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National politics

Heroes and Villains

I have been stunned, as has anyone with the remotest interest in politics, by the revelations in the Telegraph over the last couple of days over MPs expenses.

heather-brookeThe real hero behind these stories is Heather Brooke, a freelance journalist and freedom of information campaigner. You can see a link to her “Your right to know” blog on my blog list on the right of this screen. That link has been there since I came across her in late 2007 when she got in touch with me in relation to the work I did on the Congestion Charge finances. You may have seen her Dispatches programme on the tele recently.

I am totally disgusted that the response of the House of Commons authorities has been to shoot the messenger. Malcolm Jack, Clerk of the House and Chief Executive, wrote in an e-mail yesterday:

The advice which I have received is that there are reasonable grounds to believe a criminal offence may have been committed in relation to the way this information has been handled. Having informed Mr Speaker I have today made a report to the Metropolitan Police, asking them to consider the matter.

It would have been rather better if he had talked about reform and punishing the wicked. I was reassured to read in the Telegraph this morning that the Met’s Sir Paul Stephenson has said the Met should focus on “serious crime” rather than being “dragged into party political games”. I hope he tells Jack to bog off or even better that he considers the more serious crime to be the expenses fiddles not their leaking. Twice the Commons have been ordered to publish these receipts, once by the Information Commissioner and once by the High Court (read all about it on Heather’s blog). No jury in the country is going to convict the person who leaked the receipts even if they stole the files and sold them to the highest bidder.

For the last two days it has been Labour figures who have been getting a roasting. There will no doubt be more stories about Tory and LibDem figures to come not forgetting the continuing scandal of Sinn Fein MPs who think it is OK to claim expenses and salaries but not actually turn up for duty. Although the Tories and LibDems will have some embarrassments they have been noticeably better than Labour who do seem to be particularly venal in their claims. For instance all but two Tories voted against the £10K communications allowance (and one of those was Quentin Davies who later defected to Labour), see previous posting. I am sure though that there will be some longstanding Tory MPs who have been misbehaving. I hope that they are sent into the wilderness by David Cameron as was Derek Conway. It was telling that Harriet Harman referred to Conway twice yesterday on the Today programme. I hope that senior Labour figures get the same punishment that he did. Having the whipped removed and being deselected as a candidate in the next election is the only sensible approach to the worst offences. David Cameron has not been outspoken enough on this issue in my opinion but he has been on the side of the angels. He has proposed the following measures to tackle this issue so far (list taken from ConservativeHome):

• MPs living within a reasonable distance of the Commons should not be able to claim.
• MPs who co-habit could only claim once.
• Mandatory annual public declarations by MPs justifying designation of primary and additional home.
• MPs would not be able to claim for stamp duty, TV bills, furniture or decorations.
• All claims and receipts must be published online within 28 days. Receipts would be required for all claims.
• The abolition of the £10,000pa Communications Allowance.
• No Conservative MP with a grace-and-favour residence should be able to claim the second homes allowance.
• MPs’ staff should be employed centrally by the House of Commons.
• Greater transparency on remuneration from second jobs and tighter controls on ex-Ministers taking jobs.
• Independent spot-checks and audits of expenses.

If you want to get some insight into the £500 million a year that gets spent by Parliament take a peek at this piece I did for ConservativeHome yesterday.

9 replies on “Heroes and Villains”

No voters want any elected politicians milking their taxes through the allowance system.

On the news at the moment there seems to be a suggestion that an independent body will vet the expenses etc. But the public will not be allowed to know?

What on earth does this mean? Who do the politicians think they are kidding?

In my opinion there should be a phased system of the state buying pied a terre accommodation in London for the non London MPs and Peers as this will serve their need ad infinitum or until the Houses of Parliament cease to exist.

You do not say why the communications allowance should be abolished. I don’t know, but might that diminish the democratic process? We need to know what politicians think and are doing.

I am surprised that you have not included Councillors allowances as also being a matter for scrutiny. How much does the taxpayer spend on this across the UK? It must be a sizable sum. What are your views?

George,

I don’t like the communications allowance for MPs because I think it gives an incumbent an unfair advantage.

You can see what Ealing does with councillors’ allowances here.

I am sure you can easily find out out what other councils do from their websites or Google around for further information.

The total spent on these allowances in Ealing last year was £1.033 million. For the most part councillors get their allowance and that is it – no other expenses. I am one of only two that claims for a carer (a babysitter in my case) to allow me to attend 8 council meetings when my wife was not around.

I fully appreciate that this is a large sum of money, an average of £15K per councillor. For myself, I am very grateful for my allowance. If I didn’t get it I would still want to be a councillor but I would simply have to spend less time on council business as I would have to spend more time working in my business to replace the allowance.

Phil/Thank you

We have 1 MP for say a target number of 70.000 people – and 3 councillors for 23 Ealing wards. Ealing seems to have say 340,000 people so in theory that should be 5 MPs . For each Ward (say 15,000 people) we have 3 Councillors, or arithmetically 1 Councillor for 5000 people. He is paid, on your figures, an average of £15,000 so it costs each resident £3-00 per head. An MP on say £125000 = £1-80 per resident. An MP on £200,000 still would cost less – at around £2-85.

The responsibilities of MPs are far greater than for a Ward Councillor.

So unless I am wildly out on my figures we get better value from an MP than from a local Councillor. So why do we need 3 Councillors per Ward or why do we need so many Wards. What do you think?

Most importantly of all, why is it that Councillors do not have the balls to vote down allowances against a very poor attendance and also limited work record, particularly if in some cases a smaller allowance is being claimed to pay towards a Council pension. Leaving aside the 4 year local vote, what do you think?

How else can local Councillors allowances and expenses be reduced in these credit crunch times?

Thanks

Phil

A customary silence prevails on the issue of voting down allowances on a poor attendance record.

Have the lights gone out?

George,

What you are asking for can’t be done under the council’s current constitution. Sharma turns up enough to qualify to be a councillor and then he gets the allowance as of right. Not many of us like the situation but consider the alternative.

We could make up some new rules specially to deal with Sharma. This is not a good way to make policy.

Alternatively, we could come up with some criteria that allowed us remove allowances for people who don’t meet certain criteria. What criteria? There is a danger in my view that we would spend rather a lot of time arguing about a very rare form of abuse.

I think it is part of my job as a councillor to tell people how Sharma is abusing the system. It is then up to his electors to chuck him out in May next year. That is the best antidote. Indeed it is voters ultimately that will sort out Parliament.

I am glad that at long last you have come out of your hole and answered the question which in various ways I have been asking for on your blog.

Politicians’ expenses really are the big issue for the next few weeks and I think they will remain ingrained in people’s minds for a very long time.

That is because, forgive me but it is common opinion, people are very cynical about politicians and mainly very bored by them, especially young people. However politicians are a necessary evil.

It is all very well to say you think it your job to point out Mr Sharmas’ inactivity. It is only part of your job. How many voters in the real world are really going to know about this argument?

Surely you have to agree that we the public are just not prepared to have our money used for activities which are quite unacceptable. If you want to stay with the status quo, then you are just subscribing to the irritation that exists over expenses. If your view is that you won’t grasp the nettle now, then you never will. Being a Tory that is doubly surprising because at least the Tories have a general reputation for cutting out excessive expenditure. Inaction will just perpetuate the cynicism. Sharma, you say, may be an exception, but in all honesty I and you don’t know. He may work like a dog in his Ward, but who knows? (See below under best practice). But this can happen again and again, and it is not acceptable.

So I don’t find it acceptable that you will do nothing about it. Not at all. Especially as you are a Cabinet Member. I really think that you and your fellow members should have a special meeting to decide how you can cut allowances in this borough and consult your legal team to see how further improvements may be introduced.

You say the constitution does not allow for change. Well – change the constitution.

I agree from my research that the constitution is weak on this point. The way it is worded is that it relies too much on trust as to what you Councillors do and do not do. You have a Councillors job description. Get someone to assess performance in just the same way as the performance of council employees is assessed. You have a Code of Practice to abide by. Assess whether it has been observed in the act rather than just in the spirit. You have training as to how to behave and what to do as a Councillor. The training mentors should perhaps have more persuasive powers.

To answer your question, these sorts of tests are the initial templates for the criteria you ask for.

Each Councillor under best practice is expected to give an account of what services they have provided to their constituents; what their objectives have been; and their success in achieving them; as well as some record of their general industry.

Why, Phil, do your 70 Councillors or so not all make a proper public report so we can really see what they have achieved? You all are not as I see it, doing best practice at the moment. So we PAY YOU ON TRUST just like we pay those Westminster politicians. NOT GOOD ENOUGH in these modern times.

Why does someone who gets paid for a job with a salary have to treated differently from someone who gets paid for a role out of the same tax pot? You are unthinkingly discriminating against your colleagues in the Council. You work for the constituents, just as do the Council Officers, and you are paid for it. Don’t say you can voted out in 4 years, because an employee can get sacked or made redundant in a much shorter time.

You may also wish to comment on why we need so many Councillors who cost us so much.

What return do we get on our investment is the key principle behind this blog?

Sorry to write again a long spiel, but I do wish you will do us all the honour of a reply.

George,

Life is short and your posts are long.

The bottom line is that your ideas would require us to hire people to monitor councillors and would require us to pay councillors much more.

In terms of monitoring I suspect we are talking at least two mid-level officers – by the time you give them offices, support, recruiting cost, etc we are talking £100K per annum.

Right now councillors are essentially volunteers that pick up a small allowance that represents a really atrocious hourly rate (well below the minimum wage for many). With the kind of system you envisage we would quickly find that we were having to pay councillors at least the minimum wage (by law) for the hours they worked. Some opposition councillors might work out cheaper and clearly we would solve the Sharma problem but many members would be paid much, much more. Once we had established an hourly rate at the minimum wage it would only be a matter of time before councillors decided that they were worth much, much more than the minimum wage and it would be hard to argue that they were wrong. You really don’t want to go down this road George.

I suspect that your ideas would push working people out and ensure that councillors were “professionals” with a mid-range salary (average full time earnings in London are £35K) and not much experience to bring to the council. These full timers would be entitled to expenses – we couldn’t expect them to pay for postage and stationary out of their salary, we couldn’t expect them to pay work-related travel and parking costs, what other workers do? If we ended up with 21 (one per ward rather than the current three) full-time councillors paid average London full-time earnings we would be paying the same as we do now but we would lose the huge diversity we enjoy. Our old and young councillors would disappear. Any councillors with successful careers or their own businesses would disappear. Sure we would lose some lazy freeloaders. For the most part we would have 30 and 40 something political careerists with less contact with their local areas. On balance I suspect that we would all be poorer.

Colm

I think Phil has made some interesting comments in this thread which link in with some of the points you made in the thread 30 April under the heading Sharma gets its wrong, very wrong.

If the media and press is anything to go by and as Phil and Cameron are advocating a reduction of MPs to reduce costs, then it seems mighty odd that we should not see a small reduction in the numbers of Councillors – also to save costs. I don’t suppose many Councillors are working 25 hours a week.

Whenever you see an MP at the moment on TV, there is a sort of writhing in agony over how much TRUST has been lost. They all want a new system which is much more transparent.

So I say again, your constitution on the behaviour of Ealing Councillors is based on Trust. That is not a modern or relevant approach to what the public is now demanding at national level.

How are we to know that local councillors are whiter than white if we don’t know what your individual planned objectives are, and we don’t also know what you have achieved against your plan? As you will know from your training, this is considered best practice.

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