Of that sound if basic dictum Richard North reminds us in his piece. With it I respectfully concur: more than ever it is vital that MPs have the wherewithal to hold Government to account and to challenge where necessary the administrative acts of government departments that impinge on their constituents. For those tasks I am content that public money should be spent and that it should be in reasonably generous measure.
In particular I am not against the employment of family members by MPs. It is in the nature of our constituency system that having a wife as the MP’s secretary in the constituency office means that he will have an immediate conduit to what is happening outside the Westminster Village and to the grassroots of his local party which he might not so effectively have with an ordinary secretary.
And the very nature of an MP’s life means that having a wife minding the shop ensures that both remain in daily contact and give one another mutual support which must surely improve the prospects for the subsistence of their relationship as a whole. There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that more than one marriage has been saved because the spouse was employed by the MP.
The trick, however, will be to balance the need for well-briefed and informed Backbenchers on the one hand and for proper scrutiny and accountability for their expenses and allowances on the other.
The problem arises with the small minority who are not applying their expenses and allowances honestly and honourably. The employment of family members on essentially bogus jobs is one aspect of that but the use of ‘postage’ on purely party political matters is another area of abuse (Labour MPs with marginal constituencies often seem to be prolific letter writers, the suspicion being that they are using public funds to send out propaganda). And the whole business of the use of the housing allowance is an aspect of the wider problem with many voters looking askance at what looks like a heady dose of personal enrichment taking place.
In addition it is the constant series of attempts by MPs to conceal from the public gaze the nature and extent of their expenses and allowances that prompts people to believe that they have something, probably a considerable something to hide and that the manner in which expenses and allowances are being used is somehow discreditable. In that sense MPs are very much the author of their own misfortunes.
All that we ask is that public money is applied to the purposes for which they are intended and that a proper account is given of what is spent, with proper receipts and so on, like any other business. In addition the public should be able see what is being spent on their behalf in considerable detail so that MPs can return to a state where they are, like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. That does involve more work but it need not involve greater controls. If, as I advocate, Westminster moves to a system of placing details of parliamentary expenses online, the controls will come from the eagle-eyes of the public who, when these things are disclosed, are quick to spot when snouts are in the trough and when they are not.
To borrow a phrase of which this Government is particularly fond, if all is above board then MPs have nothing to worry about.
It was interesting to note the views of a Westminster insider, Peter Riddell in the Times. His piece was echoed elsewhere in the MSM which gave a distinct flavour of established political journalists earnestly sympathising with their sources over a good lunch whilst repeating over and over: “Do not bite the hand that feeds you, do not bite the hand that feeds you!”
Riddell, who I always think if as a confirmed Labour supporter, got very sniffy at those of us who have singled out the quite excellent Phillip Hollobone, Conservative MP for Kettering who does all his own staff work and manages to reply to emails with considerable promptitude and is consequently the cheapest MP in terms of expenses and allowances:
MPs, and peers for that matter, cannot retreat behind a club, “we are all ladies and gentlemen of honour”, attitude. The public no longer accepts that. MPs can no longer benefit from arrangements over pensions, expenses and allowances that do not apply to those working in the public and private sectors. But this should not mean hair-shirted self-denial, where MPs who do not employ staff and pride themselves on low expenses, such as the Tory Philip Hollobone, are applauded by naive antipolitician populists. MPs need staff to deal efficiently with the problems of their constituents. So it is wrong to regard allowances as a personal bonus or part of their pay.
‘Naïve antipolitician populist’ is not something I have been called before and in any event it is nonsense so to describe those who would introduce a system of full disclosure and accountability into the lives of MPs. I am not ‘antipolitician’, merely in favour of MPs removing one of the obstacles to their being restored to a position of respect. Nor are we calling for ‘hair-shirted denial’, merely that it be demonstrated that money is being spent properly and that all is open and above board.
If we point to Mr. Hollobone it is simply to make the point that it is possible to be an efficient MP who is assiduous and well-briefed without spending huge swathes of public money. Guido Fawkes had an encounter with Hollobone last year that was recorded thus:
MPs expense figures have just been released.* Philip Hollobone (Con, Kettering) is the least expensive MP coming in at under £44,551. Liam Byrne (Lab, Birmingham Hodge Hill) is four times as expensive at £178,116.
Guido called Hollobone’s office to try and figure out the anomaly:
Guido Fawkes “Is Hollobone there?”
Guido Fawkes “Can I speak to him?”
Guido Fawkes “Thanks.”
Guido waits patiently.
Office “It is me.”
It turns out that the reason he is some £23,340 cheaper than even Dennis Skinner (£67,891) is that he doesn’t employ any office staff. He answers his own correspondence (he can type) and he says dealing with constituents is his favourite part of the job. So it is no surprise that he is rated in the top decile for responsiveness by WriteToThem.com, whereas Liam Byrne, despite all his staff and great expense, comes 158th.
Strong suspicions remain that the principal resistance to openness comes from Labour who reckon that they have most to fear (and, dare one say it, to lose) from any system of full and detailed disclosure, egged on by the awful Mr. Speaker Martin (whose rank inadequacy in the job was well covered by Paxo on Newsnight last night), who gave David Maclean’s bill exceptional help last year and who himself has come under scrutiny for his wife’s penchant for her travel expenses and penchant for nipping off to Harrod’s Food Hall by Taxi, all of which seems to be coming out of the public purse, and for his having instructed expensive libel lawyers for advice on suing someone or other, doubtless one of the many journalists who have rightly called his impartiality into question.
Ian Dale also has a piece today on Conway, of whom he is a friend. Of the criticism which led to Conway stepping down he says this:
The last forty hours have not shown the Conservative Party in its best light. The baying mob is something I hope not to see again for a very long time. Whatever Derek did or did not do he did not deserve some of the comments that have been thrown his way.
“Baying mob”? I see it differently. His unwillingness to join publicly in criticism of his friend is creditable but, frankly, this is not an accurate or fair description of the process that took place leading up to Conway’s suspension from the party.
Most of the criticism (though I acknowledge that some of it was expressed very fruitily indeed) was almost entirely ad idem: that people were utterly fed up with this sort of thing, that Conway’s behaviour clearly fell far below that which must be the minimum expected of MPs, that decisive action by Cameron was needed and that this was a clear opportunity to put blue water between Labour and the Tories. The leadership, having thought about it, agreed.
His reaction, I believe, shows how some parts of the Party were found to be out of touch with majority opinion at the grassroots and that they have been taken aback, not to say shocked at the ferocity of the reaction. It is for that reason that one is minded to describe what happened as the Conservative party’s “Ceauşescu Moment” after the occasion when the late and unlamented dictator of Romania sought to address what he expected to be an adulatory rally of the people and was suddenly subjected to boos and derision, whereupon he retreated in utter confusion. Four days later, after a perfunctory and distinctly ad hoc trial, Ceauşescu and his ghastly wife were shot by firing squad.
Incidentally one is much cheered to note that even the glitterati of the world of political journalism can fall flat on their face: Ben Brogan made this observation concerning what is to happen on this topic:
For the moment though Downing Street says it is a matter for the House of Commons. I’m told that Jack Straw is having a think. If he has any sense he will start by reversing the exemption from FoI that MPs awarded themselves last year.
Frequent visitors here will know that that Bill, David Maclean’s Kafkaesque Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, having passed its Third Reading in the Commons failed through having no sponsor in the House of Lords and thus there is no such FoI exemption.
Finally one must add this. Derek Conway, whatever now happens to him with further enquiries, has recovered something of his reputation by his prompt declaration that he is now standing down as an MP. This honourable course is in considerable contrast to the limpet-like activities of the likes of Hain, Harman, Wendy Alexander and all the other labour worthies who, over the years, having been caught with their trousers down, have clung to office tenaciously.
But then Labour do not do ‘honour’ anymore, from their rotten Leader downwards.