Andrew Snowden is Chairman of Chorley Rural East Conservatives and a target-seat candidate in the May 2016 local elections. He currently holds a management role in Higher Education, and previously worked for a FTSE250 company.
Last week, whilst watching coverage of the ‘negotiations’ in Brussels, a commentator quoted the £30 million a year it supposedly costs the UK in child benefit that is sent back to other European countries. The point being made was that £30 million barely registers in the overall budget of the UK Government, but it is an important symbolic point of a wider problem.
For me the issue of the ‘reducing the cost of politics’, to a certain degree, falls within that same context; it won’t balance the nation’s books, but it is symbolically important and is the right thing to do.
It is important due to the continued and deep-rooted public perception of MPs and their staff enjoy all the perks whilst the nation goes through ‘austerity’, whilst success in this area also determines whether MPs can credibly lead the charge in setting an example to the rest of the public sector, to paraphrase Sir Eric Pickles, in ‘getting on with it’.
There has been great progress so far; the proposed reduction of the number of MPs to 600 being the most headline grabbing, combined with the revisions to expenses.
The 15 per cent cut in short money outlined in the budget is the right thing to do, and the Opposition’s relative silence, outside of the political ‘bubble’, points to it being a fight not to have in public view, with good reason. A clear demonstration of this was played out when I broached the subject of short money with some friends. None of them knew it existed and one simply remarked “why should they get it? If I lose a major contract, I don’t get a cheque to keep my company afloat and my staff in jobs!”
I am not advocating the complete removal of short money, it has a role in maintaining a balanced democracy (I likened it to football clubs getting parachute payments when relegated), but it shows the perception of Westminster as detached from the challenges of normal everyday life, cushioned by taxpayers’ money.
So, how do we take this forward? How do we build on what has already been done?
Fewer MPs – and fewer ministers
The number of ministers is surely too high, and despite the excellent work started by Francis Maude and others, Whitehall still looks bloated, and there are fundamental questions about the role and size of government that still need addressing. I am not alone in this thinking; in 2010 the Public Administration Committee recommended cutting the then 120 ministers by a third.
With the reduction of MPS to 600, the ratio of MPs to ministers and shadow ministers will become even more warped, and this should be taken as an opportunity to rethink. Yes the salary, expenses and SpAd savings will be a token in the grand scheme of things; but it would be an important symbolic move. It will also be important for maintaining a balanced House of Commons after 2020.
Easier said than done? Most definitely! But most things worth doing are. The best place to start would be the Cabinet, which could then lead to a root and branch review of Whitehall departments and ministers below Cabinet level.
Always one to put my money where I mouth is (not always to my benefit), based on my personal convictions, rather than a solid evidence base, I would look at the below:
- Move the skills portfolio of BIS back into Education (start to undo an empire built for Peter Mandleson, a topic for another day!);
- Merge Culture, Media and Sport with the remaining elements of BIS, with a significant re-think of the role and scope of government in this area;
- Merge Energy and Environment into a ‘natural resources and rural affairs’ brief;
- Disestablish regional Cabinet posts (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and their Offices, and replace them with a single non-Cabinet post of Minister for Devolved Government Liaison (or something more punchy). Why do we need Westminster departments and Cabinet posts for the regions when they have their own entire parliaments, and nothing for England? It’s antiquated and predates the significant devolution of powers;
- Move International Development into the Foreign Office, and it should not be at Cabinet;
- Remove the Duchy of Lancaster from Cabinet (a bold move coming from a proud Lancastrian).
Every organisation has the choice of whether to provide subsidised food for its employees and visitors, as does the Houses of Parliament, but alcohol, in this day and age, at taxpayers’ expense – really? Second only to expenses, in the cost of politics, is this multi-million subsidy for food and drink toxic for public perceptions of politicians ‘living the high life’ off the taxpayer’s back.
Alcohol should be sold in the Houses of Parliament at a competitive price, similar to the pubs and restaurants nearby, and the revenues used to offset modest food subsidies, which should be limited to core items such as sandwiches, salads and ‘food to go’, with restaurant and brassiere end of the offer also sold at market rate.
Reducing the number of Special Advisors
Nick Clegg recently attacked the increasing pay bill for SpAds in Westminster. If that statement had come from pretty much anyone else, it would be hard to disagree! Clegg’s hypocrisy on this issue has already been highlighted elsewhere, but it does not change the point that the ever rising wage bill for SpAds presents a real challenge for any government seeking to tackle the cost of politics.
I do not quarrel with the need for a certain number of advisors in effective government, but the ever-increasing costs feel like a short-cut around the obstacle of ministers not getting what they want or need from their Whitehall teams. Maybe if the suggestion of reducing the number of ministers was put in place, it would go part way to addressing this issue in as far as reducing the overall number.
Challenging ‘Champions’ and allowances beyond Westminster
The cost of politics goes beyond Westminster, and the narrative – notwithstanding the excellent work done by the TPA on highlighting town hall salaries and waste – is too focused on Whitehall and Westminster.
For me, the epitome of unnecessary cost in local politics (rather than local government in general) is when I read of a new ‘Champion’ appointed with an allowance for being said Champion. If in my places of work, past and present, I took on a role of ‘Champion’ it is either because I feel passionately about the issue, I want experience, or I want to get noticed by my superiors. Never is it paid, or even about pay.
All too often in local politics, ‘Champion’, or other assorted job titles, are given out as extra allowances to councillors, which is especially convenient for the Labour Party which takes a top slice of all Labour Councillor’s allowances for Party coffers. This should simply stop. A councillor should become a Champion for something based on the reasons I outlined, and not to get additional allowances. Yes, there will be extra work, but quite often it is on an issue the councillor cares about, or a stepping stone to the council frontbench.
These are just some ideas on how to continue the drive to reduce the cost of politics in a substantial and meaningful way, in a tone that would resonate with the electorate. Yes it would be difficult, yes it would cause upsets, but in my opinion, it’s the right thing to do.