Sunday, 31 May 2009

Corruption and the Constitution

This weekend we’ve seen what looks like a biding war between the leaders of the three major parties.  For Gordon, it’s his Presbyterian conscience that’s offended and he’s always wanted to have a new constitutional settlement.  For David, it’s a case of the need for constitutional reform but we really need a general election first.  For Nick, it a case for constitutional reform now.  While there is undoubtedly a case for constitutional reform, it seems to miss the point that what people are so annoyed about is MPs expenses and we are in danger of allowing this to become submerged in a process of constitutional change.

Before any constitutional change is introduced, it is essential that the question of MPs’ expenses is sorted out.  Although political parties have established their own mechanisms for sorting out their own MPs, this lacks transparency and may be of dubious legality…more akin to a kangaroo court than anything else.  Yes the public wants a few scalps, and quite rightly so, but it appears that most ministers with the possible exception of Hazel Blears, appear to be safe (at least at present) and the whole process may be being used by party leaders to get rid of dead-wood or vocal opponents.  If an MP has claimed expenses for something that is now seen as not being within the decidedly ill-defined ‘spirit of the rules’ and this had been agreed by the Fees Office, then presumably a criminal case for fraud would be unlikely to succeed.  There is also the problem of retrospective guilt.  Yes an MP would probably not claim for something dubious today but that was not the case in the past and appears to have been acceptable to the House of Commons authorities.  Although the ‘I was within the rules’ defence sound hollow with the public, it is still a plausible defence and anyone prosecuted would be able to show where precisely in the rules the sentences that allowed them to claim actually were.  They may well be rotten rules, but they are nonetheless the rules under which MPs operated.  A legally-binding code of conduct for MPs as suggested by Gordon does not deal with the expenses question merely how MPs do their job.  Presumably, this will soon be followed by targets as in other areas of public service!!!!!

With a general election due in the next year, it is unlikely that any significant constitutional reform will be accomplished and it may be sensible to postpone this until the next parliament.  It would be better if each party put forward its own constitutional proposals in their respective manifestos rather than rush something and make constitutional matters worse.  What can be sorted out in the next year is the question of MPs’ pay. 

1. We need to increase MPs’ pay to include their expenses for renting a property while in London.  Those MPs within 25 miles of Westminster would only get the basic pay without the expenses component.  It’s then up to MPs how they spend their money.

2. MPs will need to be paid a travel component based upon the distance of their constituency from London based upon second-class rail travel. 

3.  If an MP wishes to claim any expenses above their pay to carry out their parliamentary duties, then this has to be agreed in advance and in writing by the independent auditor.  No agreement, no expenses.

This is a relatively simple system based on pay (basic pay+living costs+travel costs), all of which are taxable, with additional agreed expenses at cost.  As the pay element would be known to the general public, only the additional expenses component would need to be published for public scrutiny.  Though this would increase MPs’ pay, it should not be subject to charges of corruption and so satisfy public anger.  In addition, MPs’ pay would increase annually based on the RPI as for pensioners. 

To remove the problem of MPs employing family members, all office staff in London should be appointed by and paid by Parliament and, in the constituencies, by the local party organisation.  No spouse, child or step-child, sister or brother, parent or other close relative can be employed by an MP though there is no reason why they should not work unpaid like any other party volunteer. 

Any MP suspected of having broken these rules should be subject to immediate suspension from Parliament while the charge is investigated and if found warranted should be expelled from the House and a by-election called.

It is only once this has been achieved that effective constitutional reform can be introduced.   

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