By Josh Hitchens
This year more than most has shown that when it comes to Westminster politics, money is king. Whether it has been Unite’s purchased influence over the Labour party or Mr Crosby’s conflict of interest within the Conservative party, there have been many reminders that the system at present is corruptible.
The most abhorrent of which was probably Patrick Mercer’s shady dealings with a fake lobbying firm in which he offered to ask parliamentary questions in return for cash. This world of MP’s lobbying for cash, often through All Party Parliamentary groups, the semi-official committees of the house, is well documented. It has led to many scandals and has undermined public confidence in Parliament.
While this particular type of outside earnings is particularly repugnant, many MPs undertake work in a whole host of professions on top of, or often instead of, their parliamentary duties. Some are barristers, some directors of multiple companies and some even teachers. Not only does this detract from their work as an MP and diminish the taxpayer return on their salaries but often leads to conflicts of interest.
Their defence? Firstly that work outside parliament enhances a politicians experience and keeps them abreast of developments in the ‘real world’. Of course, this experience could be gained prior to them entering parliament and they hardly need to take on a second job to be aware of what’s going on.
Secondly many MP’s argue that their Parliamentary salary is inadequate. While this is a tough line to sell to an electorate suffering from high youth unemployment, effective pay cuts and an average wage of just over a third of what MP’s earn, there is some merit in the argument. Police Superintendents, senior civil servants, many NHS doctors and head teachers earn more than MPs. Most people would accept that these roles are comparable in expertise and importance to that of an MP and there are far fewer MPs than there are head teachers or NHS consultants.
The issue comes when the proposed £74,000 a year salary is combined with the considerable perks, expenses and the potential for outside earnings. Outside earnings particularly demean politics and risk turning our MPs into corporate puppets. This is why IPSA has missed an excellent opportunity to clear up politics.
In Australia, MPs have recently benefited from a considerable pay increase. On the one side they received an increase in basic salary, but on the other hand perks and expenses were considerably reduced. This led to a more transparent situation where by the public knew what their representatives were getting paid and the murky world of expenses fiddling was banished.
This is what should happen in this country. At a time of economic difficulty £74,000 is a generous salary and additional unnecessary expenses and outside earnings are unjustifiable. In return for the £7,000 pay rise MP’s should not receive any outside earnings at all. The restriction that Ed Miliband is currently proposing is inadequate.
The expenses regime should be completely restructured. There are of course reasonable and necessary expenses, a constituency and Westminster office, researchers and an office manager. These are all essential in providing a good service to constituents. There is also a need for accommodation in London in addition to the MP’s own residence in their constituency.
However the cost of the expenses regime must be substantially reduced and the potential for it to be abused must be ended. One solution could be converting one of the many disused government owned buildings in London into an apartment complex for MP’s. This would almost certainly lead to a substantial long term saving as MPs are collectively able to claim up to eleven and a half million pounds in second home allowance at present.
In any case in return for the rise in salary our politicians should be forced to accept a ban on outside earnings and a significant reduction in expenses. The new system should cover a bare minimum of necessities and rely much less on MPs deciding what they are entitled to.
This would clear up politics and restore faith in parliament. What’s more it would offer a fair deal to the taxpayer and a fair deal to MPs.