia-mentary business, giving the Speaker moreroutine power to set the Commons agenda.MPs should remove the government’spatronage over who sits on and chairscommittees. In the end, we should go thewhole hog and move towards a more com-plete separation, along US lines, in whichMPs are no longer ministers. That wouldremove a lot of the current conﬂicts. A change of political culture is needed,too. Everybody knows ministers and MPshave diﬀering views on most issues. So bemore grown-up about allowing those viewsto be heard in public. Why not modify thedoctrine of collective responsibility so thatministers and MPs can speak their mindsmore freely without losing their posts?The current system stiﬂes debate andpublic engagement. A new system wouldthrow the windows open.
A devilish discipline
The whips are essential to the running of an eﬃ cient political process in the sensethat elected governments need to pushpolicies through parliament. However,they have too much power and too muchsay over what happens to MPs.Whips have myriad ways of takingrevenge on or rewarding people. An accom-modation whip, for example, can decidewhich MP gets what room – a suite for thehelpfully toadying member or a hole-in-the-corner oﬃ ce for a troublemaker. Thoughnot the root of the current malaise, thepower of the whip – unrecognised as a par-liamentary post – rules supreme, inhibitsdemocracy and encourages a herd instinctand mindlessly partisan behaviour.A major reform is essential to bring back meaningful debate to parliament. Atpresent, both government and oppositionchief whips – who, incidentally, receiveadditional salaries from the taxpayer – arecreatures of the political party. They havea stranglehold over the committee systemin the House of Commons – inﬂuencingwho sits on committees and having somesay over who becomes chairman. They arealso good at arm-twisting MPs to followthe party leader on motions, which meansdebates in the Commons – as opposed tothe Lords, where there are more cross- benchers – are often stilted events, wherereal issues are ignored.Those perks that presently lie withinthe gift of the whips’ oﬃ ce – rooms, travel,committee places – should be apportioned by an independent parliamentary body,not by party apparatchiks. Party disciplineshould be enforced by appeal and persua-sion, rather than by patronage and thegranting or withholding of favours.
The House shouldreﬂect those it serves
We need a House of Commons that reﬂectsthe people it is designated to represent andserve. Voters need to see in this institutiona closer reﬂection of themselves, insteadof the anachronisms of a macho, predomi-nantly white culture that still owes manyof its characteristics to the English tradi-tions of public school and Oxbridge.We need many more women in theplace and a much wider variety of back-grounds. It’s not that they will be made of better moral ﬁbre, but that such an inﬂuxwill disrupt the cosy, self-referentialismthat has done so much damage.All parties should sign up to a quota forfemale candidates – it could be for a lim-ited period of, say, 10 years. Over the past25 years, Norway, Sweden and Denmarkhave all achieved high representation of women through quotas of 40% on candi-date lists.The UK parliament is currently 58th outof 187 democratic countries in the worldfor its meagre 18% female representationin the Commons. Only quotas will bringthe big breakthrough. Alongside morewomen, concerted action is needed toimprove the paltry 2.1% of MPs from eth-nic minorities – just 15. All-black shortlistsin key areas is the kind of measure thatcould crack this long-running issue.
Use the jury systemas a model
Bill Clinton put it most snappily: “If youwant to change the world,” he said, “joina focus group.” He had something in com-mon with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whocommented: “The people of Englandthink they are free. They are gravely mis-taken. They are free only during the elec-tion of members of parliament.”Both were getting at the same thing:the people are asked to pick other peopleto take decisions for them. While theirchoice – Britain’s parliament – implodesunder the strain of the expenses scandal,the public can only watch and howl.Constitutionalists propose all sortsof fixes: proportional representation;devolved assemblies; an elected Lords; asmaller parliament or a bigger one. But inevery case they still ask voters to choosesomeone else to do the governing. Think of that revered constitutionallinchpin, the jury system. We are happyfor randomly picked, untrained membersof the public to weigh the evidence and the
Link to averageearnings
Easily the most galling aspect of theexpenses debacle is the way MPs defendtheir abuse. Our politicians really meanit when they say these outlandish claimswere only to top up inadequate wages.Hang on, MPs not paid properly? The£64,766 salary puts them comfortablyinto the top 5% of all single earners. Themedian salary in the UK is £25,100; takeinto account pensioners and others livingoﬀ beneﬁts, and the average person liveson less than £16,000.As for parliamentary pay lagging behindother industries, that is a canard. MPs’ payrises between 1990 and the end of 2006 faroutstripped increases in inﬂation, averageearnings and public-sector pay. If parlia-mentarians want to claim, as the late TonyBanks did, that they are “a sort of high-powered social worker”, they should notethat a social worker’s position in Camden(a borough that neighbours Westminster)is advertised on the Guardian’s jobs web-site for between £30,045 and £39,228. If MPs complain about constituencywork, they should be given more case-workers. If the Westminster working dayis antisocial), then it should be changed, by shortening recesses. True, the life of an elected representative is an uncertainone, but that is compensated for by one of those increasingly rare creatures, a gener-ous ﬁnal-salary pension scheme.A pay regime for parliamentariansshould reﬂect the work carried out, and be democratically justiﬁable. The solu-tion is to link MPs’ wages to average earn-ings. Put backbenchers on, say, two times
Shorten the holidays
One of the better parliamentary reformsof the past 10 years has been changing thehours to reﬂect a normal working week,rather than the traditional arrangement of the day around 18th-century gentlemen’sclubs and society hostesses’ drawingrooms, slightly modiﬁed in the 20th cen-tury to allow lawyers to get in a day’s work before turning up in the late afternoon.The reforms (take a bow, Harriet Har-man) removed a hurdle for people withyoung families taking part in Westmin-ster politics, either as MPs or as oﬃ cials, oreven journalists. Along with other reforms,of which easily the most important has been the dramatic – if still insuﬃ cient –increase in the number of women, thischange has slowly softened the culture of the place.But it came at a high cost. The changeto the working day removed probably themost powerful weapon an ordinary back- bencher had – the power to delay, some-times to derail, the government’s busi-ness. The balance is now heavily weightedagainst the ordinary backbencher and infavour of the executive. No longer coulda Michael Foot talk for hours in order topreventa half-baked plan for reform of theLords going through. In fact, half -bakedplans speed through nowadays, withministers often redrafting important bitsof legislation in the ﬁnal stages. So muchfor better scrutiny. Don’t make MPs’ days longer. Cut theholidays, change procedure and give MPs back the chance to get right up the execu-tive’s nose.the average wage and increase their salaryin line with average earnings. That wouldremind politicians that their job is to repre-sent their constituents – and give them aninterest in improving the lot of voters.
Backbenchers needto wrest control
Congressional committees in Washing-ton have sweeping powers to tackle theexecutive. But the US constitution restson a separate executive, judiciary and leg-islature, whereas Britain’s remains inte-grated, a medieval legacy the Americansrejected in 1787.MPs are paid, of course, to representtheir constituents, to vet the government’slegislation and hold the government of theday to account. If necessary, they do that byturning oﬀ the tax revenues. Charles I even-tually discovered that hard fact when hetried to manage without them. The basicsof politics never change. But it needs a JohnPym or an Oliver Cromwell once in a whileto give the system a well-aimed kick.All models have problems, but parlia-ment’s select committees could beneﬁtfrom the conviction among backbench-ers that being a committee chairman isat least as useful a public career as beinga junior minister in charge of paperclips.“Ministerialitis” is a curse. MPs have the power to summon wit-nesses – as they demonstrated with theerrant bankers – and issue severe reports.But committee membership is still con-trolled on all but rare occasions by theparty whips. Labour’s chief whip, NickBrown, explicitly argues that serial rebelsshould be denied a committee place. Torygovernments have removed troublemak-ers such as Nicholas Winterton.Reform will require backbenchers totake control of committee membershipand the appointment of chairmen awayfrom the party whips and hand it to theirown committee of selection.It’s small constitutional beer comparedwith sweeping proposals such as demandsfor proportional representation voting atWestminster, but modest changes oftenmatter more than dramatic ones. Thatcoupled with changing attitudes.