I don’t want a right to see my MP’s expenses

I don’t agree with my MP about much, but I want to treat him as an adult. I’d like to extend to him approximately the level of trust I extend to my work colleagues and friends. I don’t want to probe and inspect him. I don’t want him to live in a climate of small-minded, invasive overscrutiny – the kind of thing they like at the The Daily Mail.

I expect there’s a reasonable chance he’ll turn out to be a bit cheeky with his lunch bills or even that he’s a giant scumbag and charges various indolent family members to the public purse, so I’d like there to be better rules about what it’s OK to charge back and what he has to pay for himself (the current rules are shoddy and inconsistent) and tougher automatic sanctions for rule-breaking.

But exposing MPs (and other public servants) to this kind of increasingly corrosive scrutiny is almost certainly a bad thing. Everyone knows that trust breeds trust – and that the inverse is true too. There’s no evidence that MPs are more or less bent than the population.

This doesn’t mean we should stick to the shady old secret model, though. We should be inventive and not just grumpy. MPs could be provided with simple tools to voluntarily publish itemised expenses, in a standardised, comparable format. Parliament.uk could host expenses pages and the media, I’m sure, would enjoy highlighting the most honest or interesting or apparently cooked up.

That’s the kind of initiative that could produce a snowball effect. We might find that publishing your expenses becomes the kind of public mark of honesty and transparency that MPs will embrace. Some will definitely go for it. Trusting our legislators might actually make things better.

15 thoughts on “I don’t want a right to see my MP’s expenses

  1. I really like this voluntary approach Steve, I think it has real power. People who do the right thing and are transparent will be likely to have more loyalty from their constituents and anyone who doesn’t do it voluntarily will hopefully feel slightly marginalised.

    I do feel worried that the MPs are at the moment trying to circumvent the High Court though. That to me is a bigger issue than transparency.

  2. You might be interested in what the Information Tribunal / High Court thought on the matter; they said “We are not here dealing with idle gossip”: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2008/1084.html#para15

    This isn’t, to my mind, really about expenses, it’s more to do with why MPs feel they should be exempt from something that applies to every other public body (and private individuals wrt HMRC: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article5532685.ece )

  3. @dungeekin We’re their employers in the same sense that we employ the staff of a local library or a social security office. Do you want their expenses itemised? Do you think that would help enhance accountability or just make people resentful and grumpy. The rules obviously need sorting out: expenses should be declared in full to parliamentary authorities but not accessible to the public – except perhaps in the case of a transgression.

  4. True – I’d like to see that. But it can’t work. If it were a “free market” of MPs, I could vote with my wallet… er… vote, and choose the one who publishes her expenses.

    But you don’t get to be an MP until you’re elected. So do I go with the current chap who is possibly fiddling his expenses, or the nice woman who claims once she’s elected, she’ll be open and transparent?

    There’s no incentive for an existing MP to publish anything if none of their peer choose to publish. Even if one breaks ranks – you can’t move your vote to them to “reward” them.

    If a single party – like the Lib Dems – enforced publishing across its member, that might generate a bigger swing to it which might trigger the other parties to do the same.

    But I fear that there are too many skeletons in the closet. You may think that “trust breeds trust” but I find myself unexpectedly agreeing with Ronald Regan by saying “Trust but verify”.

    T

    PS: I’d love to work for you if you’re taking such a relaxed attitude to expenses. Papa needs a brand new pair of shoes!

  5. Steve

    The staff of a library or other office have other, more senior people who audit and account for their expenses.

    At present, the checks and balances for MPs are wrong because the authorities are other MPs, who have a vested interest.

    Fine, if you don’t want to make them public have an independent auditing body – but otherwise, who’s guarding the guards?

    Transparency is, at present, the only way to ensure our money is not abused by the expenses system.

    D

  6. @Steve Bowbrick I expect the Head of the Library (or Chief Wizard) to audit her staff’s expenses.

    She’s the one in charge of employing them and making sure they provide value for money.

    The Head Librarian should also – occasionally – be independently audited to make sure she’s not employing her son and helping him embezzle all the Harry Potter books.

    We are the *direct* employers of our MPs. We don’t have a direct say in the hiring and firing of librarians – we do with MPs.

    If there were an independent and trustworthy auditor of MPs, I could accept that. But as we’ve seen with the recent farce at the NAO – it’s far too easy to corrupt these people. Better that we retain control.

  7. I genuinely don’t get why it should make anyone resentful or grumpy. If you have an expense, you have an expense. It’s just practical.

    Public trust within the UK is at a terrible low. It’s not even that they are trying to legislate for hiding, which is bad enough, but that they previously spouted the openness line, as if it was something they actually signed up to.

    Once all the expenses were public, you’d have approx 1 month of flittering about in the Mail et al, and a few MP’s would be stung for using *our* money in ways that are frivolous and ‘Really Not On’. After that no one would care less. I want to be able to trust my public servants.

    I’m looking back at my own expenses record at work and find nothing there that I can’t wholly justify. I’d be 100% happy for my expenses to be public. Particularly if you (and you, and you) were paying my wages.

  8. In a small business, expenses would be submitted to the Managing Director who would review them and authorise them if appropriate. A similar system would suffice for MPs, with the review and authorisation made by an independent body. Nothing fancy needed and no need for the public to see the expenses.

  9. And another thing. The thing we’re forgetting – and which never comes up in the public debate about this – is that Parliament’s rather anomalous autonomy and lack of accountability has a historic reason. MPs set their own salaries and benefits and account to no one for their expenses because across the centuries various executives and monarchies have attempted to trash the place by imposing their malign will on the legislature. Any reform should at least preserve the independence of Parliament from the other branches…

  10. And @Terence Eden I like the idea of a marketplace for MPs. I can imagine that some exotic form of PR might make it possible to assign your vote in this way. If they could come up with a way of allowing competition in gas supply using a single physical network I’m sure there’s a way to deliver a more competitive elctoral system!

  11. I agree with you about MPs and disclosure of their expenses, but I think you cheapen your argument when you refer to the Daily Mail. The only reason that paper has picked this sort of thing up is because Labour MPs have, in the last 11-12 years, exercised a revolting amount of micro-management over ordinary people’s daily lives and I for one am heartily sick of it.

  12. reply to keith 22nd I would think you need a rethink! I do not think there is nothing “cheap” when it comes to our MPs actions

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