The public outrage over expenses rumbles on. MPs have got the message and are paying excessive claims back and saying the right words, albeit years too late in some cases. There are a few exceptions who are still digging a deep pit where no sunlight can penetrate.
Now that we’ve all established this is an appalling situation (rather like the Yes Minister episode when they keep on repeating the word and shaking their heads for five minutes), the question is what should we do about it? Even when the excesses are re-paid it’s still a creaking ‘system’ (or lack of system, see my previous blog) and there are plenty more accidents waiting to happen.
First of all, the job of an MP evidently involves a lot of expenses. If we slash expenses so barely anything can be claimed, MPs are bound to claim they need a private income more than ever, and efforts to encourage a representative cross-section of the community will be put back to square one. Furthermore, MPs would spend increasing amounts of their time on outside interests, so eventually the public would be the losers.
However, the crux is to achieve a system the public have confidence in and, crucially, one which they can relate to. Without this confidence, parliament will not have the authority to make the brave decisions it needs to take. As voters we can still retain a healthy cynicism and enjoy satirists like Ian Hislop, but we must at least believe that the majority of our MPs are honest. The political and public debate should be about policies and core beliefs, rather than one about who is the least or most corrupt.
In consequence, no matter what we may think personally about the rights and wrongs of MPs salaries, the public reaction is what matters. In the current climate to suggest an increase in politicians pay is political suicide.
My personal suggestion is to consider introducing a transparent system akin to the work-place. The basic salary of an MP would remain the same, but they would be eligible for performance related pay. Each MP would set out her or his targets and aspiration at the start of the year, and at the end of the year they would be re-assessed. This re-assessment would be done by a random ‘jury’ of constituents, perhaps with the guidance of an expert before they retire to reach a verdict. For instance, the minister of justice could have a target to decrease re-offending whereas a back-bench MP could have a target to do something specific for her constituency or to play an active role in committee work.
Just as in any work-place, the targets would be re-considered or re-adjusted by the panel in light of events i.e. a financial crisis such as the present one or freak floods etc. The great advantage of this system is that the public are familiar with the workings of this and understand that it is largely a fair one. Furthermore, it would be the public who decide on the level of MPs pay, so if the press is outraged it will have to turn against its own viewers and readers. It could also let the public feel a greater affinity with Westminster, which is what so many of us are trying to achieve.
I can see a multitude of problems with this and there are surely many more that I haven’t thought of. Firstly, some MPs would say people are cynical about politics so none of them would get their ‘bonus’. However, I think that in fact the jury system shows that in most cases once people see the facts they are very conscientious and will work to achieve a fair result. After all, politicians have to trust the public otherwise they (the politicians) would not stand for election in the first place. Furthermore, the system could end up being too target drive and avoid politicians thinking in the long-term. However, the jury should be encouraged to think about the long-term direction of travel in addition to short term results. Above all, there is the complication of cost. Would the taxpayer need to pay for jury service and expenses? Despite everything, I believe this might still be worth doing because the prize of re-asserting authority to parliament is worth all the pain.
Do tell me if you think I'm talking sense.