Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Fallout from the Expenses Scandal

I haven't written about this yet and to be quite honest have generally taken little interest in it. Hopefully I can use this slightly detached position to take a more intelligent view of the issue than some bloggers and tabloid newspapers.

I should probably state my position in relation to MPs generally and in this current climate it is especially important to do so as it seems my own view is now quite radical. MPs generally do an excellent job and it should be remembered that often their work isn't easy. To go through all of this now would be impossible but it is enough to say that their hard work often goes unrecognised by constituents and unnoticed in the press (both national and local). A more expansive article on this is available here. Unfortunately such points are lost in the swathe of uproar and it is unsurprising that now 85% of people think MPs are "self-serving and out of touch".

Although the scandal is now subsiding it will have a damaging effect in the future. Take the elections set to happen on the 4th June. With such a dim view of representatives now taken by the British electorate I predict turnout will be lower than usual and many ballots will be spoilt. Although I have long been an advocate of the availability of the vote blanc, an especially low turnout will take a proverbial piss on the democratic system.

Furthermore, in this time of economic hardship it is clear that cuts will have to be made to public services. This will be hard to justify in a climate when MPs are seen to be feathering their own nests. Meanwhile any campaign to crack down on benefit cheats will come across as, at best, ironic.

Although I have now rested the case for the defence, clearly this mess needs to be sorted out. Immediately we have to deal with those MPs who have seriously abused the system. Although the system is admittedly faulty, not all MPs have exploited the system with major disregard so those who have done must suffer the consequences. On Question Time last Thursday, comparisons were made with such an abuse in the commercial world and though this is not the same thing; people are rightly angry. Heads have and will roll and despite debate as to what constitutes a major abuse of expenses it is important for the public's sake that action is seen to be being taken. I believe the culmination of this will be a successful vote of no-confidence against the speaker next week.

In the long term we have to consider an alternative system to the one which the MPs themselves have designed. It's not an awful system necessarily but clearly it has lost all public confidence and there is cross-party support for a new system which could come from either an independent commission or at least the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

In my opinion the best way forward is to completely ditch the second home allowance. This would mean that MPs salaries would have to be raised by around £30-40,000 which, it has to be conceded, seems unfeasible in the current climate. However, this would not be a bad option for the Conservatives to take up once they attain power. Recent polls suggest that the Tories hold a huge lead over Labour and such a policy may be controversial but would get passed if it is presented as ending the possibility for abuse of the system once and for all. Another criticism is that not all MPs would use the extra money for the purpose intended and may simply keep the money and live with friends/family in the capital. This, in my opinion, is fine! People are never told how to spend their salaries so why start now with MPs? GPs and headteachers are now paid more than MPs and whilst their work is important; these guys are running the country.