Last week’s publication of MPs’ expenses with large areas redacted was a waste of time. Nothing short of full disclosure will begin to repair the damage done to the reputation of our democratic institutions. David Cameron has begun to do that with the Shadow Cabinet’s expenses and other MPs would do well to follow suit.
But the bottom line is that the whole system has to change. My view is that MPs should be paid a decent salary, and that they should have the support of civil servants to deal with their personal admin and to assist with their constituency caseload. Some MPs would need more staff than others – it’s easy to see that someone representing a deprived area with a hopeless local authority (eg Hackney) would need more help than someone in an affluent seat. An independant body would decide what level of civil service support any MP might need.
Political advisors and researchers, currently employed by many MPs at the public expense, should from now on be paid for privately by the individual member or supplied by his political party. Public money should not be spent on propaganda.
No MP living within 1 hour’s commute of London should be allowed to claim for a second home or the cost of travelling into and from London. The MP’s constituents have to pay to go to work on crowded trains and so should the MP. On the rare occasions when debates and votes go on so late that public transport has closed down, these MPs could fairly claim for an overnight stay. But not otherwise.
Next there’s the question of second homes. The MOD has access to a number of properties in London which it makes available rent-free to military personnel who are posted to London from their usual bases. This system could easily be adapted to work for parliamentarians. Ideally Parliament would own a block of flats close to Westminster which could be leased for the duration of a Parliament to MPs whose constituencies are more than 1 hour’s travel from Westminster. Some extra rooms could be made available to MPs nearer to London to cater for those late-night sittings.
Then there are the many freebies offered to MPs by groups lobbying for influence. I have no problem with these in principle but, just as members of my local council are required to declare any free gift or hospitality worth over £25, so should MPs be required to declare any perks they receive. I can also live with the odd “fact-finding mission” where MPs are provided with free travel to foreign countries to examine how they conduct their affairs. Every MP should publish his daily diary on the Web so that their constituents know what they are up to and can hold them to account if they spend too much time on the sun lounger and not enough attending to their constituents’ needs.
Finally, all Conservative MPs should be selected in open primaries so that all voters can have a good look at their proposed representatives.
The key to it all in the end is openness.