10 May 2009

MPs' expenses: there is much murkier gravy to come

To hear Harriet Harman (leader of the House of Commons) on Friday night, MPs think they have now put their House in order.

But surely “redacted” information about how they dispose of taxpayers’ cash into their expenses claims has to be transparent?

In America congressmen and senators are forced to disclose all receipts, and freedom of information laws ensure that anyone can peer into the vast repositories of such documentation to see how the cash has been spent.

Make no mistake, British politics are amongst the least corrupt in the world. The sort of sums that MPs have accrued thanks to the expenses “system” are relatively small compared with the bungs and back-pocketry that permeate politics in some countries.

However, there are those who argue that our politics are also amongst the most opaque and, in places, undemocratic.

Westminster’s problem is that despite the advent of “Blair’s babes”, it remains an old boys’ club in which rules are set, and scrutiny arranged, by the very people who have to be ruled and scrutinised – MPs themselves. It has resulted in an accident that has waited three decades to happen.

But there may be much worse in the woodwork. Once in the upper chamber, where many MPs eventually end up, Lords can pick up an overnight attendance allowance of £150 or so, together with a whole new raft of expenses, second homes allowances and the rest.

What transparency is there in any case for the process of entry into the Lords in the first place? And where else is the legislature saddled with people no-one ever elected, for a term that lasts until they die?

The expenses scandal tells us that root and branch reform is needed now: a huge reduction in the number of MPs, to around 400 at most, and a vast reduction in the Lords to the kind of 100 figure found in the United States Senate.

The total currently spent on more than 650 MPs and 800 peers should remain the same and should be redistributed through these smaller Houses of Parliament in a way that pays politicians properly (no second jobs should be allowed) and enables them to staff their offices with teams that can properly hold the executive to account.

I am not holding my breath. But without change the turnout at the next election could be still lower and the alienation from Westminster still deeper.

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