I see little point in repeating here what the mainstream media are telling us daily, so I’ve not hitherto commented on MPs expenses. But a couple of extremely important points seem to have escaped the mainstream discussion. One is economic and has a bearing on the current crisis. The other is political, and goes back centuries, demonstrating the institutional contempt our parliament has for the idea that MPs represent their constituents.
To start with the economic one: MPs are supposed to declare their interests, and may be required to take steps to avoid conflicts of interest. For example, a minister trading in shares of companies likely to be affected by his/her decisions would be a clear conflict of interest. I’m not sure how far the rules go, but you get the point. Yet the parliamentary allowances encourages members to buy property at the taxpayer’s expense. It appears unsurprisingly to have turned a majority of MPs into property speculators, with a vested interest in ever-rising house prices. No wonder they cheered the bubble on, right to the point where it busted the banks!
The more fundamental point is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the story of Andrew Mackay and Julie Kirkbride. The two are married to each other and have a family, so one might suppose they live together whilst not at work. But he is MP for Bracknell, whereas she is MP for Bromsgrove. That’s two towns in altogether different parts of the country: only in the alphabet are they neighbours! We can infer that at least one (probably both) of them doesn’t live in or even near their constituency, and has no day-to-day contact with the people he/she purports to represent. Yet nobody in the mainstream media or political establishment sees that as anything out of the ordinary. Only their expenses have attracted outrage!
To my mind, anyone purporting to represent a constituency should, at the very least, live there. How else can they expect to get a true feeling for the day-to-day concerns of people there, and represent them? This implies that expenses for a second home should only ever be applicable to the MP spending time in London to attend Parliament: expenses for homes elsewhere are pure travesty. Yet the system holds non-Londoners in such contempt that our so-called representatives are not merely expected but required to live primarily in a distant city, whose interests and concerns are often altogether different to ours.
My first reform would be to hook MPs up to conduct normal parliamentary duries, such as attending debates, from an office in their constituencies. Business travel to London, as to other destinations, will of course be required a few times a year, but should be the exception rather than the rule. Normal hotel expenses, whether receipted or per diem, would then be appropriate for their time in London, and we (taxpayers) could save maybe 70-80% of the second-homes money while still paying them an ample £200/day.
Oh, and in a mild told-you-so vein, I should perhaps point to the second paragraph of my article from 16 months ago.